image: Prabal Gurung

image: Prabal Gurung

There are few things designers dislike more than being blatantly knocked-off. While Coco Chanel was quite blasé about being copied (everyone knows her notoriously over-used quote, “If you want to be original, be ready to be copied.”), most designers are simply not. With that in mind, they tend to expect that their stockists – whether they be massive international department stores or smaller, more tightly curated boutiques – shy away from offering line-for-line copies of their own offerings.

This is why many high fashion and luxury labels have opted not to do business with the likes of Amazon, which maintains a third-party marketplace rife with an array of infringing products, ranging from counterfeit Chanel bags to lookalike Balenciaga boots, the latter of which come straight from Amazon’s own in-house collection, Find.

But such woes are not limited to the likes of Amazon, not if Saks Fifth Avenue’s website is any indication. The New York-based department store is currently stocking an interesting dress: Teri Jon by Rickie Freeman’s Crepe Chiffon-Sleeve Sheath Dress.

With its slate blue hue, bias-cut silhouette, and sheer skirt and sleeve details, the $500 Teri Jon frock is striking because if you were to add a few buttons to the sleeves, it would be a dead-ringer for one that Prabal Gurung presented as part of his Pre-Fall 2017 collection. You may have seen that one on Queen Rania of Jordan this spring or before that, in Gurung’s lookbook, which the brand released in December 2016 via Vogue’s website.

 Prabal Gurung's Pre-Fall 2017 dress (left) & Teri Jon by Rickie Freeman (right)

Prabal Gurung’s Pre-Fall 2017 dress (left) & Teri Jon by Rickie Freeman (right)

A lookalike version is currently being offered by Saks, where Prabal Gurung stocks its collection, giving rise to a potential conflict of interest, at best, and a scorned designer – one beloved by everyone from Michelle Obama and Kate Middleton to young Hollywood – at worst. Alongside the Teri Jon by Rickie Freeman dresses in stock at Saks are dresses from Prabal Gurung, as well, including a similar iteration of Gurung’s Bell-Sleeve Silk Midi Dress with Asymmetric Skirt, albeit at a higher price point. 

It is here that one could make an argument that there is room for lookalike dresses of varying price points in a department store’s stock, just as there are different departments that satisfy consumers seeking different price points (think: runway vs. contemporary).

While there is, in fact, merit to this argument, it is worth noting that the department store shopping experience functions far differently than it used it. In the past, when most shopping was done in brick-and-mortar stores, a women seeking contemporary dresses, such as the Teri Jon one, would shop in the contemporary section of the store, as distinct from the runway section, where Gurung’s pricier garments would live.

That is not necessarily how it works in 2017, when consumers are not only less opposed to mixing high fashion and more mainstream garments into their wardrobe, they actively select garments and accessories from formerly distinct groups (runway vs. contemporary) and from any array of brands, whether it be Zara or Gucci. Moreover, since they do a lot of their shopping online, the set-up is less distinct. It is very common for all of a retailer’s dresses, for instance, to be gathered onto one webpage, regardless of department or price point, thereby, putting Gurung’s designs and Teri Jon in the mix together.

Nonetheless, such practices, in a time when brands are already far less dependent on department stores than they once were (thanks to the ability to sell directly to consumers by way of individual e-commerce sites), could prove to be risky.

By putting bigger name designers alongside copycat wares at lower – but not dirt-cheap price points – department stores stand to potentially alienate the designer of the original dress, who likely will not be pleased about a knockoff being offered for sale by a retail partner.

The same is also true of stocking similarly priced copies. Consider Manolo Blahnik’s very similarly priced copies of Joseph Altuzarra’s take on espadrilles, which are being sold alongside the original version on a handful of e-commerce sites.  

In addition to alienating designers by stocking lookalikes, department stores run the risk of creating unwanted negative publicity centering on their stocking of copies, a tactic for which low-cost fast fashion retailers are best known.

As department stores continue to face no shortage of financial struggles in 2017, they need to walk a fine line, one that includes heightened due diligence when it comes to lookalike garments.