Fake shoes, aka rep sneakers, have developed their own cult, with punters turned on by price and close-match quality. But can you ever feel good striding in snide?
In summer 2017 sneaker maker New Balance was awarded US$1.5 million in a trademark dispute in China. Three manufacturers who made shoes under the name New Boom were court-ordered to pay damages for infringing the American brand’s slanting “N” logo – the largest trademark infringement payout ever awarded to a foreign business there. New Balance argued that its market share and reputation were victims of free riding, that is, others selling off the back of its efforts and benefiting from confusion among consumers. Since entering the Chinese market in 1995 New Balance has been fighting fakers, copiers and parallel traders. In China, the first rule of copyright is: register the name first. Not always easy for Western companies. How do you write Nike in Mandarin?
Meanwhile, in the Western world, a curious thing has happened. The fakes have taken on a life of their own, cultivated their own fans, birthed their own subcultures. Check Reddit, where you have two communities devoted to a love of sneakers: r/sneakers keeps things official while r/repsneakers is in love with all things counterfeit. Created in 2014, r/repsneakers is now an essential replica resource to 52,000 subscribers. It has the same cultural touchstones as r/sneakers, the same aesthetics, language and slang. Sneakers are king. But the sneakers they love are fake. In any conversation on r/repsneakers someone will ask: can this seller be trusted, have customs seized my shoes, green light [a vendor approved by quality control photographs], guinea pig [a buyer taking a risk on a new source]?
This is because they have forsaken Footlocker for Chinese counterfeits. Dealers front for factories typically based in Putian city, who may even make legit sneakers for well-known sports companies (as a random example, Nike owns no factories of its own), and have the ability to produce to a high specification. Or they’ve procured the blueprints on the black market. Or they’re simply reverse-engineering a shoe they bought honestly.
By buying from China, replica (rep) punters skip the massive mark-ups that have helped make (as a random example) Nike an $84 billion dollar company. For controlled batch sneaks, such as Kanye’s adidas-produced Yeezy line, rep-fans are also beating for-profit dealers who use “bots” – computer software – to buy entire batches on first release and resell them at inflated prices. Yeezys sell at $300 but resale prices reach $2,000. Or, how’s $100 for a near-duplicate? Speaking with Joe, a British replica enthusiast, price was the major motivation. He says: “If companies are going to charge so much and limit what you can buy, what’s the point? I can get an almost-perfect copy for under a hundred quid.”
So there’s a Robin Hood, what-happens-on-the-dark-net-stays-on-the-dark-net thing going on. But besides the law dodging, there are also unique fears. Straw poll, but roughly half the rep user base (typically younger, high school age) seem terrified of people noticing their shoes are fake, living in fear of that dreaded moment: the public callout. Plus, sportswear companies are already criticised for factory working conditions. In unregulated factories, who safeguards the workers?
If shame and scruples don’t trouble you, buying rep sneakers is simple. Sellers build up a reputation for quality and customer service, and often specialise in a particular shoe or brand. The sellers are typically Chinese, working in conjunction with factories and using names including David, Muks, Penny, and Niceyes. In the subreddit these sellers are under scrutiny: “David’s 10th batch is the best”, “Has Penny ripped me off?”, “Muks is the best for Ultraboosts”. As with official manufacturers, sellers hype forthcoming batches to generate excitement and drive sales.
So, I decided to try it out. The complicated pattern of the adidas/Kith Ultraboost Mid-Aspen seemed a suitable test for counterfeiters. Unfortunately, the only seller I found was dissed on the subreddit. Double or nothing, I went after adidas’ Ultraboost Core Black trainers and the NMD R1 PK Winter Wool model. Based on community advice, Muks was the man for me; the purchase made via a Taobao [imagine a less regulated, Chinese Amazon] store. So this bit feels dodgy… you buy goods to the value of the sneakers: 1,360 items for one yuan each, equivalent to $200, paid with a credit card. Which is half the cost of the legit kit at retail, though I got stung with a £20 import charge when they arrived two weeks later. The nice thing is the community holds your hand every step of the way, for instance verifying the quality control pictures, and the whole thing took a matter of minutes – not quite 1-Click ordering, but not bad.
Customs seemed unaware the shoes were counterfeit. My new trainers arrived in an adidas box in pristine condition, with an official-looking Footlocker receipt. To all but the most astute sneakerheads, they’re indistinguishable from the real thing. Of course, scams and fraudulent sellers are a constant threat. Shoes that never arrive are a topic of bitter discussion on the forums. Batches get seized by a local customs office. Cops do, once in a while, raid factories to protect the likes of Nike or the ever-vigilant New Balance. But the quality of replicas is getting better too. One dealer, David, even launched his own brand of high quality, reasonably priced running shoes, SousFeng.
Is this a Napster moment for sneakerheads? A Wittenberg printing press? The file-sharing site heralded the beginning of the end for people owning music. Wittenberg took God out of the hands of the priests by letting ordinary folk read the Bible. Are the high priests of athletic footwear about to get the same sort of kicking?
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