Reader Jane Jetson emailed me with this fascinating question:

I am wondering about knock offs. I am not referring to counterfeit or “replicas”. Those are illegal and look terrible anyway. My friend bought a huge “Prada” bag downtown and I cannot imagine people think it is real. There is no way she or anyone I know can purchase bags in the thousands of dollars.

I was looking for a tote bag for a long flight. I bought this bag and liked it very much.

I later read a reviewer say she liked it better than the “original.” The original is a Longchamp bag which costs over $100 more. I just cannot see paying that much for a nylon bag. I was vaguely aware of the Longchamp bag and was not looking for something similar at a lower price. I just wanted an attractive bag. I do not like wearing labels and realize that many designers simply license their names to lower quality products and do not have much involvement with the actual production. I am OK with that too but something about showy labels rubs me the wrong way. I have labeled goods such as ray ban and northface so I am not completely opposed. My question is, what about knock offs? Will someone see my bag and presume I bought a lower grade (and perfectly legal) Longchamp copy or that I have a nice bag? I don’t know where this begins and ends. I am not seeking out copies but I am not that familiar with all the handbags in the expensive, fashionable handbag universe. I also think that certain styles just become popular and are part of the general look and not necessarily a knock off.

There is some research to support the idea that a thriving knockoff business is actually GOOD for designer lines. I’m not sure I completely agree, but it’s an interesting alternative to the typical black-and-white response that all of them are bad and evil and no one should buy them.

I read gobs of fashion magazines and blogs so when I’m cruising around Amazon and eBay I see the bags that are clearly knockoffs of the hot styles, and I have to say that I’m not sure I’d be comfortable purchasing one myself. I bought a bag off eBay in the same way Jane bought her Longchamp knockoff – liked the design, price was right, no idea it was a copy – and once I found out I wasn’t thrilled. But I also didn’t stop carrying it.

After a shape or style has been in the mix for a couple of years, I don’t think a designer can reasonably claim that they’re being “knocked off” anymore. Celine introduced the trapeze shape in bags, but they’re everywhere now several years later. Mulberry’s turnlock is distinctive, but also incredibly simple and easy to duplicate and so long as no one is imprinting their logo they don’t have much of a case that it’s being knocked off. Actively seeking out a knockoff of a current-season designer bag allows you to cash in on the talent of the brand’s design team and some of their cachet without supporting them with your dollars. Buying a bag that looks like a nylon Longchamp tote – a style that company has made for decades – is completely harmless in my opinion.

In terms of what people think, to some extent you’ve just gotta let that go. Some people will see it and think it’s real, some people will see it’s a knockoff and judge you, some people will see it’s a knockoff and not care, some people won’t even know it’s a copy. If you like the design enough to buy it, that’s key. You can’t control what other people will or won’t think about you. Especially in this situation because you have no way of knowing who is well-versed in handbags and who isn’t. If it’s something that’s really going to bother you whenever you carry the bag, though, that can certainly take precedence: If knowing it’s a knockoff makes you worry constantly, then all of the fun has been sucked out of the bag and you might feel better moving on to a different style. Totally your call, of course.

Bags are among the most-frequently knocked-off, but I’d say the same of clothing, shoes, and accessories in most cases, too.

What are your thoughts? Do you buy knockoffs and feel like it’s perfectly reasonable to do so? Never buy them and feel the knockoff market is harmful?

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