“Made in China” knockoffs have a totally new meaning in 2019. It’s serious business. There are no longer the silly, misspelled brand names, or gaudy, cheap-looking logos.

Nowadays, Gucci, Balenciaga, and Dior knockoffs look eerily real, meriting a trip to China all on its own for the fashion savvy. Droves of tourists seek out the ‘fake markets’ through recommendations of their friends or are given a WhatsApp number, who give them an address to a nondescript factory in the outskirts of Beijing, where they wait outside of a steel door. After a few knocks, buyers are let in by a merchant, who has knockoff sneakers, handbags, and clothes laid out on blankets on the floor.

As Kevin Lozano from GQ notes, we’re living in the golden age of sneaker knockoffs. “The ethics of high-fashion, of deadstock sneakers and perfect fakes, are complicated and contradictory,” he writes. “Choosing to enter the counterfeit economy is, in some sense, about leveling the playing field.”

For years, high-end fakes, like Balenciaga or Yeezys, have been promoted through Instagram click-through stories as half-price holy grails, which lead users to dubious websites, which are made in Chinese factories. In a study published in April, over 20% of products sold on Instagram are fakes, with over 50,000 accounts selling counterfeit luxury fashion products. The sales are made on PayPal, Venmo, and WeChat. With Instagram as the new shopping mall, the app has tried kicking off the knockoff accounts with their checkout with Instagram feature, allowing users to shop directly through the app, but it doesn’t always work.

Street brands and fast fashion companies have been looking to high fashion for heavy-handed inspiration in recent years, but are knockoffs something to be proud of? Since Balenciaga launched their clunky Triple S sneaker, ugly footwear has made a comeback, with Nike, even Gucci taking up the trend, not to mention Prada’s futuristic shoe, the Cloudburst, or the new high-low collaboration between Prada and Adidas.

As a result, brands are moving away from that which could conceivably be knocked off, a return to a kind of logo-less “good taste,” where they can’t really be knocked off—like Christian Dior or Everlane sneakers. But footwear is something that should be paid attention to, as the footwear industry produces a whopping 24.8 billion sneakers a year.

Even the Reddit thread “Repsneakers” is for people buying near-identical knockoffs of sneakers in China through random Whatsapp phone numbers, who have been called clout-obsessed hypebeasts, fueled by their obsession to stay one step ahead of the curve (but a lot of people end up getting fooled).

It could have started in 2017, when Balenciaga introduced the Triple S sneaker, blurring the boundaries between streetwear and high fashion. It came after Demna Gvasalia elevated design to conceptual art, by mocking high fashion with nods to the blue plastic IKEA bag and the Bernie Sanders campaign logo. Some critics think in a time when fashion is dropped and delivered, Balenciaga has outraged because it shakes up the status quo, that Gvasalia is “loosening the standards for what is stylish and bringing value to things that would seem to have little.” 

Gvasalia’s work has primarily been influenced by the Dadaists and Surrealism, notably the concept of ‘the elevation of the everyday’ that Marcel Duchamp trailblazed in the early 20th century. In fashion, it follows a tradition of appropriation after Maison Margiela, Helmut Lang, and Virgil Abloh, who calls Duchamp his lawyer.

In Los Angeles, many of the knockoffs found in the fashion district—or at least, cheap items that have that knock-off aesthetic—are featuring interesting original designs. And Balenciaga seems to be moving away from streetwear that was made just to be copied in their just shown collection.

“It seems counterintuitive that ‘anti-trendy clothes’ are trending,” writes Rachel Tashjian. “For a few years now, fashion has been about bad taste. Things had become ugly—on purpose—mostly thanks to the irresistible mandate of Demna Gvasalia at Balenciaga and Vetements. You could wear whatever you want! So why wouldn’t you?”

It’s not news that brands like Balenciaga and Vetements are making designs that look like they could be knockoffs. At the helm of the knockoff aesthetic, Demna Gvasalia recently explained that he sees all of fashion as appropriation. “We live in a world that is full of references, and references exist to feed us, but not to feed us in order to copy – they feed us in order to create something new from it. And that’s I think what I put as the challenge for myself.”

When fashion seems endlessly regurgitative, what’s the point of call-out Instagram fashion accounts like Diet Prada? Besides calling out fast fashion retailers who rip off independent designers, versus houses that wouldn’t exist without appropriation, it’s a question that plagues the fashion industry today.

This very question of authenticity is at the heart of this discussion. As Italian designer Miuccia Prada muses, it’s something that could be long gone, but remains a part of the search for truth.

“Nobody actually cares about authenticity anymore, about who did something first, second or third. Today we have a copy of a copy of a copy,” she said in a recent interview. “No one talks about authenticity, except for a few extravagant intellectuals, maybe. As a concept, it’s not relevant anymore. Today it’s considered stupid. The last one to do something is the one who invented it. Today everybody is inventing their lives; it’s all embellishment and upgrading. No one tells the truth – I think that’s why we long for authenticity.”