Frangrance and handbags are two things I very much enjoy. I’m someone who has a deep appreciation for design, quality, and craftmanship when it comes to my fragrances and bags. I’m not immune to the weight and power of the brand either, even though I like to tell myself I’m not. You’d think, as a result, that I would be as unsupportive of fragrance clones as I am of fake designer handbags. But interestingly, you’d be wrong – at least a little.
Handbags – replicas, inspirations, and dupes
Let me start of by explaining how I classify handbags that are not the original. First, we have replica handbags. These fakes or counterfeits deliberately and unabashedly try to imitate the original, right down to all the details, including and most importantly branding. You might find knockoffs that are easy to spot at first glance, or you might find a super fake, which might even trick experts.
The obvious example that is most often copied is the classic Chanel flap handbag in black caviar or lambskin leather – either the reissue, or the CC turn lock that Carl Lagerfeld introduced in the 80s.
I don’t have that bag. I don’t have it because I cannot afford it, and to be honest, I don’t like the idea of carrying that much money around on my shoulder in a handbag, let alone as a handbag. But I do love this bag, so would I buy a fake? The idea has tempted me and believe it or not I did buy a fake Chanel item kind of by accident some time ago, but no, I would not buy a fake. And here are five reasons why I think you probably shouldn’t either:
- Fake = replica = counterfeit = illegal. In some places I believe it’s illegal to buy in addition to sell counterfeit items.
- Most of the fakes on the market are overpriced for what they are and are of low quality.
- There are ethical concerns – not only in the fact that fakes copy someone else’s artistic work, but also regarding their production. In fact, there are ethical concerns surrounding the production of ALL brands of handbags at various price points, just to be clear. But Chanel bags are not stitched together in sweat shops. As for the leather and other materials that are used, however, that is something I know little about. But you might want to find out more.
- If you don’t care what others think, this it doesn’t matter, but be prepared to be judged negatively by some people who have their own strong opinions about both fake as well as pricy authentic handbags.
- Even if your bag is a so-called super fake – a copycat which is hard to distinguish from the original even up close, YOU will know it’s a fake, even if no one else knows or cares. Now maybe this won’t be an issue for you, but I in my case I did find it bothered me. Interestingly, it doesn’t bother me at all when wearing a clone perfume. I’ll explain later below.
What can you do instead of buying a fake, then? Well, what I would do rather than purchase from Chanel and forgo any chance of vacation over the next decade, is buy a model that looks very similar from another brand for less money, sometimes a lot less money. I own what is often called an INSPIRED bag – It’s a Rebecca Minkoff Jumbo Love flap bag. It’s actually more inspired by the Chanel BOY bag than the classic flap bag that I mentioned, but you get the point. In this case the quality is not very high, in my opinion, but there might be better inspired bags out there.
Now, if the inspired bag I have does not meet your wants/needs, you could opt to dabble a little closer to the ethically problematic edge. I have an extremely inspired bag as well, one that was so affordable that I unabashedly took liberties with it to force it to accommodate my body: I butchered the strap and inserted a piece of leather to make it fit to my liking. I would certainly never to that to a real Chanel. (You’d think that for the prices Chanel charges they would make bespoke chain lengths, but no!)
My second bag is what is often referred to as a DUPE bag. It lies between a fake and an inspired bag. There is no branding, and if there were, it wouldn’t be Chanel. However, it is blatantly copying Chanel and is ethically dubious but not to the point of illegality. It’s also a flap bag with quilting, it has a reissue-style chain, it’s a standard flap with a turn lock closure, it has the same overall shape – BUT the size and dimensions are probably not the same as anything produced by Chanel, Chanel has unlikely ever come out with any quilting that looked exactly like this, and I do not think Chanel ever had textures on its hardware like this.
This bag is not a fake or a replica or a counterfeit. It’s a dupe, and I don’t have any issue with the idea of a dupe, especially when the dupe is for a bag that realistically only a tiny fraction of the world’s population purchases on a casual Sunday shop out. To me, this is obviously not a Chanel, so I have no problem wearing it. If anyone comments on it – positive, neutral, or negative – I am quick to say that it indeed looks Chanel-esk, but most certainly is not. But I think it looks good, and I like it.
The part that does bite at my conscience is the fact that I purchased it through a Chinese website and it would be challenging to find out what chemicals were used, who made it, or how it was made. for that reason, and also for the reason of the quality being relatively low, I do think inspired bags are better choices than dupes, and certainly better than fakes.
When it comes to fragrance however, I often prefer clones to similar (inspired) fragrances, and I will even stand by the purchase of a clone over the original in many cases. While I don’t go out of my way to support perfume clone houses, I am not against them either.
Fragrances – dupes & clones (“inspired by …”)
With perfume, you can indeed also find different degrees of copying, but the vernacular used is different. I own a deliciously huge bottle of the original MFK BR540 (Maison Francis Kurkdjian Baccarat Rouge 540). I also have several many fragrances on the market that were INSPIRED by BR540, one of which is a celebrity fragrance called Cloud. It is sweater, much cheaper, and doesn’t perform at all like the original, but there is no doubt, at least in the fragrance community, where the inspiration for Cloud came from.
You could argue that BR540 is indeed a new type of fragrance and that other perfumers or perfume houses or big brands are aiming to follow that trend, not this specific fragrance. I am not convinced, but even if that were true, there is no doubt that BR540 is the leader and Cloud is one of many followers. To me, Cloud is to BR540 as my Rebecca Minkoff is to a Chanel boy bag. But Cloud might be called a dupe of BR540, just as a fragrance clone of 540 might be.
Because fragrances cannot be seen or touched, a fragrance clone is analogous to both a handbag dupe and a handbag replica. I have a bottle from a well-known clone house called Alexandria. It’s not BR540 – this one is a clone for Frederick Malle’s Portrait of a Lady. But this same company, and many more because BR540 is THAT popular, make a CLONE of BR540. I used to have an inspired bottle of Baccarat Rouge, but used it up. I could not tell the difference, and I don’t think others would be able to either. I then went out and bought the original, though, for two reasons. First, I got my bottle of BR540 second-hand, massively discounted and could therefore afford it. Second, I tested enough with the clone to know that I would love the original.
Testing is one justification people often make for buying clones. Obviously, it’s proved true with my example. But in fact, it’s also true that I sometimes buy clones, love them, but never buy the original.
There are other reasons why I more readily accept perfume clones to fake fashion.
1) Perfume cloning is not illegal.
The main reason is that cloning is not illegal as long as certain rules are followed. It surprised me how many blog posts I read in doing background reading for this post that warn to:
avoid counterfeit perfumes because they contain harmful ingredients and are created in poor working conditions.
There is no such thing as counterfeit perfume. And with regard to ingredients and working conditions, both original and clone houses can potentially fall under such criticism. Some are better than others, and if you care about these things, due diligence is recommended regardless of whether or not the perfume is a clone.
Anyway, allow me to share a story. A few years back I had the privilege of attending a course in perfumery which took place in Dubai. I had a great experience, and learned a lot – not least that don’t have any obvious natural talent at perfumery. Because I was in the Middle East, I met a lot of people also taking the course from the region, among them an Iranian perfumer based in the Emirates who has his own perfume cloning company. I have purchased and already used up several of his concoctions. They were amazing and very affordable.
What this lovely Iranian told me is that established perfume companies (not necessarily the brand names, by the way, but whomever holds the legal rights) in fact sell or license the formulae, at least to some capacity. I’m guessing here, but perhaps the sources of the ingredients are not disclosed (and maybe the quality of the ingredients might be a factor determining the result)? And/or perhaps the recipe lacks all the details? He told me that he can legally reproduce the fragrance so long as different (or different enough) packaging and branding are used. I assume the legalities are laid out clearly.
It could also be that some clone houses have perfumers who are talented enough to play around to the point where they can come close to the original. Mahsam Raza of Dua Fragrances uses technology to do get exceptionally close. With his team of chemists, he works to identify the molecular code of a given fragrance using a gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) machine. This machine formulates the list of ingredients, and Raza then adds whatever else he thinks the perfume needs to effectively recreate the original scent. (see https://melmagazine.com/en-us/story/cologne-perfume-clones)
Apparently, no clone house has yet made a 100% clone of perfume. Raza’s closest is apparently 98.2%, but that is more than enough to fool most noses. I find it interesting that clone houses often not only avoid use of the word “clone”, but instead elect to use words like “inspired by” such as such. Inspiration is a euphemism for imitation here, obviously.
In fact, whether a clone house buys or steals a formula, or comes up with its own, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter since fragrance houses cannot trademark their formulas. Perfumes are considered too abstract to be subject to trademark laws, at least in the US. As long a clone is not marketed in such a way as to confuse the consumer into thinking it is the original, there is pretty much no recourse for luxury brands who are keen on prosecuting a clone perfumer or house. And yes, this includes the infamous Chanel no. 5!
In a nutshell, I guess that perfume clones are more like handbag dupes than handbags replicas, if that makes sense.
But just because something is not illegal, doesn’t mean it isn’t unethical. The lines are blurry, my friends! I recently read a post on fragrance cloning from Otherwise Philosophy. The writer did a good job of briefly weighing several sides to the fragrance clone debate and one viewpoint says:
…it’s this consumerist question that keeps me, and lots of other perfume folks, on the teeter-totter about fragrance clones, the exorbitant prices charged by the most impersonal, corporatized fat cat perfume ‘houses.’ …some of the perfume giants are having their capitalist cake and eating it too.
This point segues to my second reason for more readily accepting perfume clones to handbag fakes.
2) Perfume clones are less threatening.
Perfume clones are in many or most cases not so threatening to the original brand, although this is just my opinion, and this may change. Unlike handbags, perfumes are not visual or textural in the literal sense. I’ve understood that a lot of counterfeit handbags in the marketplace can have the effect of diluting a brand. This is probably why Chanel legally went after a few counterfeiters a few years back. They were probably threatened more by the increasing number of passable super fakes than the obvious imitators, I suspect.
I wonder, however, about the extent to which this is true with perfume. Unlike a handbag, you can’t see or touch fragrance, although in the brain, it might indeed have colour, texture, and convey some sort of imagery. Since formulae aren’t copyright protected, it makes sense that more and more clones would appear in a growing perfume market. The intangible nature of fragrance means that there is less concrete proof of imitation as well, especially when the clone is so close.
Nonetheless, I don’t think original creators or luxury houses are in danger just yet. I believe most people who buy perfume are driven by the branding, the marketing, the advertising, and all the promises they contain. They want to buy the real thing not solely because of what it actually smells like, but because of what it represents and promises. To most people, real bottle of BR540 is not the same as a clone, even if the juice inside is almost identical. The packaging and branding is still very important to the sale, especially when perfume is purchased as a gift.
I think it’s obvious that the main reasons people buy fragrance clones are financial in nature. They either cannot afford the original, or simply do not want to pay that much for the original. This is true for handbags, too, BUT, in the case of perfume, my guess is that people who buy clones care more about how the perfume smells than how it are presented or packaged or what brand it is. And I wouldn’t say they are dissing the perfumer of the original. Perfumers are typically employed by one of the six main fragrance companies (not fragrance houses) and are paid with a salary. They do not get royalties.
In any case, I don’t feel that consumers of clone perfumes are part of the target demographic for a given perfume or brand. If a person buys a clone perfume, that doesn’t mean they would have purchased the original if the clone did not exist. While this it probably also true for some handbags, I don’t think the situation is the same. Everyone knows the Chanel flap bag. The fact that it is so out of reach for so many people is part and parcel of its allure and desirability, I think, and this is true for many top tier designer handbags. That cannot be said of perfume, at least as far as I know. OK, perhaps BG540 is not the best example because it has indeed become so popular that it’s punctured into the mainstream market. But unlike with a widely known handbag, I do think that unless you are a fumehead, you’re not going to lust over or even know about some of the higher end perfumes and fragrance brands. Designer fashion is relatively more known.
Again, an argument I hear against clone fragrances is that they disrespect the perfumer – maybe not so much the employed perfumer but the perfumer who owns his or her own brand. But I don’t think Francis Kurkdjian is being financially harmed by people getting clones of his fragrances. He’s not suffering. His brand is so big that any loss from clone purchases would be a drop in the bucket. And if the clones didn’t exist, I reckon many or most of the clone buyers would not buy his perfume anyway due to price point. They would either get an inspired fragrance from another house or not buy at all.
Now, it’s a different story with very small fragrance houses, like Rania J for example. I love her perfumes and they aren’t exactly cheap. I wouldn’t buy a clone because I want to support her. But because she’s so small, no company produces clones of her creations anyway (at least to my knowledge)! If a perfume is being cloned, it’s being cloned because it’s both well-known to its target market and massively popular.
Have you ever wondered, by the way, how clone houses can offer such relatively low prices? Sure, although increasing less so, luxury brands may have pricy natural ingredients and clone house may opt of the cheaper lab version of those ingredients. The global perfume market is valued at over 31 billion dollars, and I think around 90 percent of what you pay for in a big-name perfume is the packaging and marketing of that scent (see this article on the importance of packaging). Clone houses are notorious for their understated presentation and many engage much more in influencer marketing. They don’t have the budget for big ads or commercials.
Most mainstream designer perfumes are not priced insanely high. Personally, I would never buy clones of them, but for some people, the lower price makes a huge difference to them, and I don’t think those big mainstream brands are hurt much by it. For me, I buy clones when I want to blind buy or try out a very expensive (likely niche or edition privé type of) perfume that I really want and do not have the means to get. I may go on to buy the original, or not. The clone I have of a Frederick Malle scent is good enough for me. That brand’s pricing is well out of my budget, and I obviously do not adour Portrait of a Lady as much as BR540.
It’s amazing how much has changed in the world of perfumery since my childhood. Perhaps it’s about time fine perfumery got a taste of what it was like for the French wine industry in the 70s when California’s cheap but amazing Napa Valley wines jumped onto the scene.
Some of the perfumes coming out from clone houses are honestly amazing now. Although I don’t think the big names are being threatened yet, they very well could be in the future. Whether you think of clone houses as vultures or Robin Hoods, I think they’re probably here to stay.