"We make fast." That was the response Ashley Kelley received to her frantic emails to EastBridal.com, the website she had purchased her bridal dress from, when it didn't arrive on the date promised. With her wedding just weeks away, these cursory replies in broken English offered little reassurance. "I began to think it would never show up," says the 20-year old student in San Antonio, Texas. When it finally did arrive, wrinkled and crammed into a big FedEx envelope, Kelley was not relieved: Her dress only vaguely resembled the one in the photo shown in the listing online, and it was poorly constructed with cheap materials. "There was tacky lace netting haphazardly stitched on with string sticking out all over the place," she says. "They had used red thread in some areas and the tie at the back of the dress wasn't hemmed on the edges." And the fit…it was completely off, despite having paid extra for ‘custom measurements'. "There was no way I could wear it!" Kelley laments. When she contacted the site to return it and get a refund, she was asked to send pictures of ‘what was wrong' and was told they'd have to keep 30% of the $250 she paid for fabric costs. It's been months* since Kelley sent the photos and she hasn't heard back. "I have a feeling I'll never see that money again," she says.
The allure of a low price tag online
Kelley is one of a growing number of brides getting scammed by websites selling replica and counterfeit wedding gowns. "These sites are set up specifically to confuse and cheat the U.S. consumer," says Steve Lang, CEO of Mon Cheri Bridals. As budgets get tighter and the cost of materials like silk goes up, they're capitalizing on brides' desires to find their dream dress for less.
And "where there's an emotionally-invested market, someone will unfortunately take advantage of their vulnerability," says Susan Scafidi, a professor at Fordham University who specializes in fashion law. These companies are relying on Internet advertising to lure women to buy from their sites. They're paying big bucks to get prime ad placement on popular search engines, and using keyword optimization to ensure they appear every time someone searches for, say, "cheap Allure bridal gowns."
The people behind the replica dresses
Just who is making all these gowns and how are these websites operating? Lang, who is currently leading an industry charge to shut the sites down, says the majority of the factories are located in China and are often owned by subcontractors who have hired scores of laborers to produce the dresses extremely fast. According to Larry Warshaw, the owner of Sincerity Bridal who is also investigating replica dresses, one factory in Suzhou with 250 workers can produce 350 dresses in one day. Over the past few years, the number of sites that sell these dresses has multiplied exponentially, from 20 or 30 to over 300. They display stolen photos of designers' dresses and use their brand names and style numbers to lead buyers to believe they're purchasing a particular gown they've seen in stores for drastically less. The consumer doesn't see the difference until they get the dress.
Getting even less than what you pay for
And what a difference it is. The majority of replica dresses barely resemble what was advertised, and are made so fast and with such inferior materials that they quite literally fall apart—or never even arrive in the first place. Harper Della-Piana, designer and owner of SEAMS Couture in Wenham, MA, describes a shoddy replica dress a woman brought into her shop, hoping Della-Piana could fix it. "The fabric was pure nylon, the edges of the lace were visibly burned, parts of the dress were actually glued on and it was sewn with clear plastic thread that was sticking out all over. I don't even know how long it would last on a wedding day," she says. What's more, the bride could not believe it was going to cost more to fix the dress than what she actually paid for it. A persistent skepticism about the price of wedding dresses seems to feed into brides' decisions to buy from these sites. Understanding why the real deal costs as much as it does might help dissuade someone from thinking she could purchase that $1,000 Maggie Sottero dress for $200. "Beside the fact that the materials are more expensive, these dresses average anywhere from 70 to 150 hours of labor for me," Della-Piana explains.
The sizing of the replica dresses complicates matters more: Despite sending their measurements, many brides receive gowns that don't fit them properly. Phyllis Brasch Librach, owner of Sydney's Closet, a bridal boutique in Maryland Heights, MO that sells plus-size dresses, elaborates: "The factories have no concept of the American full-figured body. There can be a 6 to 8 inch difference in the waist between their counterfeit size charts and ours, which is based on zipping thousands of customers into dresses. And if you don't have good fit, you don't have a flattering gown." That's if the dress even shows up! Some brides never receive what they ordered, one of the other common scams these sites run, according to Jeremy Gin, CEO and co-founder of federally funded SiteJabber.com, where consumers can post reviews about e-commerce sites. "We see a lot of brides who spend a lot of money on what they think is the perfect dress and no dress comes, the incorrect dress comes or it falls apart," Gin says.
Little recourse for scammed brides
The customer service for these sites is limited to non-existent. Despite promises of a ‘100% guarantee,' many brides are refused refunds for their botched dresses or can never reach a representative to make a complaint or to return the dress—many of the sites list false addresses for their factories. The bride is stuck with a dress she can't wear, sometimes just weeks before her wedding, with little funds left to buy a new gown. "There isn't a week that goes by that I don't get a desperate call or visit from a bride who bought her dress directly from a factory. She's in a panic to find a replacement," says Librach.
Unfortunately, there isn't very much consumers can realistically do on their own to take action against the site that scammed them. Though there's been legislation in the works for several years—namely, the Innovative Design Protection and Piracy Prevention Act, which aims to protect fashion designs—knockoffs of clothing are still legal in the US. If the dress is a counterfeit (advertised as a certain designer when it is not) or if it's a complete bait and switch (it looks nothing like what was advertised online), there's a potential legal cause of action, says Scafidi. "But good luck trying to enforce your rights against someone who is sending your dress from overseas," she concedes. You can complain to your local Better Business Bureau, report it to the Federal Trade Commission and use the FBI's complaint tool, "however none of them will help you get your money back," says Gin.
Ongoing efforts to shut the sites down
Appalled by the impact that replica dresses are having on brides and on their business, industry leaders are taking up the cause. "It's theft," says Della-Piana. But because intellectual property laws don't protect clothing designs in the US, the sites can't actually be charged for stealing bridal dress designs. However, photographs are considered intellectual property, "so if a rogue site steals an image from a legitimate site, that's a copyright violation," explains Scafidi. "Similarly, if you use the name of a designer or boutique that's a registered trademark, that's potentially a legal violation." Boutique owners and designers are taking protective measures, accordingly. In a quick search, we found 20 instances of 29 designers' images being improperly used across the Internet. The biggest victims: Maggie Sottero, Casablanca Bridal, Allure Bridals and Mon Cheri Bridals.
Lang is launching a full-out attack on the pirate sites. In addition to taking legal action for stealing intellectual property (a law suit is pending), he's working with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Customs to stop the dresses at the border, before they are delivered. "We're going to ask them to stop and inspect the packages, and send them back because they are not paying duties," Lang explains. "But more importantly, we're going to stop them from bringing counterfeit dresses into the country." Lang is also working with shipping companies like UPS and FedEx to help stop the deliveries, and with payment systems like PayPal, to stop the transactions.
Ultimately, though, a lot of the responsibility lies on the shoulders of the brides. "The only thing that's going to shut these sites down is public awareness, and fear of not getting a dress," Warshaw says. After experiencing that fear firsthand, Kelley wants to warn other brides against taking a similar risk. "Check and see where the dress is coming from," she says. "If it seems shady, it probably is so don't order from them." Kelley's mother wound up making her wedding dress, and she finally decided to throw the counterfeit gown away and be done with it. "We were tired of playing their stupid games."
> Don't get scammed -- see five ways to spot a counterfeit gown.