Alibaba Group's e-fashion still grapples with counterfeiting issues
I've written about the battle between Western and home-grown fashion e-commerce sites. But mainland internet giants are also cashing in on China's online style shoppers.
Alibaba is arguably China's most famous e-commerce site, with the business-to-business portal selling everything from refined fish oils to light machinery, Bluetooth speakers and sports shoes. It's for bulk-buying and not so useful for personal purchases.
However, sites like the consumer-to-consumer portal Taobao, owned by Alibaba, have made huge inroads in personal fashion purchases and even aid the search for that all-important wedding dress, selling direct copies of Vera Wang designs at a fraction of the price - and, we imagine, quality.
The eBay model of linking independent suppliers to buyers is changing how Chinese people shop online for fashion, especially at lower price points.
The first time I saw AliExpress was on a pop-up screen. The homepage featured a pouting blonde model posing in a cool oxblood leather tunic and grey, slim-cut tweed pants - it could have been an old campaign image from Old Navy or Zara - and made me do a double take.
The e-commerce site is also owned by Alibaba and mostly based on the same principles, but it has no minimum order requirement. Clearly designed for the lucrative personal-shopping market, AliExpress lists a range of lifestyle items. There is a big focus on fashion, accessories, beauty products, shoes, jewellery and watches.
For fashion items, you can search by style, pattern and even material. Two days ago, I was browsing and found a stunning A-line short skirt printed with a Renaissance oil painting of women working on the grounds of an estate - the rich, striking hues of olive, barley and coral complemented with a jolt of blue. Sound familiar? Yes, it's a copy of an item in Carven's autumn-winter 2012 collection.
This particular skirt was selling for US$18.39 a piece. Another quick search of Carven on AliExpress brought up an identical skirt for US$103.55, this timed tagged with the brand name and brand-related photos. I didn't buy either, but it would be safe to say that the chances of them being genuine are slim.
Other items like an Isabel Marant paisley dress (US$132.05) or the Ash-heeled sneakers (US$122.55) looked slightly more convincing.
There is no doubt that counterfeited items are being sold here, with a mix of genuine brands and unbranded items. But the slew of fashion-forward options at AliExpress, largely copied from catwalks or dresses that Kim Kardasian has worn, throws a spanner in the works for retailers that own their own stock and brand.
It allows nameless fast-fashion manufacturers (often posing as consumers) access to a huge market without having to bother with the hassle of a shopfront. And with the prices as low as a few dollars for a pair of skinny jeans or an elaborate jewellery set, it's no wonder people are buying.
A few months ago, Alibaba made news when it pledged to tackle the issue of fake goods, setting up a special piracy task force. With Reuters reporting more than US$161.7 billion in transactions last year on Taobao sites, it will be no easy task.
The company's previous efforts against piracy have been controversial, tarnishing its reputation and sending shares falling. The group is eager to win back credibility with new troubleshooting initiatives, but even a quick browse on AliExpress shows there is still a lot of work to be done.
In the meantime, by all means shop on their sites (there are great deals), but don't be the fool who thinks a US$100 brand-new Chanel handbag is real. We've all been to Shenzhen enough times to know better.