The knock-off sneaker trade: from Putian, China, to fans everywhere thanks to Reddit, e-commerce and the globalisation of counterfeiting

Limited-edition sports shoes such as Adidas’ Yeezys are snapped up by resellers, driving collectors unable to afford their prices to the internet. An online community links them to sellers of high-quality Chinese fakes

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 September, 2017, 12:31pm
UPDATED : Monday, 11 September, 2017, 12:31pm

Kevin longed for a pair of Adidas’ “pirate black” Yeezys, a charcoal-coloured edition of the ultra-hip sneakers designed by rapper Kanye West.

But the 22-year-old Los Angeles-area resident couldn’t just walk into a store and buy them. The limited-production shoes sold out soon after their release, and resellers online were charging upwards of US$1,500, seven-and-a-half times the original retail price.

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So the assistant high school football coach did what more and more collectors are doing to satisfy their Yeezy fix: he had a replica pair delivered to his doorstep from China.

“If I could readily buy a pair of Yeezys at the store right now I wouldn’t buy fake ones,” said Kevin, who agreed to be interviewed on the condition his last name not be published to avoid jeopardising his relationship with illegal sellers.

Kevin’s entree into the world of replica shoes was through the user-generated website Reddit, where collectors share photos of copycat shoes and contact information for sellers. They coach counterfeiters on how to get minute details correct. With each batch of bootlegs, the replicas become increasingly difficult to distinguish from their authentic counterparts.

“Why pay over US$1,000 for Yeezys when you can get a pair that looks the same for US$120?” he said.

It’s a question vexing brands and copyright holders the world over. The rise of high-end fake Yeezys may represent a tiny fraction of the US$460 billion knock-off goods industry, but they provide a snapshot into how widespread counterfeiting has become in the digital age – all to the delight of collectors who are so devoted to the shoes they’re willing to undermine the very brand that makes them.

The shadow sports shoe trade shows the tools of globalisation aren’t restricted to multinational brands. The replicas Kevin wears are recreated expertly in China, marketed on social media, sold over reputable e-commerce sites and delivered discreetly by international couriers. And customers are more than willing to pay over US$100 a pair for the fakes, knowing it often takes an expert to spot the difference.

“When I’m in the city I like to pay attention to what people have on their feet and I’ve never seen more fakes ever in my life,” said sneaker designer Jeff Staple, who has collaborated with brands such as Puma, New Balance and Nike, for which he created the riot-inducing Pigeon Dunks. “There’s no shame in the game any more.”

Not since Michael Jordan left his imprimatur on a line of Nike high-tops more than 30 years ago has a pair of sneakers had a bigger impact on popular culture or inspired more high-end counterfeits.

With its recognisable “primeknit” fabric and chunky soles embedded with proprietary “boost” cushioning, the Yeezys have transcended the niche world of streetwear and crossed into celebrity territory thanks to the Kardashians, the Hadid sisters and, of course, West, one of the most closely followed musicians in the world.

I like to pay attention to what people have on their feet and I’ve never seen more fakes ever in my life
Jeff Staple, sneaker designer

Hash-tagged endlessly on social media platforms like Instagram, the Yeezys helped launch an improbable coup in the fashion world by making Adidas seem cooler than Nike.

“They are the ultimate; the top sneakers,” said Riley Jones, a sneaker expert who has written for Footwear News, Sole Collector and Complex. “A lot has to do with the slow rate Adidas puts out a new style. It keeps people hungry.”

The popularity of Yeezys and shoes like them have fostered the growth of an entire secondary sneaker industry that authenticates and resells hot shoes, led by StockX and the Los Angeles area’s GOAT, which has raised US$37.6 million in venture capital.

But the clamour and high prices have also alienated a community of sneakerheads who don’t have the means – or desire – to pay Gucci prices. For them, the only alternative is getting replicas. And sooner or later, they find their way to a Reddit forum called Repsneakers.

In the past, those seeking counterfeit sneakers had to navigate a slew of foreign sites that inspired little confidence. Repsneakers emerged as a place to seek out and share the best on the market.

It’s a community buoyed by a sense of righteousness – as if they’re turning the tables on a hype-addled industry exploiting their addiction.

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Members of the forum take their business to China, the source of most legitimate sneaker manufacturing as well as 85 per cent of the world’s counterfeit goods. Sellers can be found on Instagram or on Repsneakers, where they go by names like Amy, David and Edith.

Connections are forged over Skype, WhatsApp or WeChat. Money moves through PayPal or Western Union. Buyers post pictures and reviews for fellow subscribers to inspect.

Other posts deal with the stigma of wearing knock-off shoes and how to respond if caught, better known as being “called out”.

Kevin dismissed replica shoes until about three years ago when he wanted a pair of Adidas Y-3 sneakers – another designer offshoot for the German brand. As prices climbed to nearly US$400, he began browsing knock-offs online.

A cursory search of Google images took him to popular Chinese sites like Taobao, AliExpress and DHgate, where crude counterfeits could be had for a little more than US$20. But one image stuck out.

“These aren’t fakes,” Kevin thought at the time. “They’re replicas. It looked like they were using the same materials as the retail shoes.”

He clicked the link taking him to Repsneakers for the first time. There, he found a seller in China and placed an order using PayPal. Within weeks, the shoes were delivered by EMS, an international courier, in a shoebox no different from those used for authentic versions.

“Buying shoes overseas seemed like a scam, but it worked,” said Kevin, who is versed in the law that buying counterfeit goods is not illegal, but selling them is.

For his prized “pirate black” editions, he waited as long as he could, knowing that counterfeiters improve their replicas with each new batch. He eventually pulled the trigger on the 10th batch, paying US$120 to a sought-after seller known as Chan.

Putian, in coastal Fujian province, has been China’s sneaker manufacturing capital for decades. As a result, it’s also the centre of the counterfeit shoe industry. At night, shopping centres come alive with showrooms displaying bootleg Nikes, Adidas and New Balance out in the open. Wholesalers flock in to buy so they can peddle the shoes online to customers around the world.

Chan, a Singaporean national who declined to give his full name, might never have visited Putian had he not tried to buy authentic Yeezys and balked at the price. Impressed by the craftsmanship of the replicas, he decided last year to go into business with a counterfeiter.

While most replica sellers focused on China’s domestic market, the English-speaking Chan wanted to target the niche audience on Reddit. He quickly accumulated 10,000 customer contacts on Skype. On a slow day, the 27-year-old entrepreneur can sell between 20 and 30 pairs. The number can reach 120 after a new release.

I have heard a factory boss brag that he has a team of workers ... on his payroll to leak information or parts whenever they can
Chan, seller of Chinese fakes

Repsneakers is crucial to Chan’s business. Positive reviews spark sales. Feedback from readers allows his manufacturer to correct flaws. “I’ve learned plenty about replicas from Reddit,” Chan, 27, said in a phone interview from Putian.

Chan estimates there are only half a dozen manufacturers in the rural areas surrounding Putian with the means and skills to produce the high-end fakes. They rely on technicians with years of shoemaking experience who can reverse engineer a pair of Yeezys, he said.

Those illicit factories often obtain samples of new styles directly from Adidas’ two factories in China. The moles are also responsible for photos of proto-Yeezys leaking online before Adidas announces their release.

“There are unofficial working relationships between these two factories and counterfeiters,” Chan said. “I have heard a factory boss brag that he has a team of workers ... on his payroll to leak information or parts whenever they can.”

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Until recently, fake shoes from Putian could reach customers only by word of mouth. Brick-and-mortar stores meant sellers were more vulnerable. Large shipments could also be seized at ports.

Today, anti-counterfeiting officials say fighting fakes is akin to swatting at a growing swarm of gnats.

“Counterfeiters are following the same patterns as consumers who are shopping online and displacing brick and mortar,” said Bob Barchiesi, president of the International AntiCounterfeiting Coalition. “The internet is a very big challenge, to say the least. The ease of purchasing something that’s shipped directly to your house is a significant problem for rights holders and customs. It’s a dramatic shift that’s very difficult to stop.”

Collectors and sneaker experts say there’s little incentive for Adidas to crack down on fake Yeezys. Their proliferation has little impact on sales, as legitimate Yeezys sell out almost instantly regardless. And the replicas are landing on the feet of stylish sneaker buyers who have helped drive the popularity and cachet of the brand to new heights.

“To the untrained eye they are still billboards for the brand,” Elliot Curtis, who teaches a Sneakerology 101 course at Carnegie Mellon University, said of replicas and their fans.

West hasn’t said much about the black market for his shoes; a publicist for the rapper did not respond to a request for comment. But he’s aware of the phenomenon.

In a widely shared video, a fan asked the musician to autograph a pair of “Red October” Yeezys. As West grabs the pen, he smirks at the sneakers and says, “These are not real.”