The ethics of a cheap off-shore wedding dress

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By: Taylor McBrideCC BY 2.0
I think that stealing a wedding dress design and having it made in China (in a place that is probably a sweatshop) is really unethical. It upsets me, as it both screws the original designer (who is probably a creative type who you would want to hang out with) and the workers … all for a dress you will wear once.

Then again, I am not poor, and I can afford to pay the designer direct for some of the dresses I like and I will check that they are not made unethically.

Am I just being a judgmental bitch cos I have the money to “do the right thing” here? Am I assuming that people have not thought about these issue, but actually they have and are fine with it? -Anonymous

What a thick and meaty ethical question! Thanks so much for bringing the issue up. Ultimately, it's up to each of us to decide where their consumer values align — this is bigger than weddings. This is about pirating music, buying local produce, and world trade issues. I'm no consumer values expert, so really all I can do is share my personal perspective and values…

Since I tend towards slightly odd clothes that I generally can't find in mainstream stores, I get a thrill out of supporting independent designers — I love the individuality that indie designs provide. When I was planning my wedding, this value translated into not being attracted in the big ticket dresses that I couldn't afford. My goal was to work with a couple local indie designers/seamstresses to custom-make something awesome and unique that I could re-wear. I had about a $500 budget, and integrated pieces of a cheap prom dress made in China and hand-crafted elements.

While I personally had no interest in wearing a designer dress, I will say that I have no qualms with off-shore reproduction of name-brand designer wedding dresses through online spots like Kaersen. Many of the commercially-made dresses available at mainstream wedding boutiques are made in China anyway, and I don't think you're doing something inherently awful by taking money out of a big name designer's pocket. Vera Wang is a rich woman who dresses movie stars. The $5k you're not spending on one of her wedding dresses isn't going to put her in the poor house. I kind of equate reproducing a designer wedding dress with pirating a Beyonce album.

That said, I think it's a different game if you're reproducing a dress made by a small, independent designer. And heaven forbid if you're reproducing a dress by an indie seamstress. That just doesn't fit with my personal values of prioritizing indie designers. (Then again, part of the magic of indie designers is that they create dresses that aren't easy to rip off. What off-shore dress factory is going to crank-out hand-dyed silk in your custom colors?)

This is a way bigger question than just wedding dresses though, and you're right, anonymous: having money gives you the luxury of thinking through this decision with your consumer values held high. For some brides, their consumer values are a big priority in their lives that they translate into their wedding planning.

Other brides may be focused on different offbeat aspects of their wedding — like hand-knitting scarves for each of their bridesmaides, or making sure their gay minister friend officiates, or hand-baking 200+ wedding cupcakes. These folks may think to themselves, “I like that dress I saw in the window, but I spent all my budget on organic catering and my amazing photographer. I'll just have the dress made in China.”

Like every other wedding decision, it's an issue of picking your battles, identifying your priorities, and compromising to make the best choice you can.

Comments on The ethics of a cheap off-shore wedding dress

  1. This issue is beyond wedding dresses. You have similar considerations every time you purchase anything. Where was it made? Where was its components made? How much does the factory pollute? How are the workers treated? Unless you buy everything second hand (which still requires someone to have purchased it new in the first place) it is a dilemma that you cannot escape.

  2. I will preface this by saying that it is up to each bride/ couple to set the priorities for their wedding, and wholeheartedly agree with “picking your battles, identifying your priorities, and compromising to make the best choice you can.”

    That having been said, I’d just like to address a couple of concerns that I have regarding offshore knockoff dresses.

    I value my local small businesses, whether they be an independent coffee shop, the local car dealer, or a bridal shop. The shop where I am getting my (lower cost) designer Made in China dress employees about a dozen people. I can somewhat put myself at rest knowing that my purchase does go towards making sure 12 people in my area continue to have a job.

    I have a deep, deep appreciation for indie designers. Recognizing that Vera Wang – and this according to Wikipedia – came from a wealthy family, in my mind, I have to question at what point a designer becomes “big enough” for it to be acceptable to copy their designs. She won’t miss a $5k sale, and perhaps it is a high class problem for an indie designer, too, if they get to the level where their designs are in such demand that someone decides to make knock-offs.

    My final question is this – where does one draw the line on when a designer is big enough to they won’t miss the sale lost to a copycat?

    At the end of the day, we all make trade-offs. I set a modest dress budget as well, and perhaps, were I rewind 6 months, I might have gone the route of an indie designer, or a used dress, but there is so much else I’m doing to support small/local/indie businesses, that I’m still able to sleep at night, designer Chinese dress and all!

  3. I recognize the desire to support “indie” designers but just because they are smaller doesn’t make their designs any more “theirs” than those of a big name designer. The work of an artist is still theirs, even if they have chosen to outsource the production of that art (or in this case dress) to China.

    I fully understand the desire not to purchase something that was made in a sweatshop in China, but that is something very different than stealing the artistic work of someone else. Just because Beyonce or Vera Wang has made it big doesn’t give someone the right to steal from them. Their work is still theirs, and if you want it you should really pay for it.

    I guess this is a sore subject, since my boyfriend is a musician. I would hate to think that at some point people would decide that his music is “ok to steal” because he got big. Remember, those artists probably did a lot of work to get to the point that they were “big” and they deserve to profit from it if enough people like what they do.

    • I somewhat agree. However, I also know the nature of the creative industries and it is also not uncommon for those who have made it big to “borrow” or outright steal from their fellow artists as well. It’s not like there aren’t any instances where a big-name designer ripped off designs of a small-name independent designer without citing their inspiration – or where a big-name artist in general borrowed music from a lesser-known artist without giving credit.

      At the end of the day, the subject constitutes a very slippery slope. And a lot of it boils down to doing research and making the most informed decisions that you and your budget can handle. At least when it comes to wedding planning.

  4. I agree with Ashley. If you considering using ideas from an indie designer stealing, I’m not sure how stealing from a “big-name” designer is any different from an “indie” designer. An analogy that pops in my mind is shoplifting. For example, does that mean shoplifting from Wal-Mart is okay, but not your local music store?

  5. The first thing that comes to mind for me is, when does the dress go from being an original design by someone else, to being an original for YOU? If someone were to copy a dress in its entirety, and pass it off as their own, that to me is pirating, and is unethical.

    However, once you take this dress’s hemline, that dress’s sleeve, this other dress’s neckline, then you are no longer copying a designer’s dress but designing your own dress with inspiration from several other dresses. That, to me, is in no way unethical.

    I rarely love every aspect of a dress, so I would be more likely to take parts of several dresses to make one I love. To me, that more akin to designing my own than stealing someone else’s.

    Re: music – Jason Mraz (per Wikipedia, so take it as you wish) encourages people to make bootleg copies of his concerts, so not all musicians who have made it big have a problem with people copying their music.

    • I so agree with your custom, “inspired” dress idea. Being a bit of a photoshop wiz myself, that’s what I’ve done…incorporated 5 different dresses into one. I don’t see anything unethical about that. It’s my own custom creation.

      As for the other side of the argument, the sweatshops of China, I always look at it this way: if EVERYONE stopped buying from China, those poor women earning $2 a day would suddenly be out of a job. $2 may not be much, and while I agree it should be more, $2 is still $2! I think we need to think up better ways to help end poverty in China than simply boycotting, because that hurts the employees more than the big corporations. But then, that’s just my opinion.

      • Hmmm. That sounds like justifying exploitation to me.

        If more people voiced their concern and boycotted their products, these horrific places would have to lift their game. This has already happened in some factories in China, but not everywhere, and then look at Bangladesh. No matter how ‘poor’ we might think we are, those of us living in the Western world are living in the top 10%. We have it so good – I just don’t see how anyone can justify contributing to the suffering that our rampant consumerism is generating for others.

        • I understand where you are coming from, but the fact of the matter is most people have NO idea how many of their products come from sweatshops around the world… Including the expensive full price designer gown… If it was sewn here, I guarantee the fabric and notions are from overseas… BTW, you’re not out of the woods when you see a “made in America” label, Sweatshops don’t only exist overseas either!

          Think about it… your flowers, your gown, the reception food (let’s not even discuss where the diamond in your ring came from) are you making sure all that is ethically sourced?

  6. I think that the real travesty is the mainstream bridal industry as a whole taking advantage of some woman willing to spend more than they can afford because it’s their one day. Not only is this unethical, but it punishes those brides with a more realistic mindset.

    I think that the trade off is if a bride purchases a reproduction online or from China, she risks poor quality and delayed shipping. If she purchases from a “local boutique” she risks getting overcharged, additional fees, and unruley alteration fees.

    If someone knows a happy medium, please share!!!

    • Etsy! I finally settled on a very expensive (I didn't know it was expensive when I tried it on! Evil bridal shop consultants!) dress and knew there was no way to afford. So, I turned to one of my favorite sites and put out a request for someone to make a dress similar to that one, for about the $500 that I could afford (which was pushing it, really). I had several bids, and I vetted everyone carefully and ended up with an awesome dress!

      (Also, I realize this thread is a little old, but I couldn't resist.)

      • Ashley, I am curious how you were able to vet them? The etsy designer I am looking at is in China and says he makes them all by hand, but how do I know that’s true?

        Thanks for sharing!

        • I know this is a super-old question, but I see it has remained unanswered, so I wanted to pitch in. The only real way to vet Etsy shops is to carefully examine their feedback. The feedback system, currently, is frustratingly simplistic and does not show you the exact number of neutrals or negatives, and link you to them, like ebay does. I wish that feature would be implemented on Etsy! Unfortunately, you have to go page by page, searching for complaints. For many of those Chinese shops, there are hundreds of pages!

          There is also a possibility of finding off-site reviews of a seller, but either way, you are limited to in-depth, eye-bleeding research. Or I suppose you could take to the forums and risk the seller seeing your post. XD

    • I’ve got one: charity shops. In the UK there are a range of charity shops that have full-on bridal floors with dresses, shoes, veils and bridesmaids dresses, some of which are actually new and ex-stock from closed down bridal boutiques.

      The dresses are still in good nick, worn once at most, and are a fraction of the cost of going to a ‘proper’ shop. I went to Oxfam in Cambridge for mine – £125, in perfect condition save one tiny snag on an underlayer no-one will see. I paid £100 in alterations at a local seamstress, plus £50 for an optional steam clean.

      £275, all in. The cheapest dress off the rail at the boutique I went into was £800, without alteration or fitting or whatever.

      What’s the ethics angle? Well I supported a local independent seamstress, and gave £125 to a charity. Then I bought my veil from a different charity shop (the Big C cancer charity has a bridal floor in Norwich) so another £40 goes to cancer research.

      No rip-offs or dodgy Chinese sellers involved, I get the dress I want, and I donate to charity. I fail to see a downside.

      • I think it depends on what you want and what is available at such charity shops. I’m not above considering all available options and weighing them in turn.

        Charity shops must be sourced, and the racks must be carefully scoured. Pre-owned dress stores (online or physical) must also be carefully searched, particularly if you want something very specific. Custom designers on Etsy must be vetted and examined. So all in all, it’s a matter of personal preference.

  7. It would be awesome to be able to afford a designer gown…it would also be awesome to not have to buy a dress made in China. The gown I want is too expensive. I found a knock off dress, but the idea makes me feel terrible because the designer although expensive, is still not a major designer. Therefore I have chosen not to get that dress at all. I feel if it was meant to be I wouldn’t feel awful about the decision, which ever choice.

  8. “For example, does that mean shoplifting from Wal-Mart is okay, but not your local music store?”

    If you’re asking me to clarify my personal position, then the answer is yes. I’m not saying I’d shoplift at all, but I see shoplifting from Wal-Mart as less morally objectionable than shoplifting from a locally owned store. Heck, some people would see shoplifting from Wal-Mart as an act of protest against their awful employee labor policies.

    I’m not that radical in my personal consumer values, but I definitely value indie bizzes more than international corporate retailers.

    • Old article but have you considered all of the people that would affect?

      Shoplifting from WalMart doesn’t hurt the bigwigs. It hurts the employees, many of whom are living paycheck to paycheck and probably only working there because there aren’t other options, and too much shrink means no more job.

      Same for Vera – she won’t be hurt, but her employees will be. Selling less dresses? Well, you certainly don’t need as many people making or designing them and so they are out of a job too.

  9. As a voracious consumer, I have thought about this a lot. I’m comparatively poor but I like and appreciate nice things. To me, its always wrong to buy knock-offs. I don’t care if its a purse, a wedding dress, or a pair of shoes. The fact of the matter is that someone, somewhere took the time to create that “thing,” whatever it may be. It came out of their creative process. If you can’t afford Vera Wang or Maggie Sottero, then don’t even entertain the thought. Don’t peruse the pages of Brides magazine looking for a dress that you will be sick over b/c you can’t afford it. If you love their design, and no other, then its worth it to figure out a way to have the dress of your dreams without stealing someone’s design and having it made for yourself.Its the same as figuring out how you can get that amazing mixed media piece to hang above your couch. They came up with something that speaks to you. Fashion is wearable art. A person should never be punished for being sucessful. Its never okay to steal from anyone, no matter how wealthy they are. Stealing is stealing.

  10. “Just because Beyonce or Vera Wang has made it big doesn’t give someone the right to steal from them. Their work is still theirs, and if you want it you should really pay for it.”

    I understand the sentiment behind this. However, is that Vera Wang wedding dress (many of which are very simple) worth $5000+ dollars? I feel that there comes a point when it goes beyond selling your artwork and into purposely trying to rip people off. What does the production of those dresses cost, especially when the work making the dresses is still probably outsourced to China or elsewhere anyways?

    I don’t feel any of her dresses are worth $5000 and I know if I went to an indie designer here I could get an original dress for much less than that. I feel like the difference between Vera Wang and the indie designer is that, the indie designer is not trying to rip me off. I can guarantee that every stitch in that dress will be made by that local seamstress, and I’m helping an individual stay employed at a fair wage. Vera Wang, is not doing that. Vera Wang, like much of the Wedding industry, is taking advantage of the outrageous amount of money brides will shell out for their “big day”.

    I guess I also have a bit of the “Robin Hood” mentality about it (you know, still from the rich, give to the poor). Probably because I come from a family of service members and blue collar workers whose hard work and service to their country has earned them only a modest salary. My fiance will make around $29,000 this year while in Iraq running 12 hour missions, getting shot at and worrying about IEDs all while being thousands of miles away from everyone and everything he loves. I think Vera Wang will be just fine without getting $5,000 dollars of that money for my wedding dress. We need that money to put food on our table – she, however, will still be living quite comfortably without it. Therefore, no I wouldn’t lose any sleep over having someone else (probably my mom or a seamstress we know, though) sew a knock-off designer gown.

    That’s just how I look at it, though. I’m glad that Ariel opens these issues up for discussion because it is nice to see this question answered from different perspectives.

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