Dupes: democratizing beauty or derivative drivel?

Dupes: democratizing beauty or derivative drivel?

As the Deciem-Lauder scandal that has gripped the cosmetics industry over the last three weeks continues to generate headline after headline – a few stood out for me. Yes, as The Ordinary stores closed their doors and their customers started to panic order online, several publications chose to run a round-up of duplicate products (known as dupes, dontcha know) that were ‘just as good’. ‘Are these budget skincare brands about to replace The Ordinary?’ asked Stylist.

The article hailed recently launched The Inkey List, among others. Minimalist black and white packaging – check. Single ingredient formulas – check. Affordable pricing – check. So far, so indistinguishable from Deciem’s offer. And their reward? Sell-out status.

Which leads me to ask: are we doing the right thing in championing piggyback products with rave articles in top publications? Is it a case of ‘all’s fair in love and consumer products’? After all, in the fashion industry, the trickle-down effect from catwalk designer to high street is celebrated. Ain’t no one saying you shouldn’t buy that Celine knock-off in Zara now, is there?

But surely, beauty and fashion are different beasts? We’re not talking a US$10,000 Chanel dress (and if that’s a wildly underestimated sum, then that’s an indication of the level of my familiarity with designer gear), we’re talking a US$20 compact. So it’s one thing for the media to big up budget beauty when it’s done well – it’s quite another to champion copyright violations. Where is the line? Or as one commentator on the excellent Instagram-based Estee Laundry puts it: ‘So how is this not OK but we love dupes?’.

Posting side-by-side shots of similar products (not to mention bringing us the latest on the Deciem debacle) as well as calling out cultural appropriation, Estee Laundry is holding the industry to account. Sorta. For, while from the Drunk Elephant and Sunday Riley comments scandal to clean-washing, we’re really enjoying the juice, it’s also interesting to see the ‘trial by comments’ that happens on the page.

For some brands get the benefit of the doubt from the insta jury and others are hung, drawn and quartered. Fenty gets a pass; the Kardashian clan do not. The Inkey List = good but the Herbivore Botanicals pretenders such as Pearlessence, Salt and French Girl = copycats.

But who is to judge? For the other thing that becomes abundantly clear as you scroll down the feed is that derivative is as derivative does. While The Inkey List is virtually identical in proposition to The Ordinary, another similar line, Garden of Wisdom, predates the Deciem offer.  Who’s copying who here?

Is it the case that true originality is rare – one of the many reasons journalists are almost always banned from using the term ‘unique’ in their copy? Could all these copycats be coincidences? After all, even in preparing this article, I came across one of the phrases I’d already typed, verbatim, on a source. Was it a coincidence? Yes. Did I copy them? No. Could I prove that? No. It made me sympathise with those accused. And delete an entire paragraph. Over the years, I have learnt never to google a headline I’ve just written, or an idea I’ve just pitched. It’s depressing how many of my ‘original’ ideas turn out to be utterly basic.

And where does that leave us? After all, even where the riff is blatant (looking at you Aldi) – it doesn’t follow that the original has any recourse (or that consumers won’t buy the lookalike). Yes, there have been high profile copyright cases, such as Olaplex versus L’Oréal, which is all the more important for its David vs Goliath standing, but the fact is most disruptor brands don’t have the resources to defend their idea. And as P&G’s Olay found out this week, even when they do, there’s no guarantee the judge will side with them.

To innovate or replicate, that is the question? The dollar signs are pointing to the latter. And yes, I did just write an entire long read on imitation without using THAT Oscar Wilde quote because, well, see above).

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