Team Dream is a small business by most any measure.
The quirky cycling apparel brand has just five employees. It produces only about 100 pieces of each garment and operates out of a converted gas station in San Marino, where a closet-sized nook doubles as both a fulfillment center and R&D lab.
Its founder, Sean Talkington, has taken in no outside investment and only applied for his first credit card a few years ago because his bank told him he needed one to operate a retail store.
“We’re a blip,” Talkington said.
So it came as a shock one day to learn that Team Dream clothing was being counterfeited and sold on a major Chinese e-commerce site.
Piracy was a problem that befell big brands such as Nike and Adidas, Talkington thought, not upstarts like Team Dream, which has no advertising budget and got its start selling clothes out of a 1970 Volkswagen bus.
But there it was, a cheaper facsimile of Team Dream’s U.S.-made $135 “Thin Stripe Long Sleeve” jersey for sale on Taobao, China’s premier online shopping site owned by Alibaba, for about half the price.
The seller, a store named Gentleman Racing Club, made only the slightest changes: removing Team Dream’s chubby bobcat logo and stamping GRC on the back. Its page, which Alibaba removed after talking to The Times, even included one of Team Dream’s Instagram photos of a cyclist wearing the jersey on Highway 2 in Angeles National Forest (Gentleman Racing Club did not respond to a request for an interview).
Talkington was initially irked. Sourcing Italian microfleece and finding a reliable Southern California manufacturer are no easy tasks. Irritation then gave way to befuddlement. How much money could anyone make selling phony Team Dream kit? In the end, Talkington felt almost flattered.
“If you’re getting knocked off, maybe you’ve made it,” said Talkington, who never reported the offending seller to Alibaba. “Maybe if you’re not getting knocked off, you’re not cool enough.”
Just a decade ago, relative anonymity would have shielded a company as small as Team Dream from counterfeiting. But in the era of Instagram and global e-commerce, obscurity is no longer an option — and anyone is fair game.
Team Dream isn’t as big as Rapha — pioneers of the hipster cycling aesthetic, who sold their apparel company recently to the Walmart heirs — but it still boasts over 30,000 Instagram followers. That’s enough to buoy a loyal customer base and, apparently, attract counterfeiters on the other side of the world.
“Anything to make a buck,” Bruce Foucart, former director of the U.S. government’s National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center, said of counterfeiters. “If there’s a niche, they will know about it.”
Small brands often lack the means to tackle counterfeiters, Foucart added. Even corporate behemoths such as Apple struggle to rein in the black market for its devices in China.
“When you’re a small company, there’s often no recourse,” said Foucart, whose firm, Foucart & Associates, advises businesses on protecting intellectual property.
No place is better suited to exploit young brands than China, the origin of 85 percent of the world’s counterfeit goods. With its state-of-the-art manufacturing infrastructure, Chinese producers can mimic all manner of apparel with relative ease. The rise of Chinese e-commerce platforms such as Taobao, AliExpress and DHgate has made finding a counterfeit item almost as easy as shopping on Amazon.
Chinese counterfeiters are so savvy, they now produce bespoke replicas of high-end sneakers nearly indistinguishable from genuine pairs — and sell them to a fervent customer base on Reddit.
And while mass-market brands continue to be widely copied, so too have smaller trendy labels such as Common Projects and Supreme.
The speed at which goods are knocked off is also increasing. One Israeli entrepreneur was shocked to learn his phone case that converts into a selfie stick was copied and sold on Alibaba’s AliExpress only a week after he introduced it on Kickstarter to seek funding, according to Quartz.
Almost any site or app can serve as a tip sheet for counterfeiters today, experts say. Instagram, which gives companies on a shoestring budget the ability to craft and distribute catalog-worthy images, frequently inspires mimicry. It’s also an effective way to market knockoffs. One study showed how the Facebook-owned photo app is a hotbed for bots selling fake luxury goods. (Instagram did not respond to a request for comment.)
And even though Instagram is banned in China, copycats can simply download tools to get around the ban and trawl the photo app for inspiration.
“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and that’s especially true in the digital age,” said Jason Brim, of Swedish bikewear brand Void, which first spotted fakes of its clothing on AliExpress a year and a half ago for about one-fifth the proper price. “If it’s online, it will be copied.”