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Lulu who? A cult brand takes on the booming culture of 'dupes'

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Scroll through TikTok, and there's a dupe for seemingly everything.

Don't want to spend $98 on lululemon leggings? Try these $27 alternatives. If a Skims bodysuit is too much, a smiling influencer will show you exactly where you can find a similar one in their Amazon storefront. Even dupes for the $45 Stanley water bottle exist.

The hashtag #dupe -- or cheaper alternatives to household names or luxury brands, but not considered counterfeits because most don't make an effort to fake logos -- has racked up billions of views. And one pricey brand is taking the trend head on by offering the real thing.

This weekend, athleisure giant lululemon is hosting a dupe swap at the Century City Mall in Los Angeles. Bring a knock-off pair, lulu said, and they'll swap it out for the black Align High Rise Pant 25".

The Align Pants, which launched in 2015, have something of a cult. Fans of lululemon claim the real ones are lightweight and buttery-soft. But they are also one of the most duped products on TikTok.

Go on TikTok, and you'll see a pair of twins wearing Aligns and a $27 Amazon dupe side-by-side (their Amazon storefront is linked in the bio). "Lulu who?" another said, holding up two tank tops with "literally" the exact same stitching.

Because, instead of hiding a knockoff's true origins, it's pretty cool to find a dupe now. Call it recession-core or Gen Z's anti-consumerism sentiments, but #dupe has amassed more than 3.5 billion views on TikTok. One trend shows young people loudly (and ironically) shouting "DUPE!" through store windows.

Before, finding knock offs was a lowkey way to way to find affinity to a luxury brand. But now "it's a flex to have the dupe," Northwestern marketing professor Jacqueline Babb said.

Lulu has been "hyper aware" of dupe culture, its Chief Brand Officer Nikki Neuburger said in an interview with CNN Business. (The #lululemondupe tag has 180 million views alone, the company said.)

"We saw it as a really fun way to play into something that is a real part of our culture, but in a way that really puts the focus back on the original," she said. The LA location was chosen strategically -- it's a center for creators and content generation. Similar events are planned in London, Shanghai and Seoul.

Lulu is making sure customers don't go hold on to their fakes, which will be sent to a textile recycling company. "The premise of the event is to trade in your qualifying dupe product and experience lululemon's Align Pant," says the website.

Though lululemon has acknowledged dupes exist, there isn't much brands can do to stop their popularity through social media, Northwestern marketing professor Alexander Chernev said.

"You have people who are able to tell the story or inform other people about what's in fashion, influence this behavior, and they can do it faster than the original product," Chernev said, adding it's difficult for companies to legally protect and keep up with copies of their design.

Dupes could come from dubious places and can easily be found online. HeyNuts, one of the brands with thousands of reviews hailing it as a Lulu dupe, doesn't have a clear store origin, though the leggings are made in China and available on Amazon.

Amazon has "no tolerance for counterfeit items," a spokesperson said, and has measures in place to pursue bad actors who attempt to use social media to sell them.

A MAJOR SOURCE OF INCOME

Some TikTokkers are turning dupes into a major source of income.

22-year-old Hannah Slye's account, whose bio says she "can't stop buying things," has more than 98,000 followers and about 3.7 million likes. During the two-day Prime Early Access Sale in October, Slye earned upwards of four to five thousand dollars through her affiliate links.

Slye's favorite dupe is a gold chain that resembles a necklace from Christian Dior -- but no one has called her out for the fake. It's just about having the designer inspired look.

"I'm from a very, very small town in Pennsylvania," Slye said. "So you know, we don't see a lot of people wearing designer around here."

IS IT REALLY DEINFLUENCING?

Some experts argue dupe culture encourages a trend cycle that makes products out of date within months. Why invest in a high-quality piece, one could say, when they could mindlessly scroll and purchase the dupe with free two-day shipping?

Impulse buying has become a chronic way to spend time, Baylor University researcher on consumer behavior James Roberts said, exacerbated by constant access to cheaper goods.

"They send you products are consistent with algorithms, lots of products for things you need for lower prices, and it can become a vicious cycle," Roberts said.

Some legacy brands can be immune to this -- Patagonia and Nike are examples, Babb said, of brands that have a lot of meaning. And Gen Z, who tends to be more concerned about where their money goes, is probably more attuned to brands like this than they'd like to admit, Babb said.

"Patagonia wants you to wear their jacket until it rips, then they fix it for you. That is much more resonant with Gen Z," Babb said.

Indeed, there's a lot of loyalty to legacy brands. Though lululemon may be leading in dupe hashtags on TikTok, the Align line that began in 2015 remains its top seller, the company said.

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