Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
For Hollywood’s biggest stars, a walk down the Oscars red carpet represents the grand finale of the entire awards season. After almost a year spent sitting through press junkets, laughing on cue during late-night TV interviews, and posing on the carpet at countless premieres, all that’s left to do on Oscars day is show up, dress up, and hope for a lucky night.
But for the companies that hustle to turn around affordable copies of red carpet couture, the hard work’s just beginning. There’s a huge market out there for shoppers who dream of dressing like their favorite stars, but need options at a much lower price point and in sizes above a 0 or 2 — and, like most consumers, they want them fast.
Throughout the aughts, ABS by Allen Schwartz dominated the big business of red carpet replicas, turning around gowns almost identical to those worn by stars like Halle Berry and Gwyneth Paltrow in a matter of weeks. Typically priced around $400 or $500, ABS dresses were popular picks for proms, bar and bat mitzvahs, and Sweet 16 parties; if you didn’t personally own one, you likely had a friend or family member who did. Schwartz himself regularly appeared on shows like Entertainment Tonight and Today to discuss his best-dressed picks and hint at which gowns his company would be recreating in the weeks to come.
Several years ago, however, the brand shifted its business strategy and stopped producing those famous awards show facsimiles. “I didn’t like the publicity,” Schwartz told the New York Times in 2013. “It kind of takes away from the creativity.” Today, ABS’s e-commerce site offers plenty of cold-shoulder cocktail dresses and printed palazzo pants, but nary a ripped-from-the-red-carpet gown in sight.
It wasn’t long, however, until another company — make that companies — stepped up to fill the void, offering red carpet recreations at prices that make even ABS’s look astronomical (think $300 and under). You can’t pick them up at your local mall, though. With eerily similar names like World Celebrity Dress, Star Celebrity Dresses, and The Celebrity Dresses, these companies are exclusively shoppable online, via websites that look like this:
That’s not where the sketchy similarities between these sites end, though. Their “About Us” and “FAQ” pages are written in broken English, and there’s never a customer service phone number listed. Head to any specific product page, and you’ll see plenty of glamorous red carpet stills, but no photos of the actual dress for sale. Suspiciously positive customer reviews abound. And pricing is strange (though consistent) across the board; everything’s always marked down, with an original price (usually somewhere in the $400-$500 range) crossed out and a much lower one listed, often in bold red type.
Hong Kong-based TheCelebrityDresses.com (hereafter referred to as TCD), which is literally the first search result when you Google “red carpet knockoffs,” is both the most popular and the most fascinating of these sites. It boasts nearly 16,000 Instagram followers and almost as many thousands of possible dresses for sale — and new options are added constantly. (A replica of Melania Trump’s Hervé Pierre gown from the inaugural ball, for instance, was available roughly 24 hours after Donald Trump was sworn into office.)
A quick search of the business’s legitimacy on sites like Reseller Ratings and Ripoff Report reveals dozens of horror stories, most of which focus on the terrible quality of TCD’s knockoffs. “This site will take your money and leave you more than dissatisfied,” reads one recent post. “It was NOTHING like [the dress pictured] ... but how was I supposed to know that when they delete all negative reviews?” Another: “My daughter purchased her prom dress from them. When it arrived, it was nothing like the photo. The hems were very bumpy ... and the fabric was very cheap.” I had a million questions, chief among them why a terrifying banner ad for sticky boobs was so inescapable no matter where you clicked within the site.
Unfortunately, getting in touch with a living, breathing human from TCD proved more difficult than expected. An initial request for a phone interview with someone from the company was declined, though a customer service representative agreed to field a few questions over email. That list of questions, however — in addition to my follow-up email — went ignored.
Disappointed yet still determined, I decided to let The Celebrity Dresses’s merchandise speak for itself. After briefly browsing through the site’s new arrivals, I landed on a $158.99 version of the navy Naeem Khan gown Mandy Moore wore to the Golden Globes earlier this year. With its flowing cape, streamlined silhouette, and lack of embellishment, the design seemed like it’d be relatively tough to butcher, even at a drastically reduced price.
I was apprehensive about handing over my credit card information, though. After all, dozens of online reviewers had called TCD a scam, claiming that they were shipped not-as-pictured gowns and were later denied refunds. Considering that The Celebrity Dresses’s return policy page looks like this, I’m not too surprised:
Knowing full well that I might never be able to return my dress, I clicked the purchase button, checked out via PayPal (which reassured me, since the company protects shoppers against fraud), received my email confirmation (again, reassuring), and hoped for the best. Since I’d chosen a style that was currently in stock and hadn’t requested any alterations, according to the FAQ page, my dress would be delivered in about one week.
Three and a half weeks later — only one day of which the dress actually spent in transit, according to the tracking number TCD provided — my double-bagged DHL package finally arrived from Shanghai, and I tore it open, bracing myself. At best, I expected to find a highly flammable puddle of navy polyester inside; at worst, rodents sewn into seams. I scurried off to our office restroom to try it on, with my Racked colleagues Eliza and Meredith trailing behind.
And guess what? The gown was... fine. Better than fine, even. “A nicely cut dress not made of trash!” Meredith exclaimed. “Definitely not Mandy Moore quality,” added Eliza, “but from a distance of three to five feet, it looks pretty damn regal!” It draped nicely and hadn’t arrived wrinkled, a feat for fabric that had spent the past 24 hours in a shipping envelope.
Being a budget version of a several-thousand-dollar designer gown, of course, my dress wasn’t without its flaws. It ran oddly large, despite the fact that I’d consulted The Celebrity Dresses’ sizing chart before placing my order, and gapped at both the waist and bust. Whenever I twirled — a tempting prospect, since this gown had a full-length cape — one or both of my boobs popped out. “Bet this never happened to Mandy,” I grumbled. How much tape was required to keep this thing in place? Is this what those painful-looking sticky boobs were for??
But overall, I had to admit I was impressed. Delayed delivery aside, I’d received a well-priced gown that closely mirrored Mandy Moore’s original and wouldn’t require more than a few minor alterations and some toupee tape to pass at a fancy event. I’d even say it was firmly on par with what ABS by Allen Schwartz might’ve offered back in the day. And, crucially, my credit card information hadn’t been compromised.
True, I only ordered one dress from this particular site, and true, I might’ve gotten lucky this time around. But come Oscars night, should you find yourself falling madly in love with a prom-perfect gown you spy on your favorite star, know that shoppable, affordable alternatives do exist. If you shop from a site like The Celebrity Dresses, of course, you’d better place your order at least a month in advance, allow extra budget (and time) for potential tailoring, and consider all sales final.
Oh, and maybe consider buying some sticky boobs.