Knockoffs are nothing new for Pretties, the originator of the ’90s baby tee — but this method of dealing with them is.
A few months ago, Pretties founder Linda Meltzer was alerted by her own brand’s Instagram followers and influencer collaborators to the existence of a new brand that looked like a blatant copy of her own, from the delicate pointelle designs to the overall visual aesthetic. Having made clothes in Los Angeles since the ’90s, Meltzer was no stranger to knockoffs, but this was different: The brand in question didn’t copy just one item — rather, its entire offering was made up of products that looked nearly identical to Pretties’, minus a few details (and dollars).
This illustrates a perennial challenge for independent brands who make an effort to produce things locally, slowly and ethically, especially in the age of Instagram. If a style takes off, it’s only a matter of time before someone realizes they can make it more cheaply and quickly elsewhere, and then sell it for less. Founders like Meltzer have little recourse beyond educating their customers about why their products cost what they do, and the importance of shopping thoughtfully. But Meltzer decided to take things a step further with a tactic I don’t think I’ve seen a brand do before, at least not so explicitly: knocking herself off.
“Need we say more? The name says it all! Why buy a knock-off of Pretties when you can buy a Pretties Knock-Off from Pretties!” read the item descriptions and Instagram captions announcing the launch.
Priced at $45 and $85, respectively, they each cost exactly $1 less than corresponding items put out by the aforementioned offending brand. (Since Pretties chose not to name the brand, we won’t, either — but the resemblance is indeed striking.) Meltzer cut costs by simplifying the designs; these versions lack the frilly lace, zig-zag stitching, picot edging and other special details of the originals, but they’re quicker to produce (though still made by her team in Los Angeles).
What’s interesting is that Meltzer takes special care to embellish her Pretties designs — which are often sold out — with these delicate accoutrements for more than just aesthetic reasons: She’s learned the hard way that the more complicated a design is, the harder it is to copy.
“I think, ‘How easy will this be able to make in China?’ That’s how I decide [on a new design],” she tells me. “I started thinking, ‘I have to make things that are difficult.'”
In 1993, Meltzer ushered in the baby tee craze when she launched Tease Tees in L.A. Her signature dainty, shrunken crewneck T-shirts were everywhere in the ’90s — on Drew Barrymore on the cover of YM, on Jennifer Aniston as Rachel Green in “Friends,” on Alicia Silverstone and Brittany Murphy as Cher and Tai in “Clueless.” However, a few of those shirts had a different brand’s label in them, even if Meltzer had originated the design.
Back then, selling clothes was all about wholesale, but Tease Tees’ production was still very small. “A sales rep…wanted to go mass market right away and I didn’t want to, so she gave [the design] to someone else and said, ‘Knock it off,’ and then basically took my T-shirts and put [different] labels in,” Meltzer says. “It was epic in the L.A. fashion scene. And I was so powerless then to do anything.”
As detailed in a 1995 investigative piece by WWD (above), Meltzer’s knockoff experience wasn’t uncommon at the time, particularly among cool, L.A.-based independent brands. (In a way, not much has changed.) As she told the trade then, the baby tee was an easy knockoff.
Despite that, she stayed in business, occasionally putting out new designs with a similarly cute-yet-practical proposition, like tanks with built-in shelf bras and shrunken hoodies in the late ’90s. In 2001, she took a break from fashion to start a family, coming back in 2015 with a new category — bras — as well a store on Abbott Kinney in Venice, Calif. and a new brand name: Pretties.
Meltzer stocked a few baby tees in the store “so people would understand the history of me as a designer,” she says, and was surprised to see them take off like wildfire. In the early days of the ’90s fashion resurgence, Pretties was a hidden treasure trove for Gen-Z and millennial L.A. girls desperate to dress like Rachel Green. (It’s me, I’m millennial L.A. girls.) The bra concept faded away, and Meltzer focused once again on T-shirts and pursued another “dream” of hers: “to redesign the classic pointelle.” The resulting shrunken, delicate tanks, bloomers and dresses were an instant hit in the boutique, and then online when the brand launched e-commerce in 2018. Mega-influencer Emma Chamberlain — who bought Pretties with her own money — was responsible for much of that traffic.
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“She posted and so many influencers bought it and just started posting it. Because it was a good find for them — it was still unknown at that time,” says Meltzer. “And then during the pandemic, what better than to buy that little set and take pictures of yourself? It was crazy.”
When the store closed during the pandemic, the brand continued to find digital success through Instagram. Unfortunately, that increased visibility made Pretties more vulnerable to being copied. Similar pointelle tanks — not to mention baby tees — can be found across the market, but when someone seemingly built an entire brand around Meltzer’s designs, it hit a nerve.
“They’ve gone after my influencers and styled it and really been aggressive about going after my business,” she says. “And I said, ‘Really? I’m going to make a better value [version].'” She assures her “Knock-Off” pieces are “much better quality and much cuter and I made it a dollar less. And it’s just to also educate people about that little lace — I call it frilly lace. You can’t just zoom it on because it doesn’t work in the machine that way. It has to be done a certain way.”
The Knock-Off tank and dress are currently only available in white, but a black version of the tank is coming next. “Hopefully it gets a message across and our customers get a good value,” says Meltzer.
If the Pretties “Knock-Offs” did end up more popular than the originals, the brand would still be able to produce them at a profit, but Meltzer doesn’t think that will happen: “I think people really love the little details — and it’s a certain customer. And there are other knockoffs out there. Knockoffs happen; this is just a very icky one.”
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As a small brand, Pretties also doesn’t pay influencers or seed at the rate of competing brands, but it’s lucky to have a slew of high-profile fans and customers like Chamberlain, Salem Mitchell, Sabina Socol, Devon Lee Carlson, Nicola Peltz and Dua Lipa. Meltzer handles everything social media-related herself, but hopes to hire someone to take that over and spend more time working with influencers and stylists. She also wonders if the brand should invest more in TikTok, where she’s learned that Pretties aligns with an aesthetic called coquette-core.
Beyond reinforcing the brand’s digital presence and introducing a few more “outerwear” styles (pants, shrunken hoodies), Meltzer intends to stay the course in keeping Pretties slow, local and independent.
“Whatever happens in the fashion world, Pretties will be staying on track for those who like this, you know what I mean?” she says. “We’re hoping to stay true, small and genuine.”