Style: Shops make off with the booty: Pricey designer footwear is having to compete with cheap high street copies, says Tamsin Blanchard

Cult shoes are vulnerable to copying. The Gucci loafer, for instance, was adapted by everyone, from Hobbs to Marks & Spencer. So, last summer, was the Gucci clog - and, in that case, the real thing was not as well made as the street versions (there were reports of heels breaking on the pounds 115 Gucci originals).

The Patrick Cox Diffusion line Wannabe loafer (pounds 95 for the mock-croc style in our picture below) has suffered the same fate.

Blatant copies, with their square toes and crepe soles, are everywhere. Cable & Co's is pounds 55, the Next version is pounds 36.99 and the ones at Ravel and Office are about pounds 49.99.

'Shop assistants are actually using the fact that they are copies of Wannabes as a selling point,' says Niahala Lashari of Patrick Cox.

Yet, at Office in Covent Garden, I was told tersely that the pair I was looking at were 'not Patrick Cox style' loafers.

I thought this strange since, when Wannabes first came out, both the originals and the copies were made by the same Italian factory. No wonder it is becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate between the real thing and its cheaper imitations.

Just around the corner from Office is the highly selective Jones. As well as selling the Patrick Cox Wannabes, Jones offers footwear by the cutting-edge Belgian shoe and clothing designer, Dirk Bikkembergs.

This range is quite special and lacks the Wannabes' mass appeal. The shoes and boots, made for men and women, are of fine quality, worn-looking leather. They have a leather sole, and a chunky 1 1/2 in heel with a hole drilled through it.

The idea is ingeniously simple: a long leather lace wraps around the upper and threads through the hole, so that the foot is held securely.

The wistful shopper stops and holds the boot, longing to buy it. But even if she were the most die-hard fashion victim, she would still find the pounds 175 price tag beyond her. She is still thinking about that boot as she passes Bertie on Long Acre. Glancing in the window, she stops and stares - for there, in the front of the display, is a leather boot with a chunky sole and a heel with a hole drilled through it. The laces are wrapped around the boots and tied at the top.

The price? A more affordable pounds 85.

There are differences in quality: the Bikkembergs boot is cut more generously and leaves the Bertie boot, with its smaller lace hole and general skimping, in the shade - but the general idea is the same.

'They are copied all over the world,' says a spokesperson for Bikkembergs. 'I think there are more copies than originals.' Unlike Patrick Cox, however, Bikkembergs is trying to stop the copying by taking out a patent for its design. But it is a long and expensive process.

Those who wear real Patrick Coxes or real Bikkembergs would not even spit on a copy. For them, only the genuine article will do. As Naomi Smith, a fashion stylist says: 'People who know, know. It's just as bad as having a fake Chanel handbag. And the quality is never as good.'

Patrick Cox Wannabes, from pounds 85, available at: Patrick Cox, 8 Symons Street, SW3; Duffer of St George, Short's Gardens, WC2; Wade Smith, Mathew Street, Liverpool. Dirk Bikkembergs boots at Jones, 15 and 35 Floral Street, WC2. Cox 'copies' at Office, 60 Neal Street, WC2, and branches. Bikkembergs 'copies' at Bertie, 36 South Molton Street, W1, and branches; inquiries, 071-935 2002.

(Photographs omitted)

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