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Knock-off or Not? The Debate Over Fake Designer Handbags

I have no idea if this Chanel bag I saw on the street was a knock off or not, but I’m leaning toward it being one of the fake designer handbags that proliferates through the black market.  CC logo bags like this are pretty ubiquitous in Los Angeles. Often when I see obvious designer bags like Louis Vuitton or Chanel I wonder if they’re real.  It’s often hard to tell unless you can get quite close.

My Fake Designer Handbags

I admit it – I have worn and enjoyed a few fake designer handbags, but it seems like the more involved I become in the world of fashion blogging, the more the moral issues surrounding the knock-off bag has become a concern for me. It seems to be a reoccurring theme that true style cannot be found if one resorts to fakes. There’s also the issue of buying something that is taking money away from the designers and business people who’s work makes the brand name desirable to begin with. More of a concern to me is the question of stealing a trademark. If making a counterfeit bag is stealing the brand name, then is purchasing one also stealing?

My mother purchased this “Louis Vuitton” multi-colored  purse from a street vendor in Rome many years ago and brought it home to me as a gift. Although I love it I don’t wear it very often.  You can tell it’s fake because the “LV” part of the logo is off-center. Unlike many fakes it’s actually very well made. The interior is as pretty as the exterior.

My aunt saw this “Kate Spade” striped satchel while shopping in Downtown Los Angeles and thought it looked like “me”. She was right.  I was my bag of choice for many years. I refer to it as my “Fake Spade”.

Should buying a fake designer handbag be a crime?

The concerns over counterfeit merchandise go beyond what is and what is not fashionable. Recently I read this article about a New York City Councilwoman who has introduced a bill to make it illegal not just to manufacture and sell fake designer merchandise, but also to buy counterfeit items. If the bill passes and you’re caught trying to purchase a fake designer purse in New York City’s Chinatown you could spend time in jail or pay a $1,000 fine. Although I support the government  regulating and enforce fair trade laws, including copyright infringement, I am not a fan of the government trying to regulate morality, and the issue of whether an individual should or should not buy a fake bag is, I think, a moral one. As long as endangered animals are not being killed for their ivory, horns, or hides, I believe it is up to the individual as to what they will and will not purchase, based upon their own moral code. (Obviously there are certain moral issues that go beyond a personal purchasing decision.  I am talking specifically about fashion purchases.) In my case, as much as I try to be a ethical consumer I know that like my various attempts at dieting that all my best intentions are struck down by desire. If there’s one item of clothing I have a hard time saying “no” to it’s a purse I want.  If I can afford it, well, all best intentions are usually thrown to the wind.

The Quest

I don’t live in Manhattan, but Los Angeles also has, or had, a thriving counterfeit purse industry.  New York must have a major problem with fakes if their city council is looking at enacting a law that makes it illegal to purchase a knock-off from a street vendor. I know that in recent years the city of LA has really clamped down on the selling of fake designer handbags, and I wondered how successful they were. So in the spirit of investigation my husband and I headed downtown to the center of the fashion district to see if we could spot and photograph any counterfeits.

There are numerous shops that sell purses in the thriving carnival of thrifty shopping that is Santee Alley.  All the bags are cheap cheap cheap.  A lot of them are rather ugly, but there are some really fun pieces mixed in with the less adorable options. As we found out this weekend there are knock-off designer purses hiding in the back of most of these stores as well. In the photo below you can just see my behind the polka dot rose festooned gathered bags on the right.  I felt like a kid in a candy store!  All these purses cost between $20 and $40.

In the photo below you can see one of the faux “Burberry” plaid purses sold in most of the establishments.  This one didn’t have the Burberry logo, but some did.

Fake “Chanel”

The intertwined “C”s of Chanel were found in a few stores hidden in the back and often behind a counter.  I was hoping to get a photograph but the vendors are very suspicious of cameras.  Two CC monogrammed bags disappeared before our eyes when the seller saw my husband’s camera.  The purses themselves were all made in rather nasty feeling vinyl.  Some were even lined with a “Chanel” printed taffeta and had tags guaranteeing their authenticity. I don’t know if anyone is convinced that they were the real thing.

Fake “Louis Vuitton”

Bags of all shapes and sizes made with brown bumpy vinyl printed with something that looked like the classic LV print bags trimmed with tan vinyl were all over the alley.  There was nothing anywhere that looked like the real thing.  However, as my husband and I were wandering along a man came up to me and whispered “What do you need?  I’ve got Coach.  I’ve got Vuitton…”  Buying a fake bag is one thing, buying something that “fell of the truck” is quite another.  Plus I didn’t relish the thought of being mugged, so I kept on going.

Fake “Coach”

There were lots and lots of bags with some sort of brown “C” print fabric that looked something like a really cheap version of a classic coach bag. There were also some that really did look like the patchwork bags sold at Coach stores and these had a Coach logo of some sort.  Most of them were hiding in the backs of stores.  I don’t really like the real thing and I couldn’t bring myself to purchase a really cheap and nasty version either, even if they were only $30.

What I Purchased

My husband really felt that to write a compelling article on the subject of counterfeit purses we needed some photos of the actual counterfeits.  Unfortunately this proved almost impossible.  The vendors knew they were selling illegal merchandise, and were very clear that cameras were not welcome in their stores. So, even though I wasn’t planning on purchasing any fake bags, we decided to go back a second time and purchase at least one to photograph.  I was originally planning to buy a fake Channel purse, but the one I had seen on the first trip that I thought I could modify later on was gone.  It had been replaced at one store by a truly horrific black and purple woven number that I just couldn’t bring myself to buy.

After passing on what seemed like dozens of really ugly fake designer purses I was starting to think I’d never find anything I’d ever want to spend $2 on, let alone $40.  Finally I found a store selling a slightly different variety of merchandise. Lining the walls were purses that I really liked.  They were clean and simple.  Because I was still hoping to find a decent looking version of the intertwined CC logo, I asked the proprietor in my most innocent “I just wanna buy a purse” voice, “Do you have any Chanel style bags?”  He replied, “Oh yes, they’re right here.” and picked up a plain black quilted bag.  “Would you like me to put a logo on for you?”

Wait…What?

Yes, he sold the little metal tags seperately.  An assitant was there to put hammer it on for you after you purchased the bag. I’m not especially desirous of a cheap quilted vinyl bag, but there were some other styles I really liked, including this fake “Gucci” sachel.

Unfortunately, the assistant got the tag slightly off centered, which drives me nuts.  I’m planning on prying the stupid thing off but first I need to find something to cover up the holes it will leave.  Once it’s off, I’ll just have a cute, cheap, structured, and, embossed, brown vinyl bag.

The quality of the this bag is pretty close to what I would normally buy at Target – meaning not great but not as bad as one would expect.  The interior has a number of zippered compartments and is fairly roomy.

This green vinyl hobo called my name from the shelf.  I totally forgot that I already had two other green purses at home, and sprang for the “Prada” too. I love the hardware.

In Conclusion

After wandering all over L.A.’s fashion district searching for replica handbags I finally thought to just google “fake designer handbags” to see what came up.  After all the hoopla about arresting people buying fakes from street vendors, I now realize that if you really want a fake desinger bag they are really easy to get on-line. One of the sites I found sells over 1,700 replica “Louis Vuitton” handbags with the correct logo print. Another offers some “Chanel” bags that look kind of cute in the tiny thumbnails they show.  After having seen and touched some fakes this weekend I doubt they look all that good in real life. Many companies are trying their best to keep the counterfeiters at bay. Here is a notice from Chanel about buying counterfeits: Chanel Replicas.

I know a lot of people will disagree with me, but I have a hard time getting really worked up over the horrors of counterfeit bags.  Although I could probably afford a good quality leather handbag, I can’t even think about purchasing a real Prada, Chanel, or Gucci bag. I simply don’t have that kind of money.  Unlike clothing, where trends that start on the runways eventually trickle down to my financial level, designer bags are simply not available to the likes of me.  Somehow I find this irritating. I don’t expect the mega-brands to cheapen their goods so everyone can afford them. Fashion is not egalitarian. However I don’t think they should be pressuring local governments to make purchasing fake hand bags illegal and punishable by heavy fines or imprisonment. (I don’t know that they are, but I can’t imagine that a member of government would bother trying to pass a law making the purchasing of fake bags a crime unless they were getting pressured from someone.) The mega brands are making a product that people want, why be so surprised that people will go to great lengths to get something similar?

In Arash Mazinani’s thoughtful post, Superbrands: Why They’ve Got You Hooked, he writes : “So you’re probably wondering why whenever you see that Chanel handbag your heart skips a beat? Well they did a test on someone where they scanned the lady’s brain while showing her different pictures of bags. When she was shown pictures of designer handbags her brain started registering in the participant’s pleasure centre; the part of the brain associated with reward, craving and addiction. When they were shown pictures of bags from Primark and Asda no such brain activity was recorded.”

So, essentially designer bags are like crack for fashionistas.  If they are that addictive, then it would make sense that a person who would otherwise never think of purchasing a knock-off anything would decide it was OK to bend the rules a little?

In the end I really love my two new fakes and I’ve already gotten compliments on the green one.  I’ve never seen the real thing so I don’t know how much of a copy I even have, I really just like the design of both bags. I doubt I would have bothered getting the little metal logos on them if it hadn’t been for writing this post. I really wanted to show what a counterfeit purse looked like, inside and out.

Update July 2011: Many thanks to Keitha for sending me more information on the link between terrorist organizations and counterfeit purses. Check out Terror’s Purse Strings, an opinion piece from the New York Times. 

Update July 2013: Two years later this article continues to be a popular post on my blog. Clearly the controversy rages on! I recently shared the post on Google Plus and one of my friends sent me an article from Harpers Bazaar about counterfeit merchandise. To read more please see The fight Against Fakes: Child labor, terrorism, human trafficking: Buying Counterfeit designer goods is hardly harmless. 

So what do you think of counterfeits?  Should buying a fake designer bag be a crime punishable by jail time and a hefty fine? Do you have any knock-off bags? Are you surprised that they’re so easy to get?

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