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Are Fakes Back in Fashion?

After years of counterfeit-shaming, some fashion followers are ignoring what’s politically correct and going for what’s affordable: the age-old knockoff.

Nina*, a 20-something marketing manager with a covetable job at a buzzy New York label, circles the party with her brand-new Céline bag-- collecting compliments as she moves along. While the style -- called the Trapeze, with its wing-like flaps -- is fairly common now, it’s still an accomplishment to own one. Especially since some versions cost nearly $4,000.

But, as she later reveals to me after a couple of drinks, her show pony is hollow. Despite its supple leather and tiny “Céline” engraving on the gold buckle, the bag is not from Céline. Nina’s mom knows a lady out west who has these very impressive fakes made. There are dozens of styles and color combinations available.

Nina isn’t exactly embarrassed about her purchase. She’s no fool, and she doesn’t want to go into debt over a multi-thousand-dollar purse. “My priorities in life are my adventures. I prefer to save my money to travel the world,” she says. “Luxury brands have gotten to be so exorbitantly expensive. And knowing everything I know about production and marketing, it makes you think twice about how much you spend on a bag.”

But Nina isn’t outright bragging about her purchase, either. (Which is why you won’t be surprised to know that "Nina" isn’t her real name.) A fashion person carrying a fake is like an Apple employee whipping out an Android phone. It just isn’t done, and would be a major point of gossip if it were.

In a weird way, counterfeit-shaming has seemed to benefit Nina. Few would entertain the idea that a member of the industry that fights so hard against counterfeits would ever consider faking it. Luxury brands including Louis Vuitton, Hermès and Burberry have all sued companies that sell counterfeit goods, usually winning. (In 2008, eBay was ordered to pay Louis Vuitton 38.6 million euros by the Paris courts. In 2012, a Manhattan judge ordered that Burberry be paid $100 million in damages by a string of Chinese websites found guilty of trademark infringement.) The goal of CFDA’s ongoing "You Can’t Fake Fashion" campaign -- marketed in partnership with eBay, which has attempted to tighten up its rules around counterfeit goods in the past few years -- is to educate consumers about the downside to buying counterfeit. For much of the aughts, Harper’s Bazaar held an anti-counterfeiting summit with an aim to shed light on the illegal market’s effect not only on the luxury economy, but also its employees: there are reports of human trafficking, child labor and funneling of funds to terrorist groups. And Fashionista’s own series, Adventures in Copyright, has been calling out knockoffs since the site launched in 2006.

But lately, anti-counterfeiting chatter seems to have died down. Not only has the story been told dozens of times, but it’s almost a given, as I mentioned before, that shoppers of a certain socioeconomic standing wouldn’t even think of buying fake. Which leaves room for them to do just that. "We go through ebbs and flows about caring about counterfeit items. It's like the roach problem in Manhattan. It's there, we freak out about it from time to time when a big story comes out about an infestation -- or in this case, a major bust -- and then we put it on the back burner,” says Hitha Prabhakar, author of Black Market Billions: How Organized Retail Crime Funds Global Terrorists. “There could be a roach story in the paper, on the nightly news, or on a website every day. But after a while, people become numb to it. The same thing is happening with counterfeit items.”

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Indeed, the battle has been raging for so long that it seems some are ready to surrender. Jennifer*, a longtime fashion editor, recently indulged in $25 knockoffs of Dior’s tribal earrings, which can cost about $600 for a pair--depending on the version. Initially, she was committed to buying the originals, but the sold-out black-and-white version she wanted were limited edition, which meant there wasn’t even a waitlist she could join. “A friend suggested checking eBay. There was a black and white pair, but marked up to double the retail price!” Jennifer says. “So when I scrolled down and saw virtually the same thing for $25, I just clicked ‘Buy.’ I can definitely see the difference in quality up close, but you'd never know when it's in the ear.” The funny thing is, the editor -- who has never knowingly bought a counterfeit item before -- says she feels the urge to tell people they’re not the real thing. “I probably wouldn’t buy something fake again,” she says. “I’d still rather have the Dior ones!”

Followers of fashion who feel, as Jennifer does, that counterfeits are a last resort have found other ways to get their fix without spending thousands. There is very little judgement put on an editor who buys a pair of Steve Madden slip-ons sneakers that mimic Céline’s version. (Partially because the latter’s are an upscale “interpretation” of Vans.) Designer-esque scores from Zara or Topshop, which are often straight copies, garner plenty of praise from peers. The most sincere -- and arguably ethical -- fashion devotees are turning to more moderately priced “original” products, such as Mansur Gavriel totes. (But then again, it won’t be long before MG bags, which have a wait list rivaling the Hermès Birkin, are copied too.)

In truth, fakes are as big of a business as ever. In 2013, the U.S. government seized $1.7 billion worth of counterfeit goods, a 38 percent increase from 2012. (That number reflects what the goods would have cost at retail if they were real, not fake.) About 40 percent of those goods were handbags and wallets -- around $700 millions' worth. Watches and jewelry were next making up 29 percent -- or $500 millions' worth -- of the seizures, up from 15 percent the year before. As for what was actually sold on the black market, it’s hard to say -- it is a black market, after all -- but we do know that the business is increasing, costing U.S. companies an estimated $250 million a year in lost sales according to the United States Department of Commerce

As for Nina and Jennifer, they still may be anomalies in an industry which outwardly abhors imitation. But they’re hardly alone.

*These names have been changed. Because, obviously.

Photo: iStock