For decades, tourists have flocked to counterfeit hubs like New York City's Canal Street to cop knockoff handbags from men and women discreetly whispering designer names like "Gucci" and "Louis" to passersby, leading them into clandestine back rooms or even (in my experience, long ago) a car trunk in a nearby parking lot filled with plastic-wrapped purses. And despite countless raids, airport interceptions, lawsuits by luxury brands and entire coalitions dedicated to curbing the production and stateside distribution of these illegal counterfeit products, like the International Anti-Counterfeit Coalition (IACC), the market is thriving and even advancing.
Fakes are getting more realistic. While distinguishing a fake from a real handbag used to be a fairly straightforward and easily Google-able process, there's been an explosion of what some are calling "super fakes," "Triple-A fakes" or "line-for-lines" over the past five or so years. To the untrained eye, they look like the real thing. You might even have one yourself and not know it. Our own Alyssa was once told by The RealReal that her Balenciaga bag — which she purchased at a prominent luxury retail chain and had no reason to doubt the authenticity of — was fake.
As the designer resale market has grown rapidly online with the proliferation of websites like The RealReal and Rebag, these fake bags are being given second lives, and their trained authenticators are learning firsthand how good fakes can be nowadays — and they're having to overhaul their authentication processes as a result.
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"Authentication is a little bit like viruses in the software industry in the sense that those who create the viruses tend to go faster than technology," explains Rebag CEO and Founder Charles Gorra. "Our whole mission, to provide certainty on goods, is always to try and supersede the trends and that's a really hard thing to do." He says that's because fakes have become more sophisticated, with some looking and feeling so close to the real thing that it's "borderline impossible to figure out."
When it comes to determining the provenance and proliferation of "super fakes," there are varying and conflicting stories. Multiple experts recently told Vogue UK that these higher-quality fakes are made in the same factories as the authentic bags, which I've heard as well: It's a phenomenon that becomes increasingly plausible as more luxury brands move their production to China and India. "Sometimes the factory will produce 10,000 of a product and then make 2,000 on the run and sell them off cheaply," Cassandra Hill, a lawyer at Mishcon de Reya specializing in intellectual-property litigation, told the magazine.
Counterfeiters are also getting faster: "There's fast fashion for counterfeit items," says Gorra. "The time between a new bag [being released] and the equivalent fake bag entering the market is, even in the three years we've been in business, it's been incredibly shortened." Gorra says counterfeiters are sometimes even producing in-season knockoffs, perhaps proving the old pro-"see-now, buy-now" argument that showing items six months in advance helps counterfeiters. And not only are knockoff bags getting better, but so are categories like jewelry, streetwear and sneakers.
As for where consumers are getting their hands on these items, it's online. According to the International Trademark Association, $460 billion worth of counterfeit goods were bought and sold last year, with most of sales happening online. "The online part is growing exponentially," says IACC President Bob Barchiesi. Big, undiscerning online marketplaces like Ebay, Jet and China-based Alibaba have become infamous resources for these inauthentic products.
"Folks will be shopping on marketplaces and think they’re buying a secondhand, expensive handbag and it's a fake," explains Barchiesi. "There’s so many different distribution channels now online that are readily available for consumers, one, if they're looking to buy fakes, and, two, if they think they're getting a bargain and instead they're getting a fake." There are also standalone websites designed to look like authentic retailers to deceive shoppers that even use photos of authentic products, says Barchiesi, only to ship fake ones. While some shoppers might be thinking they're buying the real thing at a discount, others might be looking for high-quality fakes, buying them directly from "reps" found in the depths of Reddit or through dedicated Instagram accounts. And when those shoppers are done with those bags, whether they believe them to be real or not, they might try selling them on a site like Rebag or The RealReal.
According to The RealReal Chief Authenticator Graham Wetzbarger, shoppers should not trust claims that bags were "made in the same factory" as the real thing. "You will hear stories that this bag came from the same town where Hermès makes Birkins and is exact same leather, just a different workshop. They'll tell you the best bags are made in Turkey and that this bag was made at night after the factory closed for the day and was sold out the back door. These better-quality fakes are often wholesaled as 'overruns' from 'authorized retailers' who of course do not exist. In reality, these are all lies." he explains.
That's not to say these bags aren't made with greater care and effort than earlier generations of fakes, and there's a reason for that. "One can sell a counterfeit for a lot more money if the buyer thinks it is a genuine piece at a slight discount," he continues. "These bad guys are investing more into making the bag only so they can increase their margin by selling the pieces to folks who don’t know better. The con is no longer, 'how cheap can I make a knock-off?' but, rather, 'how much do I have to spend to get someone to pay top dollar?'"
The RealReal, whose focus on authenticity is right there in the name, came under fire recently for listing items that were, reportedly, not authentic. After the popular Instagram account Diet Prada called it out for listing a "Prada" dress with lots of evidence pointing to it actually being Tibi, people flooded the comments section with other accounts of The RealReal making what they believed to be authentication missteps.
In earlier generations of fakes, one could simply look at the color of a leather handle, the type of metal used for the hardware or the lining and know instantly that it was counterfeit. Now that you can find knockoffs made with the same, or nearly identical, materials, as the real thing, that process has to be much more complicated and nuanced.
"It has made authentication harder because the inconsistencies are now less obvious. The hardware bares branded marking, there are serial numbers which are often correct, and they regularly come with seemingly accurate literature, tags and packaging," says Wetzbarger. "We have to dial in on the tiny details these people overlook or still can't emulate due to resources and technique. Tiny things such as the casting of a zipper pull, the shape and size of a screw head, or how a pocket is stitched and finished can be the clue we need to differentiate the product as counterfeit."
Rebag has developed a seven-pronged approach to examining its designer handbags, and even after those seven prongs, it has specific frameworks for individual brands, meaning there are elements it looks for that are only found in Hermes products; same with Chanel. And still, the company admits there is grey area. It's not only possible to mistake a fake bag for a real one, but now that authenticators have to be so vigilant, it's also very possible to mistake a real bag for a fake one. There is always a discussion, says Gorra, about imperfections: "Are these manufacturing defects or are these proof this could be a counterfeit?" When bags are handmade, for instance, it's not unusual for there to be subtle variations. Determining whether there is enough reason to doubt an item's authenticity often comes down to a judgement call. Of course, that's a judgement call made by a trained expert.
Barchiesi says the IACC is working with "a government agency" to build an app for consumers to protect them from buying counterfeit bags. It also works with major credit card and money transfer companies to shut down illegal sellers, as well as with retailers like Alibaba, in addition to spearheading initiatives and experiences to educate and warn shoppers. "We try to get the message out to consumers that it's not a victimless crime: They may be supporting forced child labor," he says. "It's organized crime on a global scale; these folks don't pay taxes, they don’t care about your health and safety; if you can make it, they'll fake it."
In the gallery below, Rebag details the seven areas it makes sure to inspect. While proper authentication is probably best left to the experts, it could help you determine whether you might have unknowingly bought a fake, too.