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Buying fake bags is harder than it looks

The great Chinese fake-off

On a trip to buy a counterfeit manbag, Luke Leitch gets handbagged

On a trip to buy a counterfeit manbag, Luke Leitch gets handbagged

Luke Leitch | February/March 2019

I recently visited Shanghai for the first time. There was plenty to see: the Bund, the glamorous French quarter, the skyscrapers of Pudong. But my true priority was to check out the fake designer goods. I had heard that it’s impossible to distinguish some products from the real thing – and I was on the lookout for an aluminium carry-on case by my luggage crush-brand Rimowa at something lower than the usual £800 ($1,020) price tag.

Three friends and I jumped into a taxi to the Science and Technology Museum, which I’d been told was the best place to find fakes in Shanghai. Had she duped me? Hordes of immaculate schoolchildren were trooping in, but I could see no fake merchandise. We were about to leave when a woman in a Gucci cap approached, offering to take us to the fakes market. This turned out to be a huge underground mall alongside the museum. In the sprawling warren, small stores offered counterfeit goods in plain sight.

I spotted Sean Wotherspoon’s recent mash-up of the Nike Air Max 1 and Air Max 97, complete with Hokusai-style wave embroidery and double Swoosh. This highly coveted sneaker, with a resale value of over $1,000, was here IRL! Except, of course, it wasn’t. You could see the glue between the layers of multi-colour corduroy and the toe was clog-like and blunt. Totes and purses from Parisian brand Goyard had a convincing monogram but wonky stitching and a nylon, not cotton, lining. Other items with famous logos should all have read “shoddy”. The first Rimowa I spotted had the wrong hinges, was plastic not aluminium, and had a strange pattern.

The copies improved as we ventured further. The buckles on the “Salvatore Ferragamo” handbags and belts looked convincingly substantial. Jackets purporting to be by Moncler carried registration tags, holograms and QR codes similar to those on real Moncler products, for buyers to check authenticity.

I bought a fake Off-White T-shirt for my son. The cotton was basic for an item that should cost $300; the screen-printed logo was well reproduced but inside its “Made in Italy” label (no chance!) was a poor semblance of the brand’s usual art-gallery style caption. Still, for 50 yuan ($7) I thought it’d do for a 12-year-old.

Some people see buying designer goods as daylight robbery: the margin between production costs and sale price is grossly inflated. The value of such items is psychological. By contrast, the counterfeit wares in Shanghai could be bartered down to a reasonable price. But they had their own undeclared margins: you had no idea who made them or in what circumstances, who profited from the sale or the wider consequences of disregarding intellectual property.

The stirrings of my conscience ceased when I happened on a Rimowa rip-off that, though not flawless, had a superb indented logo and ridged aluminium body; the serial details looked perfect; and the padded interior gorgeous. By the time its seller went down to 700 yuan – around 10% of the original – I was poised to buy.

Just then I heard my name being called from another bag shop. My three friends were spooked. They’d been ushered into a back room and offered “special” Chanel bags, which apparently came complete with the correct holograms, security tags and hardware – they didn’t seem to be fakes at all. My friend said that she’d get the 2,000 yuan out of a cash machine when a tough-looking fellow in a (fake) Gucci jacket suddenly emerged from another room, made as if to block the exit, and demanded immediate payment by card.

He may have been angry at a possible lost sale. But selling fakes has also become more perilous recently: the Chinese government is cracking down on counterfeiters and some luxury firms use investigators to hunt them down. Perhaps the heavy was worried that we were ourselves fake tourists, sniffing out copies and stolen goods.

Whatever the reason, the vibe soured. Buying fakes didn’t seem so harmless after all. We left. Back in London, I slipped my son his T-shirt. He briefly looked up from his laptop: “Oh dad, that’s blatantly a fake – you keep it.”