To buy or not to buy a dupe? That is the question. Counterfeit bags are the it bag right now. Here’s the low down.
Walking out of my midtown NYC office after work one evening last winter, I saw a blonde woman with a kid in a stroller. Upscale. Very apparent she had money. She was running around like a maniac from one handbag street merchant to the next.
“Fake Chanel. Do you have any fake Chanel?” she asked one man at the corner.
“No. I do not sell fakes,” he responded.
At this point, I wanted to tell her where I bought mine last year while I was doing research for this article. But then I opted not to, because I enjoyed watching this woman running around frantically looking for a fake Chanel bag outside of my office. It was a strange sight: an upscale woman who, by all intents and purposes, had the appearance that she could just walk into the Chanel store and buy the real deal.
It ends up, there are a lot of women just like her running around Manhattan sporting their very fake couture handbags, because believe it or not, carrying the fake is the latest trend.
I never thought I would say that a counterfeit bag is the new “It” bag. Really. That makes me shudder. After working on my own couture handbag collection over the last decade, imagine my shock after I started doing a deep dive into the counterfeit realm and discovered that most women I’ve seen around New York City carrying their Louis Vuitton Neverfulls and Goyard tote bags were actually carrying fakes? Like why was I wasting my money on the real deal all these years?
Why? Because I met with the lawyers for Louis Vuitton when I first came to New York. They told me about their investigations into finding fake LV bags. They scared me straight into never buying fakes. They taught me the importance of buying the real thing.
That was 2005. Almost 20 years later, owning the real bag is met with backlash by the younger generation. Consumers that purchase directly through the brand (or resale) are ridiculed and accused of acting like they are far superior to those who cannot afford the bag. Basically, it has become the equivalent of the peasant throwing cake at Marie Antoinette and telling her to eat the damn cake herself, with a lot of extra anti-bourgeois expletives.
The influencers that are heralded and making a pretty penny these days are the ones that push the dupe and fake narrative. An affiliate link to the dupe they found on the Walmart app or Amazon, nets them a pretty penny, because that’s what their followers want. They want that fake Louis Vuitton bag for $30. So that is exactly what the influencer is going to find for them.
On a lazy Sunday morning last summer, I was perusing a Chinese marketplace app. My friend, Ethel (God rest her soul), was a big fan of the site. She was a big crafter and loved ordering the free or $1 items to add to her collection. I thought I would peruse and maybe buy some washi tape or stickers.
While I was going through the app, I noticed over and over again fake listings for fake couture bags. I kept thinking these photos can’t be real. Or maybe they’re just poor fakes. I became curious after passing the twentieth listing, so I clicked on it. No, there was no way these dupes could be that good. So I purchased something like 20 bags ranging from Christian Dior to Louis Vuitton, Bottega Veneta, Chanel and Gucci thinking I could do a piece on fake couture bags [i.e., you’re reading that article right now].
When I received the shipments, I was in shock. The bags looked exactly like the real deal. One Chanel bag even came in a Chanel box with receipts from a Chanel boutique in Hong Kong. I was just flabbergasted at how real the bags looked. I took a picture of the fake next to my real Chanel Deauville tote and asked followers to tell me which bag was real and which was fake. Everyone, except the people that worked in the fashion industry, pointed to the fake as being the real bag and the real bag as being the fake! [The pink bag in the picture is the real.]
You actually need to inspect the stitching in the logo to determine which bag is real and which is fake…and that is only if you know what you are looking for!
Two weeks after I received my bags, I was scrolling through Instagram and one of the biggest influencers I follow was showing off her new bags. I stopped and looked closely. She had five or six new bags ranging from Chanel to Bottega Veneta. I took a really good look. They were the exact same bags I just received from the Chinese marketplace app. The exact same bags right down to the color and size.
Now, how ironic is it that she had all of the same bags I just received?
That is when I realized she was one of those Influencers: a mix of fake mixed in with real. I felt like I could say, “I see you now.” And yes, I was very disappointed. I haven’t looked at her in the same way since then.
HBO Max (now Max) came out with a series called “Fake Famous.” They enlisted a handful of people and tried to create an amazing life to share on Instagram in order to help elevate them to a status where they could get sponsorships, free merchandise, and help them become famous. The experiment was cut short due to the pandemic.
The end result was that faking it to make it worked for the actress. It helped her get a few jobs, as well as free merchandise and trips. For one individual, people that knew them called them out, and the experiment failed for them. Others did not like how it made them feel. They couldn’t be their own true authentic self. It took away from who they are and the person they wanted to be.
What amazed me the most about this experiment is that it revealed just how fake Instagram can be. Influencers portray this incredible life, when it is all staged. They pay $100 to use a set, have a photographer take photos on this set, and then they post it to their Instagram. No, they are not on a private jet. That’s just a set. They’re not living in some posh mansion, they rented the room for an hour to take photos in it.
Influencers can and do fake everything they are posting. Sure, there are a few real people out there, but then there are those who will fake it to make it. In this case, this Influencer mixes her fake life in order to get a real life, instead of just being real the entire time.
This can be confusing for newcomers breaking into the TikTok and Instagram fashion influencer worlds. At Vogue World last September, I met a young TikTok fashion influencer that was just starting out. He told me that he was thinking of leaving to go to the Vogue Club party where people would be watching the Vogue World fashion show on television. I stopped him right there. He’s right where the event is happening. Those influencers watching it on television WISH they were at the actual event. Why leave to watch it on TV when you could be living it?
After I said that, he realized how foolish it was to think that. But at the same time, he was revealing something about his generation. There’s a disconnect with understanding what is real and what is fake. Do you choose the fake life to make it real? Or do you live the real life and share your journey?
Why embrace the fake couture and the fake life when you could have the real thing?
HOW DID THIS GET PAST SECURITY?
I put in a very large order through the app and expected none of them to arrive. I had this belief that Customs would see it and confiscate every single item. In a way, this was my way of testing to see if Customs was doing their job.
After the first four bags arrived, it was very apparent which packages were the counterfeit bags. Every bag was wrapped in either a gray or black plastic trash bag like material with lots of tape around it. You could pick out the packages from a sea of boxes. Customs had to have noticed, right?
Oh, every single bag made it through Customs. EVERY. SINGLE. COUNTERFEIT. BAG. To this day, I am still shaking my head that Customs didn’t infiltrate any of these bags.
What does that say about US Customs?
In an article similar to this piece, the New York Times magazine reported that in 2022, only 300,000 bags were intercepted. Considering the demand for fake couture bags, that is only about 5% of what is coming into America.
TO DUPE OR NOT TO DUPE? THAT IS THE QUESTION
For some consumers, there is no question, they are going to buy the dupe. But for hard core ethical designer lovers, they would prefer to buy the real thing. They don’t want to waste their money on fakes and put out a fake image.
Take for instance the Hermes Birkin bag. This bag is at the top of the list for all couture handbag lovers. For the longest time, this bag was the only handbag to go up in value. Owning a Birkin isn’t just a status symbol, it is also a wise financial investment. Not everyone is offered an opportunity to purchase a Birkin from Hermes. A friend of mine was offered a Birkin. He purchased it for $20,000 and flipped it 6 months later for $75,000. Not too many people can get a return like that on their investment that quickly. Because of the bag’s scarcity on the market and the brand’s limitations in the ability to purchase a bag, any bag that enters the resale market can expect a heftier price tag than if you purchased it directly from the Hermes store. Those severe markups will still sell, because people are desperate to own an Hermes Birkin bag.
Joan Rivers was a Birkin collector. She was one of the first celebrities to admit that she owned both real and fake Birkins. Another woman made famous on Good Morning America for her luxury closet was burglarized. The burglar discovered that the majority of her closet was fake and leaked it to the news. She claimed that every woman has high end, low end, and vintage items in their closet. The low end included her fakes.
In 2022, The Cut released an article on rich women who love their fake Birkins. They can afford the real Birkin, as well as a closet full of them. But these days, they’d rather spend a few hundred dollars on the fake Birkins than spend thousands on the real ones. The rich ladies of New York have made it into a contest to see who can get a Birkin that looks as close to the real thing as possible. They are one of the biggest consumers of fake luxury handbags. They even have their own fake couture parties (similar to the legendary Tupperware parties).
So if the rich ladies of New York are buying dupes and making a game of it, shouldn’t everyone else follow?
For those who love couture and are not fabulously wealthy, but can afford 1-4 bags a year, this proves to be a dilemma. They’ve spent years saving for these items and have amassed a collection, something they value. They spend a lot of time curating pieces to add to their collection, even if it takes years to acquire it. It is a collection. So adding a dupe has its ethical issues, but in 2023, they may be saying a different story.
My friend Simon and I spend a lot of time sharing our recent couture buys and the adventure that went into procuring it for our closet. We had a long discussion on the fake couture world, and this is what he had to say about it.
- It takes only one time for someone to place judgment upon you. If they realize you are carrying a fake, but you are trying to act like it is real, they will consider you a fake. You’re pretending to be something you are not. Even if you carry the real thing after that, when they see you, they will always assume what you have is fake. They will spread the news that you carry fakes, because this is the opinion they have of you. It’s the Will Rogers saying, “You never get a second chance to make a good first impression.”
- Letting your children play with fake couture is perfectly acceptable, so long as they only carry the real thing outside of the home. [Back to first impressions.]
But there are exceptions to this in 2023 that Simon and I both agree upon. Influencer Karen Blanchard (karenbritchick) advises her followers that it is perfectly fine to purchase the dupe or a knockoff if you want to try out a certain style before dedicating a lot of money to it. If you find you really like the bag, then she recommends investing in the real thing.
This is sage advice. I loved the Bottega Veneta Jodie and Cassette bags. They came in so many colors, so I ordered the dupes in every color. While I love the way the bags look in my closet, these are not bags I would want to invest in, because they do not properly fit the items I normally put in a bag. I am glad I took her advice on this, because I would not have been happy owning the real thing. I would have resold the bags, because they may look beautiful on the shelf, but I need something I can use.
Another reason to carry dupes in this day and age is because of the rise in crime, especially muggings. Returning to life post-pandemic, we worried a lot about carrying the real thing in Manhattan. There were plenty of stories of people being robbed in Midtown. The idea of losing a bag that costs more than our rent, meant that the girls stayed on the shelves. We carried cheap tote bags, backpacks, or purses that would not attract attention to us.
The idea of carrying a dupe in the post-pandemic world made sense, because we could still carry a similar designer looking bag and not have a heart attack if it gets stolen. One bag I love more than anything are my Fendi tote bags. I bought a dupe of the Louis Vuitton Neverfull, because it mimics the Fendi tote. I do not normally buy LV, because it feels like everyone in NYC owns LV. I got it in pink and I make sure people who comment on the bag know that it is a fake LV. That’s me being honest. Plus, all of my bags have a story. Being honest about it allows me to open up the conversation about dupes and luxury handbags.
One bag I invested in after trying out the knockoff style was Balenciaga’s Agneau bag. Back when I first moved to NYC, I saw the bag being sold by one of the guys on the corner and I picked one up in pink and aqua. I carried those two bags for years until they fell apart. I absolutely loved them. I actually did not know at the time they were Balenciaga Agneau bags. After I found out that I could upgrade to the real thing, I bought one.
Taking Karen’s advice, if you want to be a smart consumer, buy the knockoff style to try it out before you buy the real thing. Upgrade only to the bags you fall in love with. That upgrade is about buying that bag you love in better qualitative materials and craftsmanship. The bag will last you a very long time, unlike the dupe. And because you know you love the bag, you will keep it for a very long time.
THE OLD FAST FASHION VS. DESIGNER/THRIFTING ARGUMENT (I.E. THE ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT)
You see the argument all of the time: the environmental and human impact on buying fast fashion vs. buying the authentic designer piece. Both sides can say both play a party to the issues we face today with waste. But instead of pointing fingers away, we should ask ourselves what impact we are making in this argument.
How sustainable is the product we are purchasing? If we are trying to curb our carbon footprint, wouldn’t it be more feasible to buy vintage? Wouldn’t it also be better to choose the more qualitative piece that is designed to last a lifetime? Shouldn’t we be doing our part to keep items that have already been made out of landfills, instead of reaching for something that is newly made?
Everyone always wants what’s new and what’s within our budget range. While people flock to places like Shein, H&M, and Forever 21, after the newness wears off, a lot of those items end up in landfills and thrift stores. Some people in NYC report that the majority of items they find in thrift stores are from Shein. No one wants to purchase used Shein, knowing that the reason why it’s in the thrift store to begin with is because it is so poorly made, it did not have sustaining power to last a long time. This is true of fake bags. They are not made to last. They are meant to be a fast fashion product, marketed at a lower price for anyone to purchase, so that they can sell more product to more people.
Considering the constant problems the world is having with climate change, why contribute more to the problem? Why make new items when we have way more than enough products out there to satisfy everyone?
While I struggle with this myself (look at all the bags I bought for purposes of this article), sometimes change doesn’t start tomorrow, it starts now. You can commit yourself right now to making a difference. Focus on designers like Coachtopia or Zero Waste Daniel who are taking old products and repurposing them to create something new. They are trying to help curb their carbon imprint, while still creating something new. Buy vintage or thrifted bags. Even if you have no clue if they are real or not, buy something you love and will use.
THE PROBLEM WITH TRAVELING WITH A FAKE
If you plan on travelling internationally, keep your fakes at home. Do not travel with them. Countries like France and Italy will fine you if you are caught carrying a fake. You may think you can handle the fine, but the fine is actually more than the real bag itself. There have been reports of fines beginning at $5,000.
When I travel with couture, I have always been stopped. Customs officials in England, France, Switzerland and Italy have all inspected my handbags. My $500 Just Cavalli bag I always travel with has been inspected again and again and again for authenticity.
While fakes are becoming more and more difficult to authenticate from the real thing, unless you have the money for the fines, keep the fakes at home or just buy the real thing and travel with it. At the end of the day, if you get caught with a fake and have to pay for all of those fines, you’ll come to the harsh realization that it would have been so much cheaper if you actually purchased the real thing.
Instead of buying dupes, you should look into buying the real thing for less in the resale market. Look for vintage bags or try your luck in thrift stores or estate sales. I once picked up a Fendi messenger bag for $75 through an estate sale. I even got an iconic Gucci bag for $100 through a thrift find. This style of bag is relaunched every few years, so it is always in style.
If you are in the market for the real deal, go with reputable resale companies like Fashionphile or purchase through Ebay’s Authenticated merchandise. Also, try The Outnet or Net-a-Porter when they have 80% off sales. The Outnet and Yoox are both sister sites to Net-a-Porter and offer severe discounts on couture items.