- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 29, 2005

Cherie Wasoff eyed the trendy lime green tote bag and considered the price tag: $39.

“I would never buy a real Kate Spade,” she said, plunking down her plastic for the cashier at Champs Elysees, an Old Town Alexandria shop devoted to designer knockoffs.

Real Kate Spade bags go for hundreds of dollars, but Cherie Wasoff is content and more than slightly smug to have the bogus version.

“My aunt is a real Neiman Marcus snob, but even she can’t tell the difference,” she says.

Her mother, Bertha, was picking out a black-and-white copy of a Louis Vuitton satchel. The original would cost more than $1,000. The copy? $79. “I wouldn’t carry the real thing,” Mrs. Wasoff said. “I have lots of real Louis Vuitton, and I don’t like them any more than my knockoffs.”

Call it “status faux.” What once were considered upscale luxury goods have become available to the masses. On street corners and subway stops, shops and Internet auction sites, the business of knocking off designer handbags, watches, scarves, perfume and jewelry is booming — much to the dismay of the designers who have tried and failed to stop the counterfeiting.

Experts say the business is raking in $200 billion a year in the United States alone. Authorities in New York and Connecticut recently conducted several raids on counterfeiters, and in Dallas, one dealer who made more than $100,000 a month was arrested.

Profits from tax-free illegal counterfeit goods also have been linked to gangs and organized crime. However, savvy sellers import the goods without labels. Customs does not seize unlabeled goods. The labels are put on once the items reach their destination, likely to be your friendly street vendor.

The most-often ripped-off labels are Prada, Gucci, Versace, Burberry, Coach and Louis Vuitton. Women host purse parties and exalt the nature of the fake vs. real. In truth, many savvy shoppers say the designer bags are no better made than the fakes.

The originals cost so much because consumers are paying for the multimillion-dollar marketing campaigns, the promotion of the brand and the huge fees stars and supermodels get to “wear” the product, thus ensuring a snapshot in InStyle magazine and a rush to imitate whatever Gisele, Gwyneth, J. Lo, Paris, Kate, Cameron and Sienna are toting.

According to Michael Silverstein, co-author of “Trading Up: Why Consumers Want New Luxury Goods … And How Companies Create Them,” the average luxury-bag consumer buys more than four designer bags a year, at about $200 to $300 per bag. Many women are willing to scrimp on clothing to afford a new bag — you don’t have to be a designer size 4 to carry one, and it’s a mark of status.

Even if your turtleneck is from Target.

In one sense, the big guns have done a brilliant job of marketing their designs, creating the demand with slick ads and coverage in fashion magazines. And because fashion has the shelf life of a piece of fruit, if the shoddy made-in-Taiwan knockoff falls apart in six months, women move on to the next style with little guilt and no regret.

They are turning increasingly to the Internet to feed their faux fetish.

“We’ve been growing steadily,” says Joel Paris, 37-year-old owner of AnyKnockOff.com, a Los Angeles-based Web site devoted to faux designer goods. The products manufactured in China and Korea also include silver jewelry and sunglasses.

These legal knockoffs never try to duplicate the originals exactly. Instead, the company advertises the goods as “inspired by” the top designers, including a Kelly Bag “inspired” by Hermes. Because Hermes 40 years ago patented its trademark flap on the front of the bag, the company watches out for counterfeits. Mr. Paris made a small adjustment to the front flap after receiving a threatening letter from the president of Hermes.

“Our goal is not to infringe on anyone,” he says.

He routinely scours InStyle, People and other celebrity magazines for inspiration. “If Paris Hilton is wearing it, we want to knock off her style.” His copies, he says, are good quality but without the extra tariff top designers pass on to their customers.

“Brand is a powerful thing. Without a doubt, what you spend your money on is brand marketing. My customer can’t afford a $1,200 handbag.”

New York has Canal Street, a throbbing marketplace in Chinatown where shoppers are bombarded with a flotilla of fake bags, “Rolex” watches, “Hermes” ties, “Burberry” scarves, “Gucci” wallets and “Prada” satchels. Los Angeles has Santee Alley, which has seen an upsurge in counterfeit goods.

“The last two years, there has just been a flood. I’ve never seen so many knockoffs as I have in the past six months,” Mr. Paris says.

When “Sex in the City” star Sarah Jessica Parker toted a Fendi baguette, the stampede for the style began. Suddenly, the small beaded or fur bags were everywhere. Hundreds of fake baguettes on EBay carried the note “authenticity guaranteed.”

Many of the counterfeit bags were so well-made that even an expert couldn’t tell the difference — and for $300 (rather than $3,000), it was worth it.

But what was once the “in” bag is now sadly a fashion faux pas. The Fendi baguette was replaced by the Dior saddlebag, which was pushed aside for the Balenciaga le Dix motorcycle bag, which eventually was mothballed for the Louis Vuitton multicolored Alma bag, which is so last year compared to the Fendi Spybag, which should remain hot for another two minutes.

“Why spend $1,400 on a bag when in six months nobody’s going to be wearing it anymore?” notes Mr. Paris, who recently manufactured a rather convincing copy of the Chloe Paddington bag, which he sells for $249. The original, if you can find one, has a $1,200 price tag.

However, savvy entrepreneurs who suspect women do covet the costly designer bags have come up with a solution.

Because hot handbags have such a short shelf life, why not rent one instead of buying? That’s the logic behind two Internet sites, From Bags to Riches (www.frombagstoriches.com) and Bag Borrow or Steal (www.bag borroworsteal.com).

For a monthly fee ranging from $17 to $79, fashionistas can choose from thousands of bona fide bags. Pay the fee, get the bag, carry it for a few months, then return it for a newer style. The genius of the idea is that if the consumer decides to keep the bag, it’s deeply discounted.

There have been reams of advice on how to tell whether the bag you bought is real or fake. The quality of the leather (or is it plastic?), the snaps and buckles, the stitching, whether a label is sewn in or glued on. And the spelling. If it says “Versacy,” that’s a good clue. If you can pull off the Prada triangle, it’s a fake. A real Kate Spade has a sewn-in label on the inside pocket, including the country of origin.

In the end, there is really only one sure way to tell: the price tag.

“There is no doubt the quality of an original Louis Vuitton bag is extraordinary. The leather, the hardware, even the stitching. There is no way I could duplicate that,” Mr. Paris says. “I can appreciate it, though.”

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