fake-handbags.jpg Right off the bat I will tell you that this article may get many of you really worked up. The fact of the matter is that a writer from the Miami Herald took a trip to Chinatown while visiting NYC on a hunt for an array of fake bags for herself, family, and friends. Her writing style is witty and fun, but the message behind her article really is bothersome. Elaine Pasekoff, the author, gives a play by play of how she went about getting the fake handbags. What I find most disturbing is the blurb under the seemingly pointless “Illegal Business” titled “Homework”. The homework section entails a list of how-to’s for getting ready to buy a fake bag. The list is intense and ultimately, leads people to find better ways to support the illegal manufacturing and distributing of counterfeit handbags.

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While buying a counterfeit handbag will not get your handcuffed, manufactures and distributors are in fact criminally liable for trafficking knock-off purses. This includes those who host the ‘popular’ (though I have never been invited to one) purse parties; who are liable for their involvement in their selling of counterfeit products. And what can happen to these manufacturers and distributors of knock off handbags? They can in fact be prosecuted for violating trademark and copyright laws. Wal Mart settled with Fendi after selling 12 fake Fendi bags at Sam’s Stores.

Ultimately, many wonder why the Miami Herald, a widely-read and reliable newspaper, would allow a story like this to publish. After all, fake handbags are illegal and violate trademark laws, copyright laws, and trademark infringement.

The cab pulls over at the corner of Canal and Mott. It is 9:20 on a Friday morning in late November. Even before my feet are planted on the sidewalk, a petite Asian woman sidles up to me and whispers the words I had come to hear, “Coach, Coach!”

”Yes,” I flash a sunny smile.

The quest has begun.

Up from Miami, I am on vacation, taking a side trip to New York City’s Chinatown looking for faux high-end purses. I’m especially chasing Coach: a duffel bag for my college-age daughter; a patchwork tote for my girlfriend; the pouch for my office intern; the hobo for my sister; and a satchel for an unknown teenage girl I had picked in my office’s charity gift exchange.

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My guide, barely five feet, is warmly dressed in a quilted nylon jacket, well-worn jeans and trekker’s boots. Her black hair has reddish stripes and she is wind-burned, undoubtedly due to long hours exposed to raw gusts as she stalks her prey: out-of-towners and locals, college girls and 50-ish women, all hoping to score the perfect bag — knockoffs so exquisitely made that Coach-anistas might be stumped. For this, I am more than willing to be led down Canal, zigzag through Elizabeth, cross Bayard and hike up Mott.

SHOWROOM No. 1: Filled with the kind of excitement only a bargain shopper can understand, I follow three paces behind my guide as we pass storefront windows hung with dripping Peking ducks, vegetable markets with produce I cannot begin to name, and jewelry stores ablaze with milky jade and garish gold.

Finally she leads me into a sparsely merchandised T-shirt shop. My guide knocks on the wall. Amazingly, a door, heretofore unseen, swings open. I have arrived. Crammed into a room barely 10 by 12 feet, are hundreds of counterfeit purses: Coach, Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, Prada and Chanel. The merchandise is suspended on wall hooks from floor to ceiling: little clutches, big totes, purses of every size, plus carry-on suitcases, wallets and sunglasses. It all makes me dizzy.

I scan the room intensely. I begin taking down some candidates, assisted by an extremely helpful saleswoman.

Ah, that one lovely. New style this season,” she assures me. Real leather, you check inside. You check.”

Slowly, carefully, I work the room; my pile of maybe’s” growing. Suddenly, the door bursts open and a determined Asian woman leads two American women briskly inside. They are both blond, generously sized, and are pulling large wheeled black suitcases.

These gals know the ropes. They scan the room, zeroing in on 10 purses in the time it had taken me to select one.

Suddenly, a 40-something Asian man appears with a calculator. He surveys their stash, and moves the calculator within inches of the taller woman’s face.

”How much you want to pay?” And it begins. The woman punches in a price. The man looks apoplectic. ”No, that crazy,” he moans. “That just for three purses, you got there 10.”

”Here’s what I’m going to pay,” she parries. Back and forth they go, the calculator gets stabbed by one pair of fingers, then another. Finally, leaving several of their selections on the floor, the women turn to go. ”OK, OK,” the man concedes. ”What your last price for this one?” Too little, too late, as the women march out without a backward glance, their guide trailing behind.

Now I, too, must face that dreaded calculator. In the end, I buy three purses and have to leave some of my selections behind. But I know my odyssey is only beginning. Just as the three purses are being stuffed into a big green-black garbage bag, my trusty guide magically re-appears.

”Want to see more Coach?” she asks. I nod.

Off the main streets she goes barreling, me five paces behind and struggling to keep up. We weave down narrow alleyways where less committed shoppers might not have dared.

Without warning, my guide slows, and sprints up three steps leading to A Cut Above. This hair salon might have looked modern in the ’80s, but now it looks threatening. The disco-purple chairs are empty, looking as if they hadn’t held a customer for weeks. (Even so, black hair litters the linoleum floor.) The lone ”stylist” murmurs something to my guide in an Asian language. She answers without pause or eye contact.

SHOWROOM No. 2: In a cramped hallway directly across from an untidy bathroom, my guide knocks on what looks like a utility-closet door. The door opens and I step into a tiny wonderland of faux designer bags. A smaller scale replica of Showroom No. 1, this place features an assortment of Coach, Prada and Chanel entirely different from the ones at my first stop.

Within minutes, much to my amazement, the two blonds arrive. ”Honey,” the shorter one cackles at me, “We’ve got to stop meeting like this.”

They get down to business. I, too, get to work. And this time, I find the elusive patchwork tote. When my guide senses I am ready to do the tally, the ”stylist” appears. He names his number, I name mine and we appear to be in deadlock. Instinctively, I take out three $10 bills and hand them to him. Surprisingly, he accepts the cash without another word. My guide presents me with another black-green garbage bag, my tote inside, and off we go.

We end up in a jewelry arcade. My guide winds her way through stalls brimming with jade items: bracelets, earrings and pendants, bonsai trees and small multicolored landscapes. She stops, walks into one of the stalls, and knocks on the wall. It’s showtime again.

SHOWROOM No.3: There are my blond buddies, this time deep in negotiations with an overweight 20-something man. The women seem not to notice me. No matter, I have no time to lose. I quickly complete my mission by selecting several bags that are close matches to the ones on my list — and some other ”brands” for myself, too. I feel a sense of accomplishment akin to completing a 5K. With barely a haggle at Stop No. 3, my purchases are tucked inside yet another green-black garbage bag.

”More Coach?” my guide queries.

”No, thanks,” I shake my head gently.

I came, I saw, I purchased. I was ready to leave Chinatown. The adventure cost me $215: $195 on six purses, which if authentic would have been $3,040 retail, plus $20 for a cab.

As I head for the door, the tall blond shoots me a quick glance. ”Doll,” she merrily suggests, “We have to do coffee.”

ILLEGAL BUSINESS

There’s a dark side to the counterfeit purse trade.

For instance, Marcia Van Wagner, a deputy comptroller for New York City, estimates the overall knockoff market costs her city ”$2 billion in lost revenue” yearly.

In Miami, Zachary Mann at U.S. Customs says that every year his agency seizes ”pirated goods with a domestic value of approximately $100 million” nationwide, adding that the “yearly trade in counterfeits is a global problem in the hundreds of billions of dollars.”

The underground industry ”has a negative impact on the United States in many ways,” says Harold Woodward, director of field operations in Miami for U.S. Customs.

”We don’t know the manufacturing processes utilized, or the chemicals used to produce the merchandise,” he says. “Many counterfeiters utilize products that are prohibited or highly regulated in the United States.

”Morally, there is the possibility that the counterfeit merchandise was produced in sweat shops utilizing child or slave labor,” Woodward says.

Even so, while law enforcement targets manufacturers and sellers of counterfeits, casual buyers are unlikely to be busted.

— ELAINE PASEKOFF

HOMEWORK

Before your trip, check the official brand websites and become familiar with the styles. Once in Chinatown, here are several things to check:

“¢ Test every zipper, unsnap each snap, and make sure every closure operates smoothly.

“¢ Look at the labels or tags, and look for misspellings, like Gucci with one “c.”

“¢ Make sure linings are sewn and not glued.

“¢ Good fakes mimic the authenticity labels inside purses, and often have brand logos on the zipper pulls and include monogrammed protective cloth storage bags.

“¢ Avoid purse sellers on street corners, especially around Ground Zero or Times Square. They usually have poor-quality fakes.

Article and photo via Miami Herald.

More information on Counterfeit Handbag Lawyers found HERE.

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