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Every day, black-market shoppers tap into an invisible network to illegally funnel luxury designer goods into the United States right under the noses of customs and border protection agents. All of the wares — Chloé ankle boots, Saint Laurent wallets, Chanel Le Boy bags — are undeniably, shamelessly fake. Does that stop the buyers? Not a chance.
These aren’t the phony, PVC designer fakes you can snag for $20 on the street. Shoppers may pay $250 for a faux perforated Chloé mini, $300 for a Céline Phantom, $450 for a Hermès Lindy, upward of $2,000 for a decently convincing Birkin. And they’re not easy to come by. Should you desire your own version of a YSL wallet imitation, you must first navigate a spiderweb of internet backchannels, sifting through e-commerce sites like Taobao and AliExpress, communicating one-on-one with Chinese sellers via WeChat, and ultimately plunking down a fairly substantial amount of cash with no guarantee you’ll receive what was agreed upon (or, thanks to occasional customs interventions, no guarantee you’ll receive anything at all).
Counterfeit goods comprise a $1 trillion industry, and academics have long sought to find out what exactly motivates roughly 3 million consumers a year to spend real money on artificial designer products. The occasional flimsy Frauda copped from a sidewalk kiosk is one thing, but particularly perplexing is the caste of counterfeit shoppers who invest time, effort, and serious cash into high-end fakes. So, why go through all the trouble, the back-and-forth, the gamble just to get your hands on artificial luxury?
Material goods of any kind are, for a lot of people, the building blocks of our identities: As we chase after the ideal versions of ourselves, we seek out, gather, and display the symbols that represent that self and communicate it to the outside world. Shopping can feel like a bridge between the way we want to be seen and the way other people see us. As we forever lust after that ideal vision of ourselves, we surround ourselves with symbols as a way of painstakingly engineering our own identities. Status symbols like flashy luxury designer goods are megaphones for trumpeting yourself to the world: explicit, conspicuous ways of signaling power, success, taste, and wealth. Money, power, glory — funny how it feels like all of that can come tied up in one neat little Chanel-branded package.
June*, a 29-year-old Chinese-American operations manager in Silicon Valley, spent many childhood summers in China visiting family, who would take her shopping at both Chinese department stores and open-air markets. “I remember being pretty bored at the Chinese department stores, but excited by going to the markets, where they'd have cheap toys,” she says. Intrigued by the faux Converse sneakers and imitation Coach bags she saw, June grew curious about the replica markets and, at age 20, bought her first counterfeit designer bag: a black leather Dolce & Gabbana-imitation duffle. In the years since, June has purchased authentic luxury goods — a Prada saffiano leather tote; a Céline python crossbody — in addition to replicas (or “reps”). The counterfeits, she says, gave her the social currency she yearned for at the time: They were a shortcut to the upper class.
Rachel*, a 27-year-old who works at an Atlanta law firm, cultivated her affinity for hard-to-find reps after experiencing a gateway drug: her very first (real) Coach bag. As she collected bags from other midlevel designer brands such as Kate Spade and Michael Kors, Rachel’s aesthetic and taste quickly outpaced her budget. “I was always looking toward the next big thing, and for the longest time I dreamed of one day owning a really expensive designer bag, like [a] Chanel or Gucci,” she says. “But at some point I realized I would likely never buy one.” Not just because she couldn’t afford the exorbitant cost, but also on principle: “I don’t think that I could ever justify or feel okay with dropping thousands of dollars on a single purse. Even if I managed to have a lot of extra money floating around, I could think of a million better ways to use it.” Now, Rachel carries a faux Birkin that cost her $900 — the genuine article’s price range is in the tens of thousands of dollars. Her unwillingness to spend that much didn’t change the fact that she’d set her sights on premium and the prestige that comes along with it. “So, my ‘compromise’ was seeking out high-quality replicas... because as long as it was convincing enough, I would be satisfied.”
When so much is hinging on the buy-in of others, that leaves a pretty gaping vulnerability: What if you get caught? Buying and brazenly wearing fake designer goods takes a pretty calculated risk-benefit assessment on the part of the buyer: to determine that the chance of getting called out on a practice many see as taboo or tacky is still worth the long-run payoff. “I bank on people being too embarrassed to ask that question,” says Rachel, who adds that she typically sticks to simple, solid-color bags rather than anything plastered in logos. “If someone asked me if the item were a replica, I would be honest and tell them yes, mostly because when I have gotten that question, the people are genuinely curious and impressed at the quality, as opposed to being condescending or judgmental.” Some replica shoppers say that they might dodge the question by pleading ignorance and saying it was a gift. Others draw the conclusion that if someone is able to detect that the bag is a fake, then it’s probably because they’re buying replicas, too.
Telegraphing your status and power to others is one thing, but convincing yourself of that power can be pretty intoxicating, too. “Whenever I bought luxury products — authentic or not — I was buying into an ideal version of myself,” says June. Rachel adds that carrying a replica bag imbues her with a sense of pride and excitement: “Like I’m carrying the real thing.”
That pride may seem misplaced — after all, you didn’t actually spring for that Birkin — but studies show that the psychological motivations at play run deeper than the cheap thrills of playing dress-up. This paper, for instance, found three common “inner benefits” shoppers experience when buying counterfeit luxury goods: “First, being efficient by optimizing their resources; second, having fun by experiencing adventure, enjoyment, and risk; and third, fooling others expecting not to be caught.” But, the authors add, “most important, through the accomplishment of these goals consumers of counterfeit luxury goods construct an identity in which they perceive themselves as ‘savvy’ individuals.” In other words: not only does that faux Goyard make you look and feel rich, but it also makes you feel clever, cunning, and streetwise. Who wouldn’t want to be seen as stylish and savvy?
A convincing fake, one that might fool even the most seasoned of designer bag enthusiasts, doesn’t come easy: it takes research, an excruciating amount of attention to detail, forays into unfamiliar corners of the internet, and a willingness to get your hands a little dirty. “The hunt for the perfect replica was a lot more intense than I expected it to be,” says Rachel. “I researched for weeks, maybe months, and I learned that there are endless blogs dedicated specifically to high-end replica bags.” She describes groups where users would share photos, scrutinize the details, and occasionally even offer side-by-side comparisons between the replica and the real thing, which they also owned. “It was overwhelming. And when I was researching on my own, I did find that it was difficult to find a ‘good’ replica: one that looked convincing and expensive, and was not a ridiculous price.”
While skeptics may see these purchases as foolhardy and a colossal waste of money, those hunting down high-end counterfeits would argue that the whole ordeal requires fortitude, patience, and almost fussy level of fastidiousness — rather than the impulsivity that allows shoppers to lose their minds and their money over the latest hyped-up “it bag.” On forums and subreddits, users share spreadsheets of trustworthy sellers’ contact information, tips for choosing the safest shipping method, Chinese translations for communicating with manufacturers, and advice for avoiding problems with customs. Photos of purchases (or “QC,” for quality control) are posted and group-analyzed in excruciating detail, down to the angle of the stitching. Finding a trustworthy seller, finalizing specs and payment with them (often through a substantial language barrier), combing over close-up photos of logo stamps… it takes a level of diligence that isn’t typically seen among shoppers at, say, ASOS.
“There's an effort to finding the right piece, with the right seller... people are not just throwing away their money,” says June. “It takes real work for a rep to be delivered to you... but when you get the final product, it's yours in a way that is different than saving up money for a big splurge. Because the interaction with the seller is so intimate and because you've seen the factory QC photos, because you've chosen that one straight from the source, you feel as if you've done something to create the bag.”
The research, the haggling, the ultra-analytical attention to each and every stitch: it all adds up to a process that invokes the thrill of the hunt with a dash of “sticking it to the man.” (The man, in this case, being the $339.4 billion luxury goods market.) For some, the gratification of a counterfeit culminates with knowing you’ve come as close as you’ll ever get in your mortal life to owning and carrying a Birkin. For others, there’s an added nip of satisfaction derived from pulling a fast one on luxury brands and sticking it to the same socioeconomic structures that make us feel the acute need to acquire these things to begin with. “Self-hatred plus an awareness of the fashion world plus my tiny purchasing power [lead me to] buying fakes,” says June. “I really wanted to join the moneyed class — I envied their security and confidence and assuredness.”
Class anxiety festers and thrives under capitalism. Buying fakes can feel like a sneaky way of beating these luxury empires at their own game. June even adds that, for her, reps offer a tinge of pride and, yes, a bit of schadenfreude that’s related to her Chinese-American background. “This is the same country that invented the wheel, paper, and fireworks,” she says. “This is now the country that can clone Gucci, Chloé, and Louis Vuitton in the blink of an eye.”
And then there’s the trillion-dollar question. How do these shoppers reconcile the fact that counterfeit goods are not only illegal, but also unethical? Beyond the obvious intellectual property issues at play, the counterfeit industry has been linked to terrorism, human trafficking, arms trading, and more. That’s a lot of baggage for a fake Balenciaga. There is no ethical consumption under capitalism, sure — but does that make it a free-for-all? “There have definitely been times where I just felt ‘icky,’ for lack of a better word,” says Rachel. “It is taboo and I understand why. But ultimately I couldn’t shake my desire for high-end designer bags, and the prices for authentic ones are so outrageous that I felt more justified in my search for alternatives.” Replica shoppers argue that their purchases aren’t really that different from shopping at places like Zara or Forever 21: fast-fashion labels known for blatantly knocking off both bigger brands and indie designers. (Not to mention the terrible working conditions and environmental wreckage perpetrated by perfectly legal fast-fashion labels.) At least replica manufacturers, they argue, are upfront about their grifting.
Ultimately, most of us care about what others — our friends, our coworkers, complete strangers — think of us. We curate our own identities and broadcast them to the world. For some, that might involve a bold lipstick, a badass motorcycle jacket, or your favorite team jersey. For others, it might be a faux Fendi Baguette. When a genuine bag and its made-in-China doppelganger achieve the same ends socially, the line between having power and having the semblance of power starts to blur a little more.
Where some may see replicas as tacky, taboo, the literal definition of inauthentic, replica shoppers find meaning and truth in the grit and honesty of rep production. Cutting past the smoke and mirrors of branding and glossy ads and snooty sales associates, having an unvarnished perspective of how the bags get made, having a hand in how the bag is constructed — for some of these consumers, buying fake just feels more real. “[In QC photos] you see people's gnarled, unmanicured hands holding the goods. The lack of polish around it — no branding, no marketing, no trying hard — makes it feel real, much more real than the ‘authentic’ version of the bag,” says June. “We all want these things, and there's so much glamour around them, so much angst, so much effort, but really they're just pieces of dead skin coming off an assembly line.”
*Names have been changed