Bagging a fake
Some women are getting their fashion fixes from counterfeit goods. But can they ever be as good as the real thing? Liz Kearney reports
THE Mulberry Alexa, a bag almost as beautiful as the woman it was named after, hit the stores in January. Fashions journalists purred. Handbag addicts cooed. With its beautiful soft leather and chic satchel-like design, it quickly became the first 'it' bag of 2010. It was a fashion item you'd sell your granny for and everyone wanted one.
In the event, it proved so popular that, even in these recession-riddled times, it pushed Mulberry's profits up by 22pc. At first glance, it looked as though not even negative equity and NAMA could put a dent in our appetite for must-have accessories.
But does anyone you know have one? I have yet to see Alexa in the flesh, so to speak (not counting the ones I've ogled on the shelf in Brown Thomas). Not one of my friends -- fashion-savvy, working women in their late twenties and early thirties, Mulberry's target market -- owns one. I've never encountered an Alexa around town, in bars, clubs, restaurants, or in the office.
I do, however, know someone who has a fake one. 32-year-old Caroline bought a counterfeit Alexa for €200 online. Caroline says her bag is indistinguishable from the real thing, looks well made and she loves it. She doesn't see any problem with owning a counterfeit handbag -- after all, on her salary, she'd never be able to shell out €895 for the real thing.
Caroline's not alone. Closer examination of Mulberry's trading figures show that they were mainly boosted by a 200pc increase in sales in Asia, where the recession has not been so harsh.
The firm remained tight-lipped when asked for its Irish sales figures, but it's a safe bet to assume there's not as many Donnybrook divas with that kind of cash to spend on luxury goods any more.
But we still want our handbags. So it's no surprise that the trade in counterfeit bags and shoes -- not to mention perfume, jewellery and make-up -- is in rude health.
Between January and March of this year, customs officers seized 156 fake handbags, from Gucci to Balenciaga to Versace, to Juicy Couture.
Counterfeit shoes, in particular, have exploded in popularity, with a proliferation of websites offering high-end brands like Louboutins and Manolos for a fraction of their real price.
In the first three months of 2009, customs officers seized just one pair of fake designer shoes. But for the same period in 2010, they nabbed 27 pairs, mostly fake Guccis.
"I think with the economy not being as it was, people will be looking for what they consider to be value for money,' says Mary O'Dwyer, of the intellectual property unit at the Revenue Commissioners. "Maybe five years ago they could afford the real thing -- now they might get a fake."
Most items, explains Mary, would have been ordered online through websites selling cheap version of designer brands and then shipped into Ireland - from China, usually.
They look the part, too, says Mary. 'In some cases, if you saw the real one side by side with the fake, you would wonder which is which.'
But not everyone who's purchased these goods did so deliberately. While many of the counterfeit websites are so littered with mis-spellings and botched sentences that they're obviously not the real deal, others look more plausible and if you're not used to shopping online, you might be fooled.
"There are a big percentage of people out there who are not that used to the internet and simply think they are getting a good bargain,' says Caroline Curneen, spokeswoman for the European Consumer Centre which advises consumers on their rights when buying goods from countries within the EU.
Her office deals with regular complaints from consumers who have been sold a pup through online sites based in the EU, and these tend to spike around Christmas, when parents not familiar with the online shopping process go looking for a bargain for their kids.
Last Christmas, for instance, there were a large number of complaints from people who'd been sold fake Ugg boots.
'People contacted us when they realised that they hadn't got what quite what was in the shops,' says Caroline. 'They had just thought they were getting a bargain. But if you are really getting that much of a bargain, there's probably something up.'
It's not just bags and shoes that are flooding the market. Imitation high-end cosmetics and perfume are also big business.
'We were at a Mac make-up party the other night,' admits one friend of mine. "They were selling lip-glosses and eyeshadows for 5quid. I suspected they couldn't be real but I couldn't help mysef -- they were so cheap!'
This is particularly alarming: cosmetics from a dodgy source won't, obviously, meet any EU regulations for ingredients and could potentially cause skin problems. 'I worry about those a lot - with things like counterfeit perfume there could be anything in them,' says Mary O'Dwyer.
As the counterfeit trade continues to boom, high-end companies have launched multi-million euro campaigns to tackle the problem, hiring private investigators and teams of lawyers. There have been a number of high-profile court cases -- most notably, Louis Vuitton have taken on eBay on a number of occasions for selling fake goods on their site.
But most high-end brands are very secretive when it comes to how they tackle the problem. While, for instance, two Tiffanys store managers in separate branches have told me that they do have the occasional customer come in with a fake bracelet or necklace - and customs officers have in the past seized fake Tiffanys items - when contacted for an official comment, the company said it was not company policy to respond to such queries.
What's the big deal anyway, you might ask, with fake goods? After all, it has even been suggested some celebrities themselves are at it to avoid the lengthy waiting list for the real thing.
Well, quite apart from the fact that when you buy a fake product, you're supporting criminal activity, the counterfeit trade has been linked to funding of terrorist organizations, including Al-Qa'ida and Hezbollah. There's also a high likelihood that the fake bag you're carrying has been produced using child labour in a Chinese factory.
But ultimately, the best argument against buying fakes is the obvious one -- the quality. They might look the part, but they probably won't last.
'My boyfriend gave me a designer wallet which I thought was lovely but which fell apart after just a few weeks,' says Suzanne. 'I didn't want to tell him so I brought it back to the shop where I thought he'd got it.
'They said they hadn't sold it, it was a fake and it was bought online. Turns out he had bought it from a website but hadn't realized that it wasn't the real thing. He was mortified.'
Stylist Gillian Walsh, who runs the Eye for Style website, agrees. 'I would never go for fake designer stuff, and even if my clients are interested in high-end designer items, I would say to them let's just look at your style first. I have seen fake bags and I think the quality is poor -- I have never seen a fake that looked like the real thing.'
Suzy, a PR insider who says she's freely bought fake fashion items in the past, says the recession has changed her attitude to fakes.
'I've stopped buying them. Fake stuff is only fun if you are pawning it off as the real thing. But now it's just not credible. Five years ago you could say your new Chanel bag was a present, but now people simply won't believe you because everyone is skint.
'The other thing is that when you save up to buy the real thing, you really love it, you think about it all the time -- but you just don't feel that way about fakes. When you've saved up for something, you know the value of it -- and that makes it special.'