The 26-year-old social media influencer and fashion consultant runs a successful luxury affairs empire on TikTok, amassing nearly 150,000 followers for his insightful commentary into the fashion world. He’s often tagged in videos by followers asking to authenticate, or tear apart, someone’s shiny new purse. When you’ve been in the business for as long as he has – nearly half a decade reselling Hermès handbags – a few things stand out to you.
The smell, for one. Almost like gasoline, he tells CR. The internet calls it “fufu.”
It’s a double-edged sword, Gross says. Juggling a line between constant scrutinizing and letting people live their life, even if it is just smoke and mirrors. He isn’t the only one.
Over the past year, counterfeit fake goods have rocketed the digital luxury marketplace. In the midst of lockdown, and Gen Z having too much time on their hands, the dupe floodgates have inundated social media sites like TikTok and Instagram.
While fakes and fashion have been in a nasty custody battle since the beginning of time (one can thank Dapper Dan for exposing us to the world of non-designer designer), it hasn’t gotten this ugly in a while.
Gucci and Facebook have just filed a joint lawsuit against a digital ring selling counterfeit handbags and other accessories on the platform. When you look at the way the Italian house used to poke fun at fakes, the stride towards legal action is a bit meta.
Earlier last year, the enigmatic, maximalist Alessandro Michele abandoned Gucci’s ’70s-inspired silhouettes, silk scarves, and pearls for his most in-your-face memeable collection yet.
On the menswear Fall/Winter 2020 runway, the Gucci’s creative director debuted his “Fake Not” collection, a bold riff of counterfeit culture constantly cropping up on social media feeds. It wasn’t his first tongue-in-cheek reference though. Michele previously played around with the iconic G logo in 2016, flipping it upside down and misspelling the brand name to reference the booming fake market.
Ironic, isn’t it?
The union between Gucci and Facebook is one of the first of its kind between a luxury giant and Silicon Valley — in the past, designer brands have often resorted to disputing counterfeit claims on their own. Successfully or not, fashion’s juggernaughts have had a hard time squashing the black market.
Although the luxury goods sector has seen some wins, like Louis Vuitton winning a million dollar lawsuit against private counterfeit sellers in 2017, there hasn’t been much activity. Brands can only assure items bought in-store are real, oftentimes refusing to authenticate anything bought outside. U.S. Customs and Border Protection halts thousands worth of replica bags and goods from entering the country every year. When there are millions of packages going through customs every day though, it gets tricky.
Nowadays, the majority of counterfeit items are bought online, whether it be through word-of-mouth groups on messaging apps like WeChat or Instagram sellers boasting about how their products are “exactly like the real thing.” In the digital age, one could certainly argue that social platforms have a responsibility to curb illegal activity, fake bags being no exception.
Studies show that a 1/5th of all luxury goods you see on your timeline are fake, a head-spinning number that makes all too much sense considering the social media landscape. In a world driven by overconsumption and trend cycles, to have the latest It-bag, at times costing more than the downpayment on a car, is essential. Some of the most faked bags are often status symbols at different price points: the Louis Vuitton Neverfull, the Hermès Birkin bag, and the classic Chanel flap bag. There’s a catch though: you wouldn’t even be able to tell.
The majority of people that buy counterfeits do it secretly, an almost guilty pleasure. There’s an anxiety about friends or coworkers catching on, Gross says.
“Because there is so much pressure now, especially on social media, this kind of constant, ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ mentality, that having a certain bag that a certain celebrity has as a status symbol, is incredibly hard to get or wildly out of someone’s price range,” he says. “Turning to the counterfeit market is really not easy, necessarily, but a much more affordable option for a lot of people.”
Where there’s KarJenner level fashion, there’s a black market.
According to United States law, it is illegal to sell counterfeit albums. However, in a typical Washington D.C. loophole, you can’t get thrown in jail for buying them. That’s where online replica communities come in — an industry expected to reach .8 trillion by next year.
Whether it’s thriving on wholesale websites like DHgate and AliExpress or operating on semi-shady social media pages, the fake community has exploded on the internet over the last ten years.
Toto, we’re not on Canal Street anymore.
What once was whispers of designer names under sellers’ breaths leading you into unmarked vans to claim your plastic-wrapped prize has now turned into a million-dollar market across the world.
Dupes, replicas, counterfeits– whatever you want to call them– exist on every inch of the earth where humans are concerned about their appearances. China, South Korea, and Turkey all have exclusive, high-end fake markets where travelers can pop in and get a coveted Birkin at a fraction of the cost.
On Reddit, replica forums boast nearly one million users engaged in discussions on what factories have the best sneaker batches and whether or not the stitching on a Chanel 19 bag looks good. The digital utopia is a self-described “happy place,” aimed to “enjoy fashion at any level, share our experiences, reviews, likes, dislikes, and everything in between.” These communities are dedicated to super fakes– high-quality replica items often comparable to the real thing. Mirror quality, 1:1, God tier, it’s all the same. These fakes are more than just a faux leather bag hot stamped with a logo.
Many users on RepLadies are self-described fashionphiles, often owning collections of both real and fake designer items. But for some, declining production quality justifies jumping the retail ship and going down the replica rabbit hole.
“… I’d agree that the quality isn’t there and then once you start looking at the rep world & how some of these bags look and feel just like the auth it makes you that much more aware of the quality,” one user wrote on RepLadies.
It’s a slippery slope, but there’s a slight argument there, Gross says.
“As designer brands try to cut their production costs, and at the same time they raise the costs of their goods in store to maintain that exclusivity and prestige, those two things are really going to upset consumers,” Gross adds. “Savvy collectors are going to notice that and I think you can’t really hold it against them for turning to the replica market, where in some cases, people who make replicas do make better quality bags, and the originals themselves.”
There’s also the unsuspecting naive buyer, often shelling out hundreds or thousands for a discounted bag, whether sold as one that didn’t pass manufacturing control or on secondhand websites. Just last month, Chanel and luxury secondhand website, The Real Real, began mediation after the French legacy maison claimed the Real Real wasn’t ensuring the bags they sold on their website were 100% authentic. Cracks in the real market are where replicas come in.
For Gross, these cases are the ones that are most damaging.
“It can be really horrible when you get scammed or you end up making mistakes where you feel like you make a luxury purchase and then that that fun feeling that should come with it gets taken away when the bag falls apart,” he says. “But it’s hard to hold those resale websites or resale companies accountable, because there are replicas that are so good that they’ve even fooled the companies themselves.”
But for most items on these counterfeit forums, consumers go into the digital marketplace knowing well they’re fake.
For most replica items, there are obvious touchpoints to check on to ensure quality. Stitch count, material standard, and hardware color can all be used to differentiate between a dupe and the real deal. There are hundreds of YouTube videos and resellers offering their expertise, free or not, on what constitutes an authentic pair of shoes, belts, or small leather goods. However, in the era of “super fake” bags, how can you tell what’s real and what’s not?
The ethics of counterfeit goods are as dodgy as ever, not just when it comes to economic legality. Like most facets of fast-fashion, the fake luxury goods market is marred by dubious working conditions and safety standards for garment workers. While one can assure that the bag leaving a high-street boutique is up to a brand’s ethical standards, you can’t say the same about one sourced from an overseas seller selling thousands of purses a year.
In the United Kingdom, the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau discourages citizens from buying fake items, citing that profits fund “drug dealing or other types of organized crime.” In 2016, the International Chamber of Commerce spoke at the United Nations, alleging that counterfeit items and copyright piracy are used to fund terrorism and organized crime, due to the niche’s high-profit, low-risk nature.
What seems like a quick way to save some money while maintaining an air of exclusivity is muddled in controversy and unethical behavior. Now, ask yourself, is that fake saddle bag truly worth it?
Although Gross says he’ll try to persuade his network to see the harms in counterfeit goods, sometimes, it falls on deaf ears.
“They’re kind of like, ‘Okay, well, I don’t really see it. I don’t see these people in the factory. I don’t know that the people that are making my fake bags are also making fake pharmaceuticals that are ending up hurting people,” he says. “So I guess it’s really out of sight, out of mind.”END
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