Life&style One of these bags costs Dh2,650, the other just Dh120 - the decision should be easy. But what would a cheap imitation say about you? Helena Frith Powell reports.
For three weeks Claire has been waiting to buy a new handbag. She finally gets paid and, naturally, she heads for Marina Mall. There is a Louis Vuitton bag that catches her eye: it's red, glossy and gorgeous. Price: Dh3,800; almost half her monthly salary. She picks it up, fondles the soft leather, unzips it, locates the pocket where her mobile phone will sit and imagines herself answering calls while onlookers admire it and - by association - her. She puts it over her shoulder and looks at herself in the mirror, as the sales assistant smiles approvingly. Suddenly she feels as if she is part of the club. Claire has a big decision to make - should she spend a fortune or do the sensible thing and leave?
There is another option: she could fake it. The Karama area of Dubai, for example, is dedicated to satisfying the never-ending desire for designer goods. Except these goods are not designer, they are fake. You start your journey to Karama by getting lost on Sheikh Zayed Road and it's all downhill from there. I have been given a contact to call and a map pinpointing the shop. The sellers of fake goods are, understandably, nervous of being raided. Once every few months the police arrive and confiscate their entire stock. So you can gain access to their goods only via an introduction. I walk into the building which I think houses the shop and am greeted by an Indian woman. I explain who I am; she seems to understand but then shows me a wicker basket.
I am undeterred. I have been told that sellers of fake goods will pretend not to know what you're talking about until they are sure you're not an undercover policeman. "No," I say smiling. "I'm after a leather bag." She shows me a leather-lined wicker basket. She really is playing hard to get. "No, a designer bag," I say, looking at her meaningfully. "Oh, I see," she says. "You mean counterfeits?"
Eureka. "Yes, please." One of the criticisms often levelled at designer shops is that their sales assistants make you feel like something the cat has dragged in. Bond Street's finest have nothing on this woman. She looks at me disdainfully and practically pushes me out of the shop. "Go further into Karama," she tells me. "That's where you'll find those things." I call another contact. He tells me his brother will pick me up outside the Sunshine Supermarket and lead me to their shop. As I follow a perfect stranger driving a battered white Nissan, I wonder if women have gone too far in their quest for a cheap handbag. After all, this man could be taking me anywhere. Would it not have been easier to go to Harvey Nichols?
Finally, we stop and I am being led through streets that are closer to Karachi than Karama. Men pop out from everywhere offering me "genuine fakes". I have been told to ignore them; what you need when looking for a fake handbag is a man with a shop hidden within a shop where he stores his best stuff; "Korean quality", as they call it. Eventually we get to his brother's shop. We walk through several rooms filled with boxes into a back room stuffed with fake designer bags, scarves, sunglasses, shoes and watches. A pair of fake Tod's cost Dh150; a fake Chanel bag is Dh300; a small "Louis Vuitton", Dh120. You could buy a lifetime's supply of bags for the price of one real one. There are handbags everywhere; they come at you from the walls, the floor and the ceiling.
The brother proudly shows me an oversized "Jimmy Choo" bag. "Very good quality," he says. "Too big," I say. "The bigger the bag, the smaller the brain," my husband always says. He offers me a pink "Tod's" bag that looks reasonable. The price is Dh350; less than a fraction of the real thing. I examine the bag again. It really is rather nice. And it even has a pocket for my phone. I feel a twinge of guilt as I contemplate buying the bag. But then I remember a conversation I had with Pam Danziger, president of Unity Marketing and author of the book Shopping: Why We Love It. "The luxury brands have totally brought this counterfeit thing upon themselves," she told me, "because they have been pushing the image so hard and have totally forgotten about the most important message, which is why we should be spending 10 or 20 times more on a real bag than a fake one. They are selling the sizzle and not the steak. They need to get back to the steak."
Danziger argues that luxury consumers didn't get rich by throwing money away and that they are value shoppers. She says the luxury brand companies need to stop relying on the brand alone and on celebrity endorsements to sell their goods. "These people will buy a Chanel handbag because they are buying a quality product with heritage and history, not because it has two Cs on the front of it or because Sienna Miller has been seen with it. The luxury brands need to go back to getting that message across: value, quality and heritage. Otherwise they will go under."
So if it's all their fault anyway, where's the catch with buying fake? Well, one catch is that it is illegal. And quite apart from the look, touch and smell of it (see p27), there are more serious issues linked to faking it. It is estimated that around 75 per cent of copies are made in China. A European Union taxations and customs report published last year concludes that of all the counterfeit accessories seized in 2006, 81 per cent were made in China. Many of these bags are churned out in factories staffed entirely by children, who are paid a pittance to work 18-hour days. Their fingers are small, so they're better at the intricate stitching needed to make the fakes look as close as possible to the real thing.
Dana Thomas, the author of Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Lustre, wrote in The New York Times of a visit to one of the factories: "On a warm winter afternoon in Guangzhou, I accompanied Chinese police officers on a raid in a decrepit tenement," she wrote. "We found two dozen children, aged eight to 13, gluing and sewing together fake luxury-brand handbags. The police confiscated everything, arrested the owner and sent the children out. Some punched their timecards, hoping to still get paid. (The average Chinese factory worker earns about Dh440 a month; the counterfeit factory worker earns half that or less.) As we made our way back to the police vans, the children threw bottles and cans at us. They were now jobless and, because the factory owner housed them, homeless. It was Oliver Twist in the 21st century."
It gets worse. According to a report published in 2005 by the BASCAP (Business Action to Stop Counterfeiting and Piracy) the organisation's investigators have testified to seeing children in Chinese factories who have had their legs broken and improperly reset so they cannot leave or go outside to play. Having said that, there was a scandal in Italy in December 2007 when it was discovered that major brands such as Prada and Dolce & Gabbana staff their workshops with illegal Chinese workers who are badly paid and poorly housed so they can keep the illustrious "Made in Italy" label on their goods. At the time the fashion houses argued it was better than moving their production offshore.
The FBI claims that organised crime now runs the world of fake merchandise. There are stories of the Albanian mafia ruthlessly controlling the trade in Europe in the same way they used to control the illegal drugs market. According to the Anti-Counterfeit Coalition, the sale of counterfeit T-shirts helped fund the bombing of the Twin Towers in 1993. Jeffrey Unger, president of brand protection for OpSec Security confirms this: "Profits from counterfeiting have been linked to underground crime syndicates that use this illegal business to fund drug trafficking and terrorist activity," he says. "When you purchase a fake, your money becomes a part of this illegal business cycle. In turn, you are supporting activities you would never want to fund. Counterfeiters are masters of fraud who seek to exploit consumers."
Some say the counterfeit industry costs everyone in the long run. One New York City advertisement even links fakes to a decline in the city's services. "The sale of counterfeit goods costs New Yorkers $1 billion in lost tax dollars each year," it reads. "Less money to improve schools, staff hospitals and make our streets safer." In France, Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy (LMVH), the world's leading manufacturer of designer goods, estimates 38,000 jobs a year are lost due to the fake market as companies pay millions to fight the counterfeit market. The company reportedly spends €15m (Dh70m) a year. In 2007 it raided 6,000 counterfeit warehouses and shops and filed 13,000 anti-counterfeiting complaints. According to the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, fake goods cost the US around $250bn (Dh918bn) last year.
Then there is the quality issue. "A handbag is for life, not just for Christmas," my grandmother used to say. If you buy a fake handbag it will probably last until Christmas, if you're lucky. Of course, at those prices you can just go and buy another one, but would you really want to? The alternative is to buy a real one; but how many people can afford one? One source I spoke to says it's not just a question of being able to afford it; she feels ripped off. "A Prada bag costs around €28 to produce and they sell it in the shops for €440," she says. "How can they justify that?"
According to a recent newspaper survey, Emiratis prefer counterfeit goods when it comes to accessories, saying that they are affordable and indistinguishable from the genuine product. The general manager of Louis Vuitton, Middle East and India would disagree. "The value of a genuine Louis Vuitton bag lies in the quality of its material and its design, but also in the 154-year history of the brand, the creative input that went into the process, the know-how of the craftsmen who assembled it, the luxurious and service-orientated environment in which the bag is sold and the lifetime of satisfaction that accompanies it."
Jeffrey Unger suggests before we go down the fake route, we consider the following: "Brands owners have invested years in developing their products' quality, their brand image, and their consumer loyalty. When a consumer purchases counterfeit goods, they are purchasing an imitation product, made of lesser quality that will not withstand the test of time. Often, counterfeit products fall apart, break, do not work properly, or even pose harmful health risks in the case of counterfeit pharmaceuticals."
Kristine Oustrup, a partner in Darling PR, a Cannes-based PR agency that specialises in luxury goods, agrees with Pam Danziger that if luxury brands want to stay ahead, they need to raise their game and become more effective communicators. "I believe that the future lies with real value. You spend your money on brands that produce beautiful products in a sustainable manner: brands that invite you into their world and introduce you to sensual experiences; brands that mail you their beautiful bespoke magazine to put on your coffee table; brands that really value having you as their customer even if you only bought a couple of things," she says.
"The times of easy and effortless marketing are over. People are becoming much too discerning. They know who ends up paying for all those glossy ads and the prime- location flagship stores. They pay for it! Are they willing to continue doing so without asking for something more than empty bling in return? I don't think so. Status for status's sake is over." I leave Karama without buying the pink bag. I do buy something; some Persian rug mouse mats for friends back home. But I resist the temptation to fall into the fake handbag trap.
That evening I go for a drink with Claire, she is carrying her new (genuine) Louis Vuitton handbag. "It's an object of great joy," she tells me. "I don't care about the money." I look at it and agree that it is splendid. Claire glows with pride. No fake handbag (however cheap) can have that effect on you. You will just end up feeling like a cheat; which you are.