Even fakes going down-market

Susan Scafidi in The Province, February 07, 2012

Media Source

Mirabelle Vargas, 29, winds her way through the open-air stalls in downtown Los Angeles's bustling Santee Alley, hunting for Victoria's Secret underwear.

Or at least undies with a tag that says Victoria's Secret.

An authentic pair from the lingerie maker can cost $7.50 and up. But Vargas, a retail sales clerk, man-aged to find a table brimming with pink and white unmentionables. Price: two bucks a pop.

"Of course they're not real, not at this price," said Vargas, decked out in a chocolate-brown Victoria's Secret track suit, also counterfeit. "But the quality isn't bad, and buying fakes saves a few bucks. You can find fake everything here."

Not that long ago, counterfeiters focused almost exclusively on upscale brands like Prada and Gucci. But five years of a weak economy has knock-off artists churning out goods for people with more modest tastes and budgets.

At Santee Alley and other locations, you can find fake versions of shirts, pants and footwear by brands such as Gap, Dickies and Vans.

"You are seeing stuff now you can find at Target, not just stuff you can find at Macy's and Neiman Marcus," said Lt. Mathew St. Pierre of the LAPD's commercial crimes division. "Five years ago, we wouldn't have seen $10 and $15 T-shirts being counterfeited like we do now."

St. Pierre said police are aware that counterfeits are being sold at San-tee Alley and investigate regularly, but he added that combating knock-off artists is a constant battle fought with limited resources.

No one keeps numbers, but fashion industry experts say cheap fakes have exploded in recent years, especially in California.

"It's a huge problem because we are inexpensive fashion brands," said Ilse Metchek, president of the California Fashion Association. "We are Mecca for that. We are not Calvin Klein or Donna Karan. We are fast fashion. You can copy it within a week of appearance in retail stores and slap a label on it."

The economy is one reason for the trend. "The recession has more people trading down," said Susan Scafidi, academic director of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham University's law school. "Even lower-priced brands feel like a stretch in this economy, and people are more likely to trade down to counterfeits."

There are several other factors driving the low-rent-counterfeit trend, including the Internet, a changing consumer mindset and beefed-up, anti-counterfeiting efforts by the giant apparel companies.

The big luxury brands have cracked down hard.

Last year, fashion label Tory Burch won $164 million US in a lawsuit against a group of cyber squatters peddling fake shoes, purses and accessories. Chanel filed suit in September against 399 websites allegedly selling knock-off sunglasses, wallets, jewelry and other goods bearing the luxury retailer's name.

But with slim budgets and few employees, small brands can't afford legions of lawyers and private detectives, making them less-risky targets for counterfeiters.

"It's a business-expansion strategy for the bad guys," said Tom Taylor, president of brand protection for OpSec Security, a Boston firm that monitors counterfeiters. "The downturn left a lot of capacity open in factories in China and other parts of Asia, so they are coming up with ways to fill that capacity."

Shoppers themselves, meanwhile, are another factor. A low-paid clerical worker might have a hard time passing off a $10,000 Hermes tote as the real thing. But who would ask questions about $44 Toms shoes?

"When you're talking about middle-market brands with middle of the road price points, you don't have that stigma about counterfeits, people being suspicious about fakes, because the real thing isn't that unattainable," said Caleb Westbay, vice-president of sales at Ed Hardy, a Los Angeles tattoo-themed, streetwear brand.