Counterfeit handbags designed by Louis Vuitton and Chanel sit on shelves of a secret room of a store at Karama Market in Dubai. Andrew Henderson / The National
Counterfeit handbags designed by Louis Vuitton and Chanel sit on shelves of a secret room of a store at Karama Market in Dubai. Andrew Henderson / The National

The persistence of fake designer goods

Has anyone seen a band of thieves wearing cellophane-strip dresses and plastic cowboy boots?

Items such as these were stolen from the American designer Marc Jacobs' Spring/Summer 2012 collection in London last week, so it's just possible that a posse of newly stylish criminals may be on the loose somewhere in Europe. Intended for display to the European fashion press, the clothes are believed to have been stolen from a van in central London's Mount Street after arriving from Paris by train. Not yet available in shops, the horde is estimated to be worth around Dh230,000. This is admittedly a manageably small sum for a major brand such as Marc Jacobs', with its 239 shops worldwide, but it seems unlikely that the clothes were spirited away for resale, as they would be immediately conspicuous as stolen goods.

The loss is still potentially catastrophic for the company, nonetheless. Instead of seeking a quick sale, there is speculation that the thieves have stolen the collection to act as templates for counterfeit copies of Jacobs' new collection. Taken to pieces by garment fraudsters, these clothes may well one day reappear on the market as cheap copies of the designer's original clothes.

If so, they will be fed into one of the world's most buoyant industries - the manufacture of fake branded goods. The global scale of this trade is mind-blowing. As anyone who has visited Dubai's Karama district can testify, imitation designer wares are so common in the Emirates that they almost pass without comment - just last week the Emirati Telecommunications Regulatory Authority announced that 70,000 counterfeit mobile phones that it has detected would be blocked.

The UAE, however, is no worse than other countries - a Chinese government crackdown on online sales of counterfeit goods this year gave warnings to more than 65,000 online stores.

On the internet alone, it uncovered an annual turnover for Chinese fake goods peddlers of Dh460 million. In Russia, meanwhile, the Ministry of Internal Affairs estimated this year that as much as 37 per cent of all clothing sold in the country annually is counterfeit. So rife is the problem elsewhere in Europe that the French and Italian authorities now fine people caught knowingly buying counterfeit goods, with the French threatening lawbreakers with a maximum fine of €300,000 (Dh1.47m) and a possible year in prison. It is an extreme but understandable move in countries where tourist spots are packed with sellers hawking fake Louis Vuitton and Gucci bags, but enforcement of the law still barely skims the surface of the illicit trade.

But while the trade is massive, is this really such a terrible thing? The premium that designer goods command on the market is often due as much to brand recognition as it is to high-quality manufacture, with people buying into aspirations designers have sold them just as much as they are buying an actual object. Much of the mark-up designer labels charge pays for advertising and promoting these aspirations rather than the cost of the materials used, and some feel that fakes are an antidote to rampant overpricing.

However, as the anti-forgery lobbying organisation Alliance Against Intellectual Property Theft points out, selling counterfeit clothing is anything but a victimless crime. Its director, Susie Winter, is keen to stress that ripping off designers is often intrinsically linked to other forms of organised crime.

"There is evidence to show that people involved with counterfeit goods are also connected to other criminal activities - we have had cases of forgers and their networks being involved in people smuggling, identity fraud, drugs and illegal firearms," she said. "Their activities also damage legitimate businesses, which are paying billions in taxes, using proper factories with decent safety standards and giving their employees living wages."

Even legitimate clothing factories aren't always known for their model labour conditions, but counterfeit designer clothes are inevitably made in conditions that are completely unregulated and often dangerous. They might be cheaper, but designer fakes are often bargains bought at the expense of many other people.

Except, of course, that such bargains often prove to be anything but. Designer clothes, bags and shoes are supposed to be manufactured to a high standard - and if they prove to be badly made are usually protected under guarantee. Fake designer goods, on the other hand, are sold at lower prices that can only turn a profit for their makers if corners are cut with materials and manufacture. If you buy a Louis Vuitton handbag outside one of the brands' own stores - the only place where the real thing is sold - you may find that your imitation's clasps tarnish or fall off quickly, or that the lining wears through far sooner than you expected.

As Susie Winter puts it: "Selling counterfeit goods is a form of consumer harm, with buyers getting substandard, shoddy products without either guarantees or proper safety checks - in the case of items like children's clothes, this can be a very serious problem indeed."

For those genuinely concerned about avoiding counterfeit goods, it pays to shop only in the designers' own outlets or well-established stores that have rock-solid returns policies.

Purchasing online makes checking harder, but many online retailers still have reliable policies on fakes, too. If you buy a designer item that turns out to be counterfeit on eBay, for example, the company will often refund you, especially if you get someone who works in one of the brand's shops to inspect it and confirm your suspicions in a letter.

It's easy to be tempted by the allure of fake designer gear - it's much cheaper than the real thing, and the huge, profitable companies its makers defraud can't easily be cast as suffering underdogs. Scratch the easily tarnished surface, however, and the shady connections and low quality of counterfeit clothing make it far less appetising. When that chic little designer knock-off bought for a song was possibly put together in a death trap and distributed through the hands of gangsters, it doesn't look half as attractive, does it?


Company name: Revibe
Started: 2022
Founders: Hamza Iraqui and Abdessamad Ben Zakour
Based: UAE
Industry: Refurbished electronics
Funds raised so far: $10m
Investors: Flat6Labs, Resonance and various others