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Faking It in the Fashion World

Driven in part by consumers' hunger for designer looks at cheap prices, Los Angeles has developed into an international center for manufacturing counterfeit merchandise.

March 19, 2000|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The women wanted the quality stuff. Their contact had told them where and how to get it. So a few days before Christmas, an 18-year-old, her mother and their two girlfriends drove nearly an hour from suburban Orange County into the heart of downtown L.A.

At the prescribed address on Santee Alley, they located the dealer, a middle-aged man with a foreign accent and guarded manner. They showed him they were serious customers by the accessories they wore and their stated intent to buy in volume. The women inspected what he brought them, paid in cash and took off with their illicit prizes: $45 Kate Spade handbags.

Not real Kate Spades, of course. The bags are part of a growing black market in counterfeit fashion accessories that matches sophisticated counterfeiters and brazen scofflaws with label-conscious young women eager for designer looks at bargain prices.

At the moment, Kate Spade fakes--simple nylon or faux fur-covered rectangular handbags that retail for $165 to $500 in upscale stores--are among the newest, hottest items on the market.

Los Angeles, already a hub for counterfeit imports, has become an international center for manufacturing fakes, said Los Angeles Deputy Dist. Atty. Bill Clark. While it is impossible to measure the scope of the black market, Clark said he believes that most counterfeits in the nation, and most bootlegged products sold south of the border, are manufactured in sweatshops in downtown Los Angeles and in suburban industrial parks around Southern California.

In the last two years, about 25 manufacturers have been prosecuted in Los Angeles County, Clark said, adding that no cases have been filed in New York or San Francisco during the same period. Los Angeles is ripe for counterfeiting, he said. Many skilled garment workers are looking for work after their companies have relocated out of the country.

Industry watchdogs say the market for fashion fakes is part of a broader counterfeit market that causes estimated annual losses to the U.S. economy of $200 billion.

At the root of the boom in fashion counterfeits is a widespread demand for fake designer accessories that were considered declasse not so long ago.

"There's a whole new mentality about paying a high price for something," said Kristine Cleary, a designers representative at the California Mart in Los Angeles. "It's completely opposite from 10 years ago. Everybody is proud to say they got an off-price deal or a knockoff. It's like they're beating the system."

Some openly brag about finding a good fake.

"It shows you're resourceful," said Alexis White, 20, a junior at UCLA who has bought fake Gucci and Prada bags in Italy and Los Angeles for $60 and less.

Other customers, emboldened by the quality of today's fakes, try to pass off the counterfeits as real with mixed results.

Tiffany Wheat, manager of Kate Spade's Los Angeles boutique, said more than two dozen women came into the store after Christmas asking to exchange the bags they'd received as Christmas gifts. Wheat said she could tell right away the bags were bogus. They carried the familiar "kate spade NEW YORK" label, but the stitching was too small, the straps too narrow, the nylon fabric faded or the faux fur too rough.

"We always try to break it gently," Wheat said, noting that most of the women had no idea that their bags were counterfeit.

"We're sorry," we say, "but Kate didn't make that bag."

Unlike legitimate off-price products and generic look-alikes, counterfeits have phony labels. Customers are led to confuse the items with the original, even though the quality can range from cheesy copies with glued-on labels to detail-by-detail duplicates.

While buyers usually are not breaking any laws, manufacturers, distributors and some retailers can be prosecuted or sued under state and federal statutes for violating a registered trademark. In California, criminal penalties can be as severe as three years in prison and $250,000 in fines.

During the last five years, sophisticated copies have become increasingly difficult to distinguish from designer handbags, in part because designers themselves have switched from handcrafting to mass production. When they use computer technology to produce the originals, "it's fairly easy to have a clandestine computer make the clandestine product," Clark said.

Counterfeiting Is a Major Crime

The U.S. Department of Justice recently placed counterfeiting on its list of major crimes. Even so, counterfeit products--from handbags and shoes to toys and software--continue to flourish. Last year, U.S. Customs officers seized $98.5 million worth of counterfeits, more than twice what they uncovered in 1995, and most from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

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