In the midday heat of downtown Los Angeles, Chris Johnson squints at the jeans-clad plastic buttocks of mannequins lined up in Fashion District storefronts.
He's looking for something special: a horseshoe design stitched in the jeans' back pockets. He passes stores selling counterfeit Coach bags and Prada sunglasses, then heads down an alley to a store where two men are checking their cellphones and looking bored.
"Have any True Religion, size 6?" he asks. One of the shopkeepers looks around to make sure no one else is nearby, then disappears into a back room. He emerges holding two pairs of women's jeans, complete with the trademarked True Religion horseshoes on the pocket and True Religion tags, picturing a Buddha holding a guitar. Johnson buys one pair -- which usually retails for between $170 and $400 -- for $60.
Back on the street he inspects his purchase more closely. "I can tell just by looking that they're fake," he says. "The stitching is inferior to the real McCoy."
But Johnson isn't disappointed -- in fact, he seems satisfied as he inspects the jeans and points out each flaw. With his bulky, 6-foot-2 frame, mop of curly hair, ruddy cheeks and glasses pinching the tip of his nose, he looks like an overgrown boy who's just won a treasure hunt.
In a sense he has. Johnson is among a growing number of fashion sleuths who covertly buy counterfeit products so that major designers can sue the people who sell them. A specialist in dungarees, Johnson has a client list that includes True Religion Brand Jeans, Joe's Jeans and Antik Denim. He likes to joke that none of those companies makes jeans in his size.
But it's an uphill battle for Johnson and the hundreds of investigators like him as the flow of counterfeit goods into the United States increases. Customs officials seized $197 million worth of fakes in 2007, up 27% from the previous year, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Last year, customs officials seized $18 million worth of counterfeit apparel, which includes denim, from China alone -- up 29% from the previous year.
Those numbers represent only a small slice of the counterfeit goods traded every day: According to the International Anticounterfeiting Coalition, the global trade in illegitimate goods has increased from $5.5 billion a year in 1982 to $600 billion today.
Los Angeles is a hub for counterfeit denim sales. Many of the goods come in through the local ports, where the sheer volume of traffic makes them difficult to catch. The size of the retail market in Los Angeles creates a lot of opportunity for illicit business: About $2 billion worth of counterfeit goods is sold annually in L.A. County, according to the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp.
Luxury labels, including the many expensive jeans brands made in Los Angeles, are prime targets for piracy. As the upscale denim industry has grown, so too has the copycatting.
"The counterfeiting problem exists with Rolex watches and high-end jeans because people want the cachet without spending the money," said Douglas Masters, who specializes in intellectual property protection at law firm Loeb & Loeb in Chicago. That's a boon to counterfeiters, he said. "The opportunity to make money is greater when there's a much higher profit margin."
Denim companies say customers who unknowingly buy knockoffs will be dissatisfied and spread negative word of mouth about the jeans. Counterfeits "hurt the brand integrity and deter people from purchasing the product," said Deborah Greaves, general counsel for True Religion.
Some consumers say they can't tell the difference.
Echo Park resident Golda Collier, 28, said someone gave her a pair of True Religions that she soon learned were fakes. She still wears them, though, and doesn't understand why people spend hundreds of dollars on jeans when they can pop down to Santee Alley and buy them for 10 bucks. "No one knows the difference," she said.
Fashion student Jaclyn Hollenback, 18, disagrees. She started buying True Religion and other expensive jeans when she was in high school, and is a loyal customer.
"They last longer and don't stretch out," she said. "They hold everything in that needs to be held in."
When consumers buy counterfeit True Religion jeans rather than the real thing, it hurts the company's bottom line. (Although it isn't exactly limping along: True Religion posted a profit of $27.8 million in fiscal 2007, up 28% from a year earlier.)
That's why denim companies spend millions annually to employ people like Johnson.
Twenty years ago, Johnson, now 52, probably couldn't have imagined that his job would entail countless hours shopping for women's denim. He likes to talk about how he was one of the inspirations for Tom Cruise's character in the movie "A Few Good Men": As a Navy attorney in the 1980s he filed the original complaint against a Guantanamo Bay officer whose approval of a hazing procedure resulted in the near-death of a Marine.