Luxury fakes are more popular than the originals? Not great for the brands.
From www.thecut.com. Lisa, a 38-year-old Manhattan woman, has this super rich friend. She has a massive Birkin collection, a $10 million dollar house in the Hamptons, and flies everywhere in private jets. “I just assumed everything was real,” says Lisa. Then one day, the friend lets her in on a secret. Those Birkins? They’re fake. She gets them at “Tupperware parties” for replica designer bags.
This was Lisa’s first brush with the fake-handbag world, and soon she was hooked. A stay-at-home mom with a household income she says caps around $3 million a year, Lisa already owned a number of authentic pieces. But since discovering replicas, she’s sold almost all of them, funneling the money into a cache of counterfeit Birkins. Her Instagram, which is dedicated to the collection, is full of photos of them — arranged around her dog, on various pristine beaches, on the tables of expensive restaurants in the city. She’s spent something like $10,000 on reps in the last year. “That way, my husband doesn’t get mad at me, because I’m not really spending real money.”
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And those Tupperware parties? Lisa was intrigued, but a lifetime of shrewd shopping told her the bag lady must be getting the goods from somewhere. “I’m going to cut her out,” she thought. “That’s how I found RepLadies.”
RepLadies is a sub-Reddit dedicated to counterfeit luxury goods, and where a community of mostly millennial women gather to acquire them. Exquisite replicas of everything from designer shoes to Rimowa suitcases are available, but the bags are the real attraction. You can get just about anything in any color for one to 10 percent of the price of the authentic — classic flap Chanels, croc-skin Birkins, Telfar totes, even “fantasy” items in fanciful colors and prints or plated with something like glitter hardware.
Founded in 2016, the sub-Reddit has nearly 200,000 members, making it neither the largest nor oldest replica community on the internet. It is, however, tight-knit with a distinct culture marked by a kind of derision for authentic goods and the belief that buying replicas is a way of subverting the system and sticking it to the man; reps “take a shit on the you can’t sit with us mentality of designer brands,” as one RepLady put it in a post. The sub is a repository of insider knowledge, featuring detailed guides on how to communicate in Chinese, avoid getting doxed, and buy bags from sellers with made-up names who liaise for factories in the “middle of nowhere China.” Such are the challenges of doing business here, warns the FAQ: “We all want the best, but we’re dealing with a black market.”
Imagine we were just spending all of our money on authentic handbags,” she says. “You would never grow your wealth that way, right?
Although the majority of RepLadies are based in New York City, you’d be mistaken to think of the sub as some kind of virtual Canal Street. According to a self-reported survey it released last year, the group spent more than $3 million on replicas in 2021, and among its members were several chief executives, venture capitalists, a diplomat, and a Big Tech ethics adviser. In fact, the community seems to be largely made up of wealthy women who own authentic bags, can absolutely afford more, and continue to buy fakes. There are hundreds of posts comparing the two, with RepLadies analyzing the fake within an inch of its life: Is the stitch count exact? The glazing rich? Are the specks of paint on a Goyard rep daubed correctly? Does it smell “fufu” or not?
These gimlet-eyed assessments usually reveal the reps as indistinguishable from the authentics. Sometimes, the fakes are actually better. But RepLadies aren’t just here for the quality; the know-how required to navigate the high-end replica market is in itself a kind of currency, one that seems to appeal to even the wealthiest of women. For this cadre of rep obsessives, status isn’t a massive collection of real luxury bags; it’s the ability to find a fake so perfect it feels more theirs than the real thing.
“It’s about the atavistic thrill of the hunt — the feeling of getting a bargain,” says a former real-estate developer who retired a few years ago at age 30. “I don’t just want a thing; I want to feel like I’ve gotten it for a deal.” She claims to own “hundreds, probably thousands of reps” including nearly a hundred bags and a rep Bulgari necklace set that cost more than $10,000. (The real thing can run you over $75,000.) When asked about her money, she says she was born rich and “bet everything on a friend’s start-up that was sold to Apple.”
And in spite of her household’s seven-figure income, Lisa (who requested a pseudonym) loves a good sale. “My friends that spend a lot on authentics have either never worked a day in their life or they’ve married rich guys,” she says. “But if you’re working hard for your money, you don’t want to spend it on stupid stuff. In New York especially, wealthy people just have more interesting things to do with their money. They invest in crypto. They reinvest in their businesses. They invest in their children.”
Still, most of Lisa’s rich friends ignore her suggestions to buy reps. “It’s just a snobbery thing,” she says. “They’ve literally told me, ‘I’m too good to buy reps.’” Instead, “they’re out here buying authentic Hermès, and they are stressing out every single day. ‘Will I get the bag?’ ‘What if it runs out?’ I’m just like, You literally don’t need this stress in your life; you can just be happy.”
She echoed a number of women I spoke with who think authentic customers are the ones getting played. “These days, the reps just tend to be better made,” a Hamptons-based chief strategy officer tells me. “They last longer. There’s more attention to detail. You can tell that things have been done by hand.” Meanwhile, luxury brands have recently implemented thousands of dollars worth of price hikes — the cost of Chanel’s medium flap bag, for example, has increased 60 percent since 2019 — leaving shoppers wondering what exactly buying authentic does for them.
Take Cindy, a stay-at-home mom in Flushing who found her way to reps after spending a couple thousand on a Dior that fell apart at the seams. “Imagine we were just spending all of our money on authentic handbags,” she says. “You would never grow your wealth that way, right?”
Getting a good rep requires a certain amount of savvy, and while the internet is one way to do that, some New Yorkers turn to one of the city’s many middlemen. While there’s a markup, it’s less “sketchy,” says one buyer. “There’s a veneer of legitimacy because it’s an actual person,” explains Lisa. “You’re not just sending money to China hoping you get a bag in return.”
One reseller is something of an urban legend. A kind of counterfeit doyenne, she shills reps out of her Tribeca penthouse and uptown, where the extra room in her classic six serves as a showroom. “All the moms buy from her,” one Upper West Side rep buyer noted, while another described a party at which guests were encouraged to compare the doyenne’s real Birkins with the fake ones she was selling. “I have seen a lot of influencers at them and a few reality stars,” says the Hamptons-based RepLady.
Lisa may have been approached by her out of the blue. “There’s this lady on the Upper East Side who looks like a rich Asian mom,” she says when I mention the rumors to her. “She stopped me on the street carrying a red Kelly Danse and was like, ‘Do you like the Birkin I’m carrying? I can take you somewhere to get one.’”
Perhaps there is a kingpin, but what’s more likely is that a number of New Yorkers, some of them wealthy, are acting as middlemen, shipping the bags over in bulk and holding the parties. One of them is Bree, a 20-something single mom who works with a network of some 60 sellers to source bags for her “thousands of loyal clients” — mostly Long Island women she manages on a private Facebook page. The sellers usually let her keep 10 percent, and she estimates that she makes around $5,000 a month. She’s less concerned about getting in trouble with the law than about Facebook shutting her down. “Then I would have to start all over again,” she says.
Although replicas are something of an open secret, buyers do worry about repercussions. “I don’t want to be caught red-handed with thousands of dollars of Chinese merchandise,” frets one in the midst of building a second closet for her fakes. “You could get in minor trouble for that.”
How much trouble? “No one has ever served prison time for importing a few of these items for personal use,” says fashion lawyer Douglas Hand. Stateside resellers are violating trademark laws, he explains, but buyers “can always say, ‘I wasn’t aware it was inauthentic.’” The China-based sellers can also be punished, but even if they could be located, “we’re limited on what we can do outside of our border,” say representatives from Customs and Border Protection, who added that China “can be difficult to work with” when it comes to cracking down on fakes.
Still, the bags do occasionally get seized, and RepLadies have shared terrifying disciplinary letters sent directly from fashion houses. They typically contain grand threats — prison terms, multimillion-dollar fines — and are “intended to shock and awe the recipients,” says Hand. But these letters are one of the few cards fashion houses can play; the global rep market is made up of countless, many-headed hydras, and with enforcement almost entirely on brands, there is little they can do outside of spending millions on lawyers to litigate trademark cases across jurisdictions.
Chanel and Louis Vuitton, two of the most frequently purchased replica brands on RepLadies, declined to comment, but Hand says the companies are “acutely” aware of the problem, which is worsening as reps become more sophisticated. As well as aesthetic accuracy, many have the same date codes, stamps, locks, French-tannery labels, and serial numbers used to distinguish their real counterparts. Some even have authentication technology — QR codes and chips — that have yet to be implemented in the real thing.
There are a number of theories among RepLadies about where the super-replicas come from. One posits that the fashion houses own the rep factories so they can monetize at every level, while another says that reps are “factory extras” — bags that didn’t pass quality control and are being sold by employees on the side. Some say workers make replicas with the unused materials from the authentics, while others claim that the replica factories operate completely independent of any brand. One RepLady heard this last theory from a popular Hermès replicator. “They buy an authentic, and they rip that bitch apart, and they use it like a pattern,” she tells me. “And they get better and better with every new one that comes out.”
The mystery is part of the appeal, another mused. “It’s like, Oh, are you getting the real thing? Maybe.”
With the right contacts and social-media accounts, anyone can get a fake bag, but access to high-quality replicas is becoming more rarefied. RepLadies has, for some months now, been splintering into private social channels, where the savviest replica buyers seem to spend most of their time. Here, they can access more exclusive facets of the rep world, like its massive secondhand market and top-tier Hermès sellers, and even make custom orders with a factory.
But these smaller, more intimate coteries go beyond a shared love of reps. “We’ve been to each other’s houses,” Lisa tells me of her replica group. “We’ve met each other’s kids. We all know each other. It’s not what you think a bunch of people buying fake bags would be like.” And for many women in circles where social currency can be purchased, rep-buying has evolved into a kind of edgy declaration of identity. To them, status isn’t having the means to join the $10,000-handbag clique—anyone could be so basic. It’s waltzing into brunch with a fake that takes chutzpah.
“What is even considered authentic?” Cindy mused. “Authentic could cost you thousands; used could cost you half. And now you’re telling me a replica could be 10 percent of the real thing and you can’t even tell?”
Can you? For around $200, I procured a Gucci Jackie Mini, which retails for $2,500. It came in an apple-green Gucci box complete with tags, a dust bag, and Gucci-branded desiccant packs. I brought them all to an authenticator in a popular Upper East Side consignment store, the nice, boutiquey kind that keeps “carefully authenticated” Louis Vuittons in locked glass cases. After peering at the fake for several minutes, the woman behind the counter sighed.
“I can do $975 or give you $1,100 in store credit,” she said. “What do you think?”