Spot the difference: the invincible business of counterfeit goods

Spot the difference: the invincible business of counterfeit goods

Selling cheap fakes of a successful product makes horribly good business sense. Is there any way to stop it?

I was standing in front of an imposing townhouse in the swish 16th arrondissement of Paris. Its classical lines, marble staircases and delicately wrought iron balustrades belied the fierce sense of purpose inside. The Musée de la Contrefaçon is an unusual kind of museum – it specialises in counterfeits. I hoped that my visit would help me understand a problem that luxury brands have been battling for decades: that of mass-market knock-offs and blatant counterfeits.

According to some estimates, the trade in fake products is worth $600bn per year. As many as 10% of all branded goods sold may be counterfeit. It is estimated that 80% of us have handled fake or falsified goods (whether wittingly or not). Sales of luxury goods have soared in recent decades, but fakes have grown even faster: one estimate suggests that counterfeits have increased by 10,000% in two decades.

It’s not just the overall figures that boggle the mind. One French customs raid confiscated enough fake Louis Vuitton fabric to cover 54 tennis courts. A swoop on a seller on the online Chinese shopping platform Taobao netted 18,500 counterfeit bags, aprons and footwear. A bust in Madrid impounded 85,000 counterfeits ready for the Black Friday and Christmas markets. In Istanbul, in 2020, almost 700,000 counterfeit haircare products were seized .

Usually, when there are many more counterfeits than the real thing, you see a correction of some kind. But despite the growth of an authentication industry with an ever-expanding list of anti-counterfeiting tools – thermally activated tamper-proof seals, security numbers, RFID (radio frequency identification) tags, colour-shifting inks, holograms – that doesn’t seem to be happening. I wanted to make sense of this discrepancy. Why can’t the designers and the big brands stop, or at least slow down the counterfeiters? And how do you tell the difference between the real thing and the fake anyway? In the Musée de la Contrefaçon there is a typically French answer to that question: glass vitrines displaying products and their counterfeits side by side, helpfully labelled vrai and faux . I looked at what seemed to be the famous quilted 2.55 Chanel handbag. In fact, the tour guide told me, it was a Turkish-made knockoff. Where the original boasts regular and robust stitching, the fake was glued together. The signature quilting was made of cardboard and cotton wool. At first sight, a Korean bag looked just like a Louis Vuitton; on closer examination, I noticed that the distinctive trefoils had been replaced by a circle and a bar, the LV logo by some superficially similar characters in Hangul, the Korean alphabet. Not a single element of the design matched the original, yet the overall effect was unmistakably “Vuitton”. The guide explained that this illustrates the difference between fakery by imitation and fakery by “passing off”. Another cabinet held a 2,000-year-old Gaulish fake of a Roman amphora; what should be a Roman name on the stopper was replaced by random symbols. I got the feeling that the museum staff were quite proud that their oldest fake was made on French territory.

Rather unstylishly, I was carrying my notebook, wallet and keys in a supermarket plastic bag. Leaving the hotel earlier that day, I had realised at the last minute that my shoulder bag was a fake Longchamp. In the museum the guide showed me the real thing. On mine, the little gold tchotchke that hung off the zip was a plain gold ring, where it should have been a leaping Longchamp horse and jockey. The inside of mine lacked the deliciously thick, rubbery, almost sticky quality of the genuine article. Compared to the real thing, the leather on my bag was oddly spongy and insubstantial, the stitching inadequate.

I asked the guide about the building. Was it true that it was a copy of an earlier 17th-century one in the Marais district? Did that mean – oh, the delicious irony – that the museum was itself housed in a counterfeit? The guide’s eyes narrowed slightly. I sensed a froideur . “It’s a copy, not a counterfeit. Where there is no IP, no counterfeit is possible.”

The Musée de la Contrefaçon specialises in luxury fakes, but the explosion in counterfeiting over the past two decades has mostly taken place in the mid-market. Brand knockoffs that used to be sold on market stalls are now just a couple of clicks away on the internet. The products most affected are […]

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