With two kids, Dorill Connell-Lake can’t afford a real Louis Vuitton bag. She bought an imitation LV for $60 while on a trip to New York City last year.
Connell-Lake is not alone in her desire to acquire the appearance of haute couture. According to U.S. Customs & Border Protection, $94 million worth of knockoff goods were seized in 2003.
There is a difference, however, between the clothing and handbags in the designer retail stores and what the sidewalk vendors peddle as high style on the cheap -a discrepancy that an unsuspecting consumer may not be able to identify. “If they are really of good quality, people will believe they are real. Of course, they’re not the same quality as the original,” says Joseph Gioconda, a partner in the New York law office of Kirkland & Ellis L.L.P.
“Importation of counterfeits usually come from the Far East, although we see them coming from other countries now, including Turkey and Italy,” says Gioconda.
Although a person buying a counterfeit product does not run the risk of facing any legal liability, the seller will often face jail time, serious financial penalties, and seizure of articles and assets. “It’s a serious crime,” says Gioconda. If a knockoff has a shape and design that looks confusingly like the original, then the fake violates trade dress laws, which deal directly with the unique and distinctive appearance of a product.
“I personally don’t think knockoff is a good description. For me it’s more like rip-off. It’s not only about the item. It’s much more sinister. It’s the brand name that’s being taken,” says Leonard Bess, who teaches in the design department at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City and worked in the industry for 25 years as a designer for Christian Dior. “For the customers who can’t afford it, it benefits them obviously. Although the [product] is inferior, they want to be fashion conscious. But it costs the designers a great deal,” he adds.
So buyer beware. “Most designer products are usually sold in a higher-end store. Louis Vuitton merchandise, for example, only sells in Louis Vuitton stores. They’re not sold in flea markets,” says Stuart Drobny, a private investigator. “Someone who can’t afford a real Louis Vuitton and spends $40 on a [counterfeit] bag that is a piece of garbage could have actually gotten a much better quality bag for the same amount.”