Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Counterfeit Chic: It Looks Fake

Several winters ago, on one of the first bitterly cold evenings of the season, I had just left an art opening in SoHo with my boyfriend and a good friend of ours. We were starving needed to be fed quickly. After some deliberation, we decided to go to an eatery owned by a friend's father in Chinatown. But first we needed to go to the ATM to withdraw money. We headed southeast away from Greene St. and towards Canal. It was only around 9:00, but the wet streets were nearly deserted.

As we came upon the Bowery, a diminutive woman around 60 was standing in the shadows of the street waving a tattered, laminated piece of paper. She chanted, in rapid succession, the words "Gucci","Prada", "Louis Vuitton", "Chanel", and "Coach" over and over again. It seemed as though she were a robot who'd been programmed to loop the series of designer names. While my friend and I were in a state of joyful exuberance, my boyfriend looked at us like the pair of fools that we were.

We asked her if she had specific designs to show us. She nodded her head. It's doubtful that she understood what we were saying. Most likely she was simply happy to attract customers at such a late hour on a frigid evening. The three of us started following this stranger onto Hester Street, an even more desolate strip. Soon my friend noticed that a young boy was skipping along after us. Was he a co-conspirator of the geriatric purse peddler?

We all followed the fast-walking woman onto another street. At that point it was questionable whether or not we were still in New York. I asked our guide "how much further?" and she motioned that it was just around the corner. Another corner?!

Finally we came upon a dark, generic building with no signage and glass double doors. Once inside, we saw a group of people hovering over their respective styrofoam take-out platters. None of them acknowledged us. As we walked through the commercial maze, it seemed to be a structure that housed several little shops. Neon Chinese characters floated over each store entrance. It all seemed sketch, but legitimate nonetheless. After all, these were actual stores.

Our leader walked us through a backroom. Once in that room, we descended an iron staircase within what looked like a cage. Our guide yelled back at my boyfriend to close the metal gate behind him. My friend and I were laughing to conceal our anxiety. All of this for knock-offs. we were supposed to be more intelligent than this.

Finally, after maneuvering through the tightest hallway any of us had ever walked through, the merchant opened a dirty door that led us into a compact showcase of counterfeit goods. As she had promised, there was a wall full of phony fakes. Falling from the sky were pieces of every persuasion: Prada, Chanel, Burberry, Dior, Fendi and Louis Vuitton. In addition to the handbags were sunglasses (with cases), umbrellas, and scarves. The lighting wasn't the best, but they looked pretty good to us.

My boyfriend flashed another "you two are so pathetic" expression across his face, but we were over the moon. This was mass class. Luxury within reach. We rummaged through the wares and finally decided on a bag for each of us. My friend and I had blown our dinner money on these fakes and understood we'd have to traipse through the freezing night to locate another ATM.

When we emerged from the building, content in our conspicuous consumption, my friend commented remarked that people only went through that brand of abnormality for drugs or illegal sex. I argued that we were women of substance who simply didn't have the means to buy the luxuries we deserved. She agreed and we headed to the ATM to take out more money for dinner.

As bizarre as our story sounded, it's not that uncommon. I know this from first hand experience, because I went on more of these clandestine adventures after that, both by myself and with willing accomplices. Stand on Canal Street, or any pedestrian packed street, at any time of day, and witness scores of people, like our guide, shouting their merchandise to eager patrons.

Both my friend and I got rid of our bags not too long after our escapade. When we got them home, we were incredulous as to how glaringly fake they looked. I have since recovered from this bad (and dangerous) habit. Anything purchased from my Canal cruising days have been given to friends or donated to charity. Burning them like the feds do after a big counterfeit raid would have been wasteful. I feel guilty about these pieces remaining in circulation, but I'm not looking for trouble from New York's Bravest either.

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