On Canal Street, Fake Bags That Are Not for Sale

Peering through the windows of the storefront at the corner of Broadway and Canal Street, it might seem like just another upscale boutique. Inside, luxury handbags — Dior’s Lady D-lite, Louis Vuitton’s Loop, Loewe’s Puzzle bag, Telfar’s Shopping Bag, and several Hermès Birkins among them — are arranged on a grid of white shelves and lit like individual works of art.

But all of the merchandise at this shop is fake. Even the ceiling lamp is a knockoff of a Serge Mouille design. Window shoppers will notice that they can’t just walk in. A sign noting hours — Monday: closed; Tuesday: closed. Wednesday: closed; et cetera — directs interested passers-by to scan a QR code for more information.

What looks like a new store is actually an exhibition, “Ask Yourself What’s Real,” that can be viewed only from the street. The installation, which will be in place until early September, showcases some three dozen “superfakes” — or particularly convincing counterfeit handbags — sent to the RealReal.

Historically, the best superfake bags have taken the form of long-popular styles like Birkins, Louis Vuitton Speedy bags, Chanel flap bags and Dior and Goyard totes. But lately, employees at the luxury retail marketplace are seeing more and more exquisite imitations of products from brands like Khaite, Jil Sander and the Row, which can be harder to distinguish, said Hunter Thompson, the director of authentication at the RealReal.

“The leather might be great,” said Mr. Thompson as he picked up a small, black, fake Double Circle bag by the Row that was on display at the Canal Street exhibition. “If I saw somebody walking down the street with this, and I look at these things every day, I wouldn’t really know.”

The exhibition’s concept — and its location on a street known as the epicenter of counterfeit merchandise in New York — were meant to inspire conversations about authenticity, a pillar of the business model used by the RealReal, which was founded in 2011 and has struggled financially after becoming a publicly traded company in 2019.

“The point is to spark conversation around, ‘Why does it matter?’” said Kristen Naiman, the company’s chief creative officer.

Superfake handbags, which cost a fraction of the styles they are made to imitate, are part of a multi-trillion-dollar global counterfeit trade known for flouting labor and intellectual-property laws, as well as for adding to the environmental issues that result from the nonstop production of cheap, disposable stuff.

“There has been so much conversation around fast fashion and how detrimental it is to the world,” Ms. Naiman said. “Fakes are even worse.”

Such bags also pose economic threats to the RealReal and other companies in the secondhand luxury goods market, which generated about $48.3 billion worldwide last year, roughly $2 billion more than in 2022, according to studies by the consulting firm Bain & Company.

Newly made fake bags can be more attractive to people who want to spend less than the cost of an authentic secondhand style. And as superfakes have become less indistinguishable from real bags, some have slipped by the A.I. technology, X-ray machines and human specialists the RealReal uses to determine items’ authenticity, which can undermine shoppers’ trust.

In 2023, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection seized an estimated $2.7 billion worth of counterfeit goods, which included electronics, pharmaceuticals and other items in addition to clothing and accessories.

The RealReal claims it has identified and removed some 250,000 counterfeit items from its inventory since 2011. Those sent in unknowingly are returned (the company has a three-strike policy for such instances), while items submitted with an intent to defraud are used for training purposes, destroyed or handed over to local authorities.

The company is attempting to collect more fake bags during the superfake exhibition’s run on Canal Street. On certain dates, the RealReal is inviting anyone who has a counterfeit handbag from any vendor to turn it in at an office above the installation for a chance to win an authentic secondhand bag.

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