The Real Story Behind Fake Prada, Gucci and Channel Designer Handbags, Belts and Accessories

Venice is a beautiful city and a great vacation spot with wonderful people, food, art, history and atmosphere. But there is a dark underbelly to Venice that centers around the famous designer handbag trade.

Karen and I have been in Venice, Italy attending the Venice Media Festival for the past four days. (Festival is what they call a conference here). But this post is not about the festival -it’s about the trade in ilicit famous designer goods.

Like most people, I have always assumed that fake designer handbags and other goods were cheap knockoffs made in China and shipped around the world to end up being sold on the streets.  There is some of that, but today I learned the real story: It involves the Mafia (which is far more active in Italy today than in the US), corrupt local officials –and the famous names in designer fashions.

Venice is a walking city. There is not a single car in town –not even a bicycle or motor scooter. You either get around on foot –or by boat. Even the police are on foot or on the water, and this is not a small city. The numerous canals are crossed by hundreds of bridges. The main streets leading to San Marco Square or the Rialto Bridge are lined with the top fashion shops in the world.  All the big names are here; Channel, Prada, Gucci, Ferrogamo, Bruno Magli, Fendi, Hermes, Valentino and any other big name you can think of (I hope I spelled all of those correctly). But as you cross the many small bridges you have to step over and around literally hundreds of aggressive North African street vendors selling the same designer goods. Mostly they are selling handbags, but many also have belts, wallets and other accessories. One fellow even had Gucci shoes.
 
Now here is the interesting part: The goods they are selling are not really fake! Unbelievably they are the real thing –well, sort of.
 
I met a woman today who is knowledgeable in the Italian fashion trade (she is not personally in the trade but her family has been for generations).  When I asked her about the vendors and why the police just don’t round them up, she became very embarrassed, but agreed to tell me how the system works.

Here’s the way it works:  A famous designer will design a new line of handbags (for example).  They will give several of each design to different manufacturers and ask them to make a small production run. The selection of these manufacturers is “influenced” by the Italian Mafia. The contracts are let in an auction format designed to make sure that each of a dozen or so manufacturers all get a piece of the pie.

So you have several manufacturers making hundreds of the same bag.  Now the manufacturers all submit their work to the designer   The designer picks the best production quality manufacturer of each design and that manufacturer is selected for the large production run of the goods that will end up in the designer boutiques selling for 1000 Euros or more. 

So what happens to all the hundreds, or even thousands, of other bags from the manufacturers who weren’t selected?  You guessed it.  They are distributed to the North African street vendors by the same Mafia that arranged the auctions. They are not fakes, they were actually made by the same manufactures who make the real goods. The bags have the authentic holograms and identity cards from the big name designers. And, when you pick them up and examine them, the quality from the stitching to the materials is excellent. About the only difference is that the final authorized run of bags will have correct ID numbers and often a secret little mark hidden in the bag so a store can tell if it is an authorized bag if someone tries to return one or brings it in for repair. So the bags are not cheap knockoffs –they just aren’t the “final authorized” version.

You would think that in a city like Venice this trade would be easy to shut down.  If the tourists have to step over and around the vendors, the Carabinieri (the very efficient and professional Italian police force), or even the local Venice Polizia, could easily put a stop to the street trade? They could –if they were allowed. But they are not –and this is where the local government corruption comes in. It seems the famous designers who have a lot of clout in a city like Venice don’t really want the trade shut down.

Here is how silly it is. The city fathers of Venice recently enacted a law that says “any tourist buying an item from the street vendors can be fined 50 Euros (about $75).”  So instead of simply dispersing the vendors or arresting them, they pretend to watch out for tourists buying from them.  And the famous designers –they are part of this deal too. It is so bad that one vendor was selling Channel handbags right outside the front door of the Channel botique -literally less than 6 feet from the front door. If someone looked like they were about to enter the store he would accost them and offer his goods.
 
For all the noise the designers make about fakes –including keeping us from selling either real or fake goods on eBay, they are just as implicit in the illicit trade of their own goods. My friend, whose family has worked in the Italian designer fashion trade for generations, told me that the famous name designers actually like the fact that fake goods are on the market as it creates demand for the real thing. They louldly complain about the counterfiet trade but it is just a sham.
 
To be blunt –and very un-PC;  If you lived in a trailer park in New Jersey and saw your neighbor walking out of her doublewide sporting a Hermes handbag, you would probably assume it was a knockoff. But if you saw the same woman step out of a Mercedes, wearing fashionable clothing, you would most likely assume it was the real thing.  When folks who live in Beverly Hills or on Park Avenue walk around wearing or carrying Gucci, Prada or Fendi –it is usually the real deal. They know it and you know it –and that is what the famous designers are banking on. They don’t really care if Paula from Pittsburgh carries a fake bag to the Thursday Night Elk’s Club Dinner as long as Martha from Manhattan drops her whole monthly paycheck on a real Gucci bag so she can impress her friends.

So eBay –if you are listening; When Gucci, Fendi, Hermes or Prada files a Vero report against an eBay seller for listing a designer handbag and you shut down the seller’s auction, you are unintentionally doing your small part to help perpetuate this worldwide scam.

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On another side note from Venice; Last night we discovered the best hamburger in Italy.  No – I didn’t come to Italy looking for hamburgers. I love Italian food and plan to eat my way across the country trying every local dish I can.  We discovered this amazing hamburger quite by accident.

Karen and I are staying on the Island of Lido, about 1 mile across the lagoon from Venice. It is connected by an hourly boat service from our hotel. After an exhausting day of touring Venice yesterday, we decided to return to our hotel and have dinner in the small village of Lido. There are some great little trattorias here and the prices are about ½ what they are across the lagoon in Venice.  Walking down the street we passed a small outdoor kiosk-type café with a few bar stools and a tented area with a few seats.  I smelled the most wonderful smell and stopped to look.
 
The owner (a young fellow named Lorenzo) was cooking up what looked like the most wonderful burgers and the smell was incredible.  As I watched him he loaded the burger up with lettuce and tomato, poured some olive oil over it and then a few dashes of Tabasco. Next he puts the burger together and places the wh
ole thing in a Panini press. I couldn’t resist so Karen and I ordered a pair of burgers, a half-liter of red wine and took a seat. Within a few minutes Lorenzo brought us what turned out to be one of the best hamburgers I have ever had. Instead of a hamburger roll, the bread was a cross between Italian bread and a ciabatta roll –firm and delicious. One of my Christmas presents last year was a Panini press. I can’t wait to try this when I get home.

If you ever get to Venice, visit the island of Lido and look for Lorenzo at a place called Bella Biglia just after the traffic circle as you enter the main street of the village of Lido.

Today is the last day of the Venice Media festival so the business part of our trip is over and the vacation part begins. We are now off to the little mountain village of Asolo.

In my next post I will tell you what eBay could learn from Venetian history.

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