A few weeks ago, I was waiting for a bus from New York to Boston carrying a huge plastic bag. Its shape and texture resembled one of those heavy-duty Ikea bags, but it was instead tan-gray—the hue of Soylent—and monogrammed with both Chanel’s iconic interlocking Cs and the word “Ceanul.” It was so absurdly fake that it was hilarious. This obviously wasn’t a try-hard counterfeit; no one was trying to copy and make a buck off a classic bag style from the storied French fashion house. Instead, it was just a version of the Chanel name and its logo, brazenly splashed all over a carryall. A woman behind me tapped me on the shoulder: “Did you ever visit China?” What a random question, I thought. “They have the same bags there,” she said.
I have never been to China. I bought that bag in the Caucasus country of Georgia, which from the north hugs Russia, and spreading toward its south, borders Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Turkey. When I was there, I snagged around a dozen other versions of the bags in various sizes with the Chanel monogram, as well as riffs on Gucci, Fendi, and Louis Vuitton x Murakami logos. It is the type of cheap thing that unknowing grandmothers lug potatoes in, or that merchants use to transport goods. Each cost me approximately 75 cents to a dollar: I brought back several for my colleagues and friends.
I had written a story back in 2016 on the place where I had bought the bags, a bazaar called Lilo Plaza located about 20 minutes from the city’s capital of Tbilisi. Visiting Lilo Plaza is like seeing every luxury store reflected through a funhouse mirror, an Alice in Wonderland hub of wild bootlegs: T-shirts with bedazzled Versace Medusa logos, hoodies with “Gucci” heinously misspelled, and Louis Vuitton x Supreme x Nike shoes, which don’t even exist to begin with. I have always loved the tongue-in-cheek concept of bootleg products, so I had always bought into it. I scoured bazaars in Ukraine, underground stores next to the metro in Russia, and flea markets in Romania for glitzy, conversation-starting fakes. There was something cheeky about coming into my job at Vogue, the Mount Sinai of luxury, in a cheesy paper white mock neck with a black double C plastered on the chest, like a bull’s-eye.
I have always loved badly designed bootlegs; it’s an art in itself. My choices of fakes were gaudy with flash (lots of sequins), made for a good Instagram photo (everyone loves a crazy logo), and was a way to stick it to the street style overlords (why buy something real when I could get a one-off, funny fake?). My obsession with fakes was reignited back in 2016, when Gucci was putting “Guccy” on sweaters or flipping the logo upside down, themselves poking fun at the booming market of fakes. The brand went on to reinterpret small-scale, but iconic, Dapper Dan bootlegs from the ’80s and ’90s. Vetements had a sale of meta bootlegs in a warehouse in South Korea. Logomania itself was also at an all-time high, as was the ’00s revival. Every major fashion house plastered their clothes with logos and monograms, and with logomania comes the pursuit of luxury, of wanting to look the part.
And it is, in some ways, a problem of the brands’ own making: By selling wildly overpriced T-shirts stamped with their logos simply to enjoy the profit margins, their products become incredibly easy to replicate. This past summer I was in Odessa, a port city in Ukraine. Their bazaars have dozens upon dozens of those real-fake Gucci logo T-shirts that are priced at $590 dollars on Net-a-Porter but are going for $10 at the local Odessa market. It’s a meta moment: A real Gucci piece modeled after a bootleg, only to be made wholly bootleg again.
So why was that woman asking me about my bag and China, a country over 3,000 miles away from Georgia? The fake market has a silk road of its own, spreading from Asia to Europe like a spiderweb, and Ukraine—where I spend a lot of time, and where I have bought plenty of “funny fakes”—is considered one of the highest volume transit points of how these goods get to Europe. Georgia is right next to Turkey, another major origin point of fake trafficking. (I also may or may not have once bought a set of Chanel-print sheets on the Georgia-Turkey border at a gas station.)
But there are too many real-world ramifications that are directly caused by the global bootleg market. The industries that are affected most by the production of fakes include leather handbags, clothing, and footwear, all of which come directly after the first culprit of fake production, perfumery and cosmetics. During a March 2019 conference in Paris by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), the director of public governance, Marcos Bonturi, spoke about the numbers behind bootlegging. The fake market, not solely including clothing and accessories, plays into 3.3 percent of global imports, or rather, a percentage of world trade. According to Bonturi, there were over “500 billion U.S. dollars of trade in fake goods in 2016 alone,” a figure that he compared to the size of Belgium’s economy.
Buying fakes end up indirectly funding criminal networks, including, in some cases, terror groups. One of the most cited examples are the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris from 2015. The two armed brothers, Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, stormed the satirical newspaper and killed 12 people and injured 11 others. They had claimed allegiance to Al Qaeda’s Yemen branch and had funded their weapons purchases by buying fake Nike sneakers from China and reselling them in Paris. That is one instance but the list goes on: There is exploitation involved, including child labor. There is no regulation in production, meaning that any toxic dye could be applied to the product. It’s a dangerous, tangled domino effect.
In my original article about Lilo Plaza, I asked the reader, or rather myself: “Who was wearing these things for and at what expense?” At the time, I couldn’t really tell you, and neither did I care. But in this era, when I won’t step foot in a fast fashion store and I rarely purchase something new, fake goods should also be on the docket. Human lives are at stake, as is the environment. I don’t want to know how those wonderfully fake Chanel bags got from China to Georgia—though, unfortunately, I do know how they got to the United States.
Originally Appeared on Vogue