Inside the Delirious Rise of ‘Superfake’ Handbags

Untangling the problem of duplication in the fashion industry is like trying to rewrap skeins of yarn. Designer houses spend billions fighting dupes, but even real Prada Cleos and Dior Book Totes are made with machines and templates — raising the question of what, exactly, is unique to an authentic bag. Is it simply a question of who gets to pocket the money? (Hermès recently mounted, and won, a trademark war against “MetaBirkin” NFTs.)

Besides, replication is already threaded through the whole history of clothing. Before industrialization, and well before handbags were popularized as accessories, mimicry was essential to dressmaking: Rich women would observe in-vogue silhouettes, then direct their own seamstresses to duplicate the cuts, waistlines or sleeves. It wasn’t until the mass-production inventions of the 19th century that designers became paranoid about the riffraff’s being able to ape their status symbols. In 1951, the American writer Sally Iselin reported for The Atlantic on the pointedly snobbish shopping culture in Paris. But, she observed, while copyiste was a dirty word in France’s haute-couture circles, skilled tailors in Rome were more than happy to fit her with cheaper twins of the same ball gowns.

In Iselin’s time, such boutiques were a guilty marvel; nowadays, shoppers don’t bat an eye at the idea of snapping up a Balenciaga silhouette from Zara, Shein or AliExpress. Even the superrich crave a good deal, as a Manhattan woman with a treasure trove of superfake Birkins confessed to The Cut last year. On the other side of the world in China — a country that is known for its fake-making and that had no compunctions about building a replica of the Gardens of Versailles — there are, by some estimates, as many as several million people who make a living delivering these good deals.

I spoke with Kelly, one such person, seeking to peek under the hood of the shadowy business. (“Kelly” is not her real name; I’m referring to her here by the English moniker that she uses on WhatsApp. I contacted more than 30 different superfake-bag-sellers before one agreed to an interview.) Five years ago, Kelly worked in real estate in Shanghai, but she got fed up with trekking to an office every day. Now she works from home in Guangzhou, often hammering out a deal for a Gucci Dionysus or Fendi Baguette on her phone with one hand, wrangling lunch for her 8-year-old daughter with the other. Kelly finds the whole business of luxury bags — the sumptuous leather, razor-straight heat stamps, hand stitches, precocious metal mazes of prancing sangles and clochettes and boucles and fermoirs — “way too fussy,” she tells me in Chinese. But the work-life balance is great. As a sales rep for replicas, Kelly makes up to 30,000 yuan, or about $4,300, a month, though she has heard of A-listers who net up to 200,000 yuan a month — which would work out to roughly $350,000 a year.

On a good day, Kelly can sell more than 30 gleaming Chloés and Yves Saint Laurents, to a client base of mostly American women. “If a bag can be recognized as fake,” she told me, “it’s not a worthwhile purchase for the customer, so I only sell bags that are high-quality but also enticingly affordable — $200 or $300 is the sweet spot.” Kelly keeps about 45 percent of each sale, out of which she pays for shipping, losses and other costs. The rest is wired to a network of manufacturers who divvy up proceeds to pay for overhead, materials and salaries. When a client agrees to order a bag from Kelly, she contacts a manufacturer, which arranges for a Birkin bag to roll out of the warehouse into an unmarked shipping box in a week or so.