‘Hermès smells soft and smoky, Gucci more like wood’: how fake hunters tell designer knock-offs from the real deal

The rainbow-checked scarf arrives on time, by post, in a Ziploc bag. The tag reads Acne Studios, a high-end Swedish label, but the wording looks … off. I send a photo to a typographer friend. “It’s pretty obvious it’s fake,” she says. “Look at the e and s – they’re different fonts.” Inside, the washing label advises “dry cean only”. I squeeze it. It feels genuine – not unlike the £250 bouncy wool and mohair real thing. But it’s not. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, for the £22 I spent. I email the seller and point out the discrepancies. There’s no reply.

This was not my first fake. In my 20s, I went to Vietnam and returned with a “Chanel” 2.55 handbag and two “Kipling” holdalls bought from Ho Chi Minh City’s Ben Thanh market, famous for its rich pho soup and cheap knockoffs. Before that, aged 18, it was “Ralph Lauren” shirts with skewwhiff jockey logos from Bangkok’s MBK Center. To me they were all obvious fakes. With the scarf, I thought I’d bagged a bargain. I had been fooled.

Around a third of us will end up buying a fake in the UK, knowingly or not. Today’s counterfeit problem is second only to drugs in terms of criminal income: it’s thought 42m fakes were seized as they entered the country in 2021, of which, according to not-for-profit trade organisation the Anti-Counterfeiting Group (ACG), 3m fell under fashion and accessories. And if that doesn’t sound like much, that’s because it isn’t: not every counterfeit is caught, not every person who buys one would admit to it, and since we left the EU, “we simply haven’t had the same level of regulation of what comes in”, says Phil Lewis, director general of the ACG. His biggest hurdle is people believing that the only victims are the brands. “They just don’t care,” he says with a sigh.

But counterfeit fashion goes beyond sticking it to the conglomerates. This so-called “dark trade” has links to human trafficking, labour exploitation and child labour, and you don’t need Europol to tell you that, Lewis says. “When you’re moving that number of goods and looking at the multibillion profit involved, the links between large-scale domestic production and organised crime are irrefutable.” Olivia Windham Stewart, a human rights specialist, agrees: the human cost of a fake Birkin bag is “very significant” and “largely hidden”.

Looking for more clues, I logged on to where I’d bought the scarf and found four more; another site had three. I was embarrassed. Given how easy it is to buy a fake – no checks, no regulation, no vetting, and good enough to fool me, a fashion editor – the number changing hands must be considerably higher than 3m. How can we tell what is real or fake? Can anyone be sure?

Bill Porter stretches out his hand. “Welcome to Crawley,” he says. Porter runs the logistics at Vestiaire Collective’s depot, a former electrical warehouse on an industrial estate a few miles from Gatwick. There are no windows and no signage, just a softly spoken security guard, Mr Khan, and a robust alarm system. It’s near the airport for obvious reasons, and anonymous because inside are millions of pounds’ worth of luxury goods.

In 2019, I began shopping for secondhand clothes online, initially on eBay, then Vestiaire Collective, a fashion platform that launched in 2009 in France and sells secondhand clothing across the world. It began with the odd pair of Grenson loafers for £50, a Helmut Lang tux jacket for £20 and a Joseph skirt for even less. Before long, it was where I bought everything. I knew online shopping for designer clothing had its risks but Vestiaire had cottoned on to the rise of fakes early and created a system: buyers could choose to have their item shipped directly to them or, for £15, an expert would check it first and tell them if their bag was real. It did this first in France, then as business – and fakes – began booming in the UK, it started checking whether people like me were being sold knockoffs here.

The factory floor of the Crawley warehouse is spotless grey lino divided into sections with coloured tape, so it almost resembles a crime scene. At one end, thousands of colourful boxes of designer items are stacked up like irregular bricks within ceiling-height racks from which Marc Jacobs bags, Jimmy Choo heels and Louis Vuitton purses spill out. In front are racks of Burberry coats and pillowy Self-Portrait dresses. These arrive in large vans each morning and enter the vast, buzzy warehouse via a corrugated side door. Every 20 minutes, the cacophony is broken by a jumpy four-second alarm as a new delivery arrives. The 23 workers stop what they’re doing; only when the door is locked does everything start up again. This is where the fake hunters do their thing.

Boxes of fashion items waiting to be checked for authenticity at the Vestiaire Collective  warehouse in Crawley, UK

Every time a Ganni skirt or Raey T-shirt arrived at my flat, with a tag signed by one of them, I wondered who these people were. Known as “authenticators”, some come from fashion museums and auction houses; some have worked in the actual brand’s factories; others are simply fashion nerds. Vestiaire Collective’s application process is rigorous. Candidates are tested on their fashion knowledge, then trained for three months by specialists from Tourcoing in France, where the company HQ is. They have to know about leather and embossing methods, but also when Hedi Slimane removed the accent from Celine, when Nike collaborated with Tiffany and how much Demna tweaked the font size when he joined Balenciaga. “Hermès, Gucci and Louis Vuitton will always be the most counterfeited but always at a high quality,” says a leading authenticator, Justine Bammez. “It can be incredibly hard to tell.”

When the warehouse opened in January 2022, it was receiving 30 packages a day, sent from customer to customer. By Christmas, they expect to receive 1,000 a day. People tend to shop over holidays; after the spring bank holiday, 700 items turned up on one day. “That was a good test,” Porter says. “We just about passed.”

There are 60 fake hunters working for Vestiaire at sites in Hong Kong, Seoul, Brooklyn and France. A lot of the initial “processing” is automated. “But you couldn’t use robots in the proper authenticating,” Porter says. “It’s too specialised.” Just under 70% of what comes in gets checked. Of that, up to 2% is found to be counterfeit. “If you were going to sell a fake, you probably wouldn’t list it here,” says Bammez, who runs the authenticating side in Crawley. “But they still do.”

No two fake hunters are alike. Each has their own methodology, background and exacting superpower. Mayra Afzal, for instance, used to be an aeroplane enthusiast: “I was into machines, what makes them work, the stuff inside, the sounds.” She started working in shops at 16, moving on to quality control with big brands such as Rolex and Omega. “You learn through the job. Watch clientele are very specific, very picky.”

Afzal is in her early 30s. She comes to work noticeably smarter than everyone else, usually in black, her dark hair clipped off her face. Today, in ribbed jacket, pearl earrings and winged eyeliner, she flips over a Cartier watch with swift, expert movements. “I’m used to working on a micro scale, looking for needles in haystacks. But I’m also a magpie – when a watch is ticking properly, it’s like music to me. I can tell at once if a tick is off,” she says, holding a small silver Rolex up to her ear. Watching her work, it borders on sorcery. (The Rolex turns out to be real.)

Vestiaire Collective authenticator Mayra Afzal checks over a Prada skirt

Bammez, who is French and in her 30s, runs the operation with quiet poise. She has a degree in history of art and before coming here two years ago worked in museum archives. Dressed in a black polo neck and high-waisted silk trousers, she approaches each check with the unflappable manner of a respected teacher taking on a difficult class. Wearing white cotton gloves, she opens a Hermès box and produces a grey Birkin bag selling for around £12k. Holding it up to the light on her desk, she checks the packaging, the satsuma-tone of the box and that the little man in the logo has his hand in a pocket: “Some details are harder to fake and this is one.” Then whether there’s a single stitch running round the edge, that the lace is cotton and the handles stand up properly. “I know this by sight now,” Bammez says. “The r in Hermès is the hardest letter to fake, and a big indicator is the smell.” She holds the bag to her nose (Hermès smells soft and smoky, Gucci more like wood) before checking it has vertical lines in the leather (indistinguishable to me). The smaller details need a magnifying glass. While once you could expect spelling mistakes – Herpes instead of Hermès stamped across the locket – the hallmarks now are harder to spot. Some sellers fake invoices, so she has to Google the boutique to see if it exists, and the care leaflet is the last thing to look at. It’s usually the wording that gives it away; most items come from outside Europe and, like my “dry cean only” scarf, the translation isn’t always up to scratch.

When I first started shopping for secondhand vintage online in my 20s, I wasn’t seeking out fakes, but I wasn’t actively avoiding them either. “Sounds about right,” says Matthew Cope, deputy director of IP enforcement at the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) who tells me it’s the younger generation who buy the most. “Many do so knowingly, and most don’t care.”

The term dupe falls into a similar category – but rather than fakes trying to pass as the real thing, dupes resemble the original. One email I received last week suggested I “shop the perfect Gucci Dupe at La Redoute”.In May, the athleisure brand Lululemon became so fed up with having their Align leggings duped, they hosted a swap: bring in your imitations and get the real thing.

An entire micro-industry of fakefluencers hawks this stuff on social media: a year before she appeared on Love Island, then-influencer Molly Mae was directing her followers to dupes on YouTube. Last summer, a report by the EU IPO showed just over half of young people in the EU had bought one fake in the last year, many knowingly. Affordability is key: most said they would give up counterfeits if the originals were cheaper.

Vestiaire Collective authenticator Justine Bammez up a ladder at their warehouse in Crawley, UK
Vestiaire Collective authenticator Justine Bammez inspects a bag

Back when I was buying fakes, they were souvenirs I could show off to friends, but they also felt like trophies and buying them enticingly risque. Things have changed, though, and high fashion has even developed a tolerance for fakes. Tom Ford once said nothing made him happier than seeing copies of his creations – “That meant you did the right thing” – while influential left-field designer Dapper Dan made “mutant versions of haute couture” using logo-emblazoned goods. In some cases, owning a fake is a badge of honour – as if in buying one you are putting two fingers up to the conglomerates who made you want it in the first place. Some actively seek them out. One friend buys fake North Face X Gucci T-shirts that barely resemble the original. “That’s why I like them,” he says. “I’d never buy a real designer item.”

Before 2020 and the pandemic, 40% of us shopped online in some capacity. By 2021, that number had risen to 75%. “It wasn’t just necessities, either. Shopping became therapeutic – why not buy a £300 ‘Rolex’ if it makes you feel better?” says the ACG’s Lewis.

The ACG gathers intelligence about counterfeits and shares it with trading standards, police and customs. It represents 3,000 brands, from car parts to Chanel. Most fakes come to the UK by sea freight, but increasingly, smaller items – say, a couple of T-shirts in a Jiffy bag – arrive by courier or plane. East Midlands airport is one of the busiest fast parcel hubs, which makes it a target, says IPO enforcer Cope. The organisation employs one person whose job it is to work out which parcels need to be inspected. “What they find amounts to £1m a month. But you have to wonder: how much are we missing?”

skip past newsletter promotion

Buying and reselling luxury goods can be a game. For some, they’re having a clear-out, trying to make money or simply selling things they no longer want, often after a break-up – which is when many counterfeit items come to light. “It’s the final blow, really,” Vestiaire’s Porter says. “Imagine breaking up with someone, then finding out your engagement ring was a fake.”

Sam French is a fresh-faced graduate who has been working at Vestiaire for just over six months, and has form when it comes to buying and selling bags. “When I was 16 I saved up for my first Vuitton bag. When I got bored of it, I decided to sell it – and made a profit.” As a student, he started buying more bags, which he’d keep for a bit, then sell. When he graduated, all his friends were in debt – but he had paid off his loan. “At the end of uni, my parents told me to get a real job,” he says.

He’s an expert on vintage Galliano and Tom Ford-era Gucci, vetting about 120 items a day and talking with quiet authority about the way fakes have improved. “With sneakers,” he says, shining a light over a Gucci pair, “they’ll be stitched with a slightly different thread or the turn of the leather in the sole will be different.”

Vestiaire Collective authenticator Sam French inspects a pair of Amina Muaddi shoes

But if fakes are getting harder to spot, they’re also becoming more widespread as the economic situation deteriorates, with mid-level examples on the rise – things you simply wouldn’t expect to be counterfeited because the profit margin is nowhere near that of a Birkin bag. Think hair straighteners, luxury skincare and, increasingly, football shirts.

What’s hot varies wildly. While Vestiaire Collective’s most in-demand brands now are Louis Vuitton and Hermès, a designer’s death can lead to a rush on their goods, and Bammez talks of “trend moments” when labels will see a spike after the Met Gala or a viral fashion show. That’s when you have to be hyper-vigilant.

Anecdotally, the biggest change in fakes has been the price. My scarf was 90% cheaper than the real thing which should have set off alarm bells. Increasingly, though, counterfeiters will price things just 10% to 20% lower than the RRP, so it seems a bargain rather than a fake. This has led to more unwitting buyers – and sellers. And if tracking down these has become a sisyphean task, then DS Andy Masterson is Sisyphus himself. A polite 37-year-old with fair hair, he does not look as if he heads up the Disruption and Engagement team in the Police Intellectual Property Crime Unit, who knock on doors in plainclothes, body armour and – weather-dependent – City of London police caps to ask tricky questions of unsuspecting cottage industry criminals.

Masterson started working on these cases three years ago. They can begin online – tracking down suspects via goods they are selling on, say, Amazon or Reddit forums – then go face-to-face. In 2019, he was “following some trainers online” when he found the seller’s address in Manchester. He and his team turned up at the woman’s door. “She was very compliant, invited us in and showed us the stuff. As we were about to leave, she said, ‘Want a look in the shed?’ She opened it up and inside there was a whole factory.” Unbranded goods were stacked up at one end – shoes, handbags, all sorts – and labels added in the middle, with a packing area at the front: “A highly organised, low-level counterfeit factory.”

A year before, this woman had gone to a market to buy clothes for her sons. (Masterson doesn’t know if she knew they were fake.) It turned out they were the wrong size, but without receipts, she couldn’t take them back, “so it was suggested she sell them online. She made a bit of money, so went back and bought some more.” The seller suggested she buy in bulk, “then buy the labels separately so she could make them herself”, and so began her little Build-A-Bag business. Only when an item is “labelled” does it becomes counterfeit; before that it’s just a bag, and “in her mind it was just a small business”, Masterson says. The woman was issued with a caution, but it was this sort of low-level crime that led to Operation Vulcan, one of the biggest counterfeit busts in British history, last year. It’s still moving at a rapid rate – and these sorts of set-ups are fairly established. If you see a sign on a lamp-post saying, “Want to earn £30 an hour?”, there’s a strong chance it involves a low-level counterfeiting business like this, Cope says.

All the luxury brands I approached about how they cope with counterfeits declined to comment, passing me instead to Lewis at the ACG. “They don’t want to comment because it could destroy trust in the original,” he says. “If they ignore it, perhaps customers won’t be put off from buying the real thing.” Some brands, he adds, won’t join the ACG because it acknowledges that counterfeits are a problem: “I mean, everyone knows they are – you can see them at a market on a Sunday.”

Back at the Vestiaire warehouse, we check over another Hermès Birkin bag. It’s older, a faded tomato red. Bammez points out the baggy shape and “plastic” smell. The typography is slightly too sharp, suggesting it’s machine-stamped, and the clasp is the wrong weight. The level of detail is extraordinary, “which makes it harder to replicate”. It takes us five or six minutes to be sure. Bammez thinks it’s relatively obvious from the colour, but without her eye, I would have been tricked.

A few weeks later, out of the blue, the scarf seller replies. She says there must be a printing problem with the logo, and that “dry cean” means “dry clean”, so not to wash it. Sidestepping my query about authenticity, she politely tells me she’s “not had any other complaints” from buyers. The original listing had a vague UK address in Yorkshire, but buried within the postage details, it turns out the item had actually come from Hong Kong.

Once upon a time, the Neapolitan Camorra sold knockoffs manufactured by the same factories that made the originals. This probably still happens, says Ciara Barry of Fashion Revolution, the global fashion activism movement. Nowadays, around 80% of fakes come from China and Hong Kong, though recently things have been outsourced to countries closer to the main markets in Europe. That often means Italy and Morocco. “They have better leather and better machinery,” Bammez says. “Some are made in the same factories as the originals, or using the same materials or equipment, but it’s a real mix.”

At the Vestiaire Collective warehouse in Crawley, UK, boxes marked with red “rejected” labels contain fashion items authenticators decide are fake

The conditions in which fast fashion is made – most notoriously, the garment factories in Leicester where workers are trapped in conditions of modern slavery – are well documented. But little is known about where the main counterfeits originate from. “These factories are so underground now, it’s a nightmare – but the set-up lends itself to the most vulnerable workers,” Barry says.

What we can assume, says Windham Stewart, who is an expert in supply chain labour rights, is that workers producing counterfeit goods are more vulnerable than workers in less illicit supply chains. “Price pressure has a significant negative impact on workers across all fashion supply chains; one can logically assume the price pressure for counterfeit goods is extreme … The risk of forced or child labour, poor health and safety, and other abuses is bound to be be greater,” she says.

The same can be said of the environmental impact, from the disposal of toxic dyes used to colour bags to the use of animal urine to stabilise scents and even, according to Peta, cat or dog fur instead of faux fur for the pom-poms once popular to hang on designer bags. They also said one of the best ways to find out if fur is fake is to burn it: “Hopefully, it would just smell of plastic.”

Vestiaire are aware of the potential damage. When something is found to be fake, they contact the seller. If there’s no response, they keep it for up to six months, then aim to reuse it (they are working on ways to upcycle the materials). According to Lewis, when the ACG are involved, brands pay for the destruction of the counterfeit.

I tell Cope about my scarf and wonder if he’ll try to arrest me. “In France, it is illegal to buy a counterfeit,” he says, “but here there is no law over buying or owning one. It would be impossible to enforce, and disproportionate. How do you penalise someone who claims they didn’t know their football shirt was fake?”

I’m about to leave the Crawley warehouse when I notice, at the back, several racks of counterfeit goods with red “rejected” stamps on their labels. These have failed the authentication and are sitting on shelves, as if waiting for absolution. I’m reminded of Hans Brinker’s Little Dutch Boy fable, about the boy who tries to plug a dyke with one finger – and given how rife the issue is, struck by how futile this could all be. But their aim, I guess, is just to keep checking, one Birkin at a time.

This post was originally published on this site