are on a secret mission, my friend Leslie and I. We are trolling the suburban
streets of San Leandro, looking for an address given to me by a stranger
I met on the Internet. After parking way down the street so no one will
spot my car, we walk nervously up the front path toward one of those nondescript
apartment complexes that seems to have taken its architectural cues from
a Motel 6. The screen door is closed and we can't see through it, but
we can hear women laughing. We're uneasy and quiet because we are about
to do something illegal. We are attending a purse party.
Never heard of a purse party? Think of it as a black-market Tupperware
party, but instead of dealing in salad bowls, the women who host them
are shilling fake Burberry, Gucci, Prada, and Louis Vuitton. It might
sound no more threatening than a toy poodle cartel, but because the handbags
sold at these parties are almost entirely bootlegged versions of those
made by high-end fashion houses, and because many of them are spirited
into the country from abroad, the popular phenomenon falls within the
broad criminal categories of counterfeiting and smuggling and is therefore
the sort of thing that could go down on your permanent record.
The people who deal in fake handbags and other luxury apparel items are
doing so at incredible volumes. The top five types of counterfeit merchandise
smuggled through the ports in Oakland and San Francisco are, in order,
handbags, clothing, watches, wallets, and cell-phone covers. All can be
readily purchased at your neighborhood purse party for a fraction of the
price of the original -- genuine designer handbags typically run $200
to $1,000 a pop.
All of this makes purse parties of more than passing interest to the federal
government, which in recent years rolled customs enforcement into the
deadly serious Department of Homeland Security. Yet purse parties usually
escape law enforcement scrutiny. For one thing, busting them is a much
lower priority than catching the smugglers and manufacturers. For another,
it's not that easy to get invited. It helps if you're a girl who really
likes purses -- something these G-men clearly are not.
Invitations to purse parties are usually passed by word of mouth among
friends, family, and co-workers. Organizers also advertise on Web sites
such as Craigslist, but they aren't looking for new guests -- they're
looking for party hosts. You supply the location, bring in your friends
and family as customers, and the organizers will supply the bags. They
do it this way partly to make sure anyone who comes to the parties has
a stake in the business or is known to the host -- and partly because
the whole phenomenon has a sales-pyramid aspect.
Top distributors profit from purse sales made by the hosts, who in turn
profit if any of their guests hold their own parties later. Hosts sometimes
get a cut of the cash, although more often they're paid in free handbags,
sunglasses, jewelry, or other merchandise. The more merch they or their
recruits move, the greater the rewards. As a result, there is a serious
drive to bring in as many new hosts as possible.
So every time I approached a purse party organizer online asking to be
added to a guest list, she politely but firmly insisted that I host. Any
excuse I made for why I couldn't hold a party at my house was quickly
batted down. "How about at your mom's house?" they would press.
"How about your office?"
After about a half-dozen rejections, someone finally sent me an invitation,
promising a party with cocktails, appetizers, and even a layaway plan.
Leslie and I hit the road.
Just one problem: Like the G-men, I am not a girl who likes purses. The
only thing I own that resembles one is a battered and lumpy messenger
bag whose defining feature is a large maple syrup stain incurred in an
Eggo-related incident in '97. I am convinced this will instantly blow
my cover as a spy in the House of Handbags, so for disguise purposes Leslie,
the most fashionable person I know, has outfitted me with a sedate black
Prada -- a fake, naturally. I try to remember to push it nonchalantly
behind one shoulder instead of clutching it in both hands like a little
girl with a death grip on an Easter basket.
If getting on the list for a purse party was tough, getting into the party
proves easy. We just push open the screen door and walk in. A dozen women,
mostly in their twenties, are milling around a living room transformed
into an indoor swap meet. There are several card tables upon which women
have set up displays for their own small businesses selling silver jewelry,
candles in disconcerting animal prints, Body Shop cosmetics, and fruit-scented
massage oils and body glitter. When Leslie and I mosey over, the proprietor
whips out catalogues from which we can order gummy candy handcuffs and
other less G-rated merchandise that isn't on display because, we're told,
this is a kid-friendly party.
There are, in fact, a few moms here with toddlers, and a table of toys
has been set out for their amusement. There are the promised appetizers
(a grocery-store vegetable platter) and cocktails (several unopened bottles
And then there's the main attraction: neat rows of imitation Burberry,
Gucci, Hermès, and Prada purses. A larger display shows off the
Vuittons, particularly the popular "monogram multicolore" design,
in which the company's distinctive "LV" logo, usually reproduced
in a sedate gold on brown, appears in an eye-popping rainbow of colors
on white leather. The purses have oversize pink and white price tags,
all marked from $25 to $60.
It's pretty well accepted in this world that you'll get what you pay for.
Take the Vuitton wallet we find for $30 -- the real thing sells for $285.
Leslie whispers to me about the poor print job, in which the green parts
of the design don't show up for lack of ink. A genuine Gucci would set
you back $600 to $4,800, and when I pick up the $35 version, Leslie doesn't
even recognize the design -- she thinks the counterfeiters just glued
a Gucci label to a purse of their own creation. She shows me the inside,
which has a cheap fabric lining and none of the labels, stamps, or serial
numbers a real designer purse would have to prove authenticity. These
purses are wrapped in thin clear plastic and stuffed with tissue paper
-- the real deal would have its own carefully fitted dust bag for protection.
But people seem to be here for the bargains and the camaraderie, not because
they're fashion experts. Leslie is horrified when a bunch of women begin
debating if the "G" pattern on a certain bag is for Gucci. She
points out that it's for the more déclassé Guess, and they
look at her in glum disappointment.
Between Leslie's authoritative appraisal of the merchandise and what I'm
hoping is my masterful sporting of the borrowed Prada, we quickly attract
the attention of our evening's hosts, a pair of bubbly Asian women in
their mid-twenties wearing identical hot-pink T-shirts and black pants.
One of them immediately begins to pitch us about hosting our own parties.
She promises that they'll do all the work: supplying the purses, setting
up the displays, even giving us the price tags. If we want, the candle
lady, Body Shop lady, and sex toy lady will come along, too. We'll be
paid in handbags -- the more we sell, the more we'll get.
This is great! We're in the loop! But then I pretty much blow the mood
of disclosure by asking where, exactly, the bags come from.
"We have several distributors," our host replies, suddenly very
And who might those distributors be?
She laughs prettily, then flicks
off the humor and gives us a weird clenched-teeth smile. "I could
tell you," she says, "but then I'd have to kill you."
It's doubtful that anyone has
actually been killed for knowing too much about the purse underworld.
After all, party participants are open about the fact that they are buying
and selling fake goods -- very few customers are crying foul, and our
jails are not full of handbag wranglers. But the federal government would
like to assure you that dealing in fakes is indeed a crime. "There
seems to be some misconception in the general public that as long as you
tell people it's a fake that it's okay to sell it," says Mike Baxter,
the fraud group supervisor for the Bay Area's Immigration and Customs
Enforcement office. "It's not -- it's still illegal to traffic in
What's the harm? It's not as if we're talking about brake pads, prescription
drugs, or airplane parts -- all frequently counterfeited items for which
poor quality control can lead to horrific consequences. The worst that
might happen with purses is that the stitching will fall apart, or their
cheap leather straps will break, or maybe a crummy dye job will stain
your skin and clothes.
The point, authorities say, is not what the purse will do to you, but
what it's doing to someone else. The knockoffs, they say, may be the result
of sweatshop labor. And while the purse party ladies appear benign, they
could be funneling profits to people who aren't so nice. Counterfeiters,
the feds point out, may be using the fake-purse trade to launder money
for organized crime; it's also an attractive option for former narcotics
smugglers looking to trade a less risky product. "You get caught
with ten thousand pounds of counterfeit goods, the penalty will be less
than if you get caught with ten thousand pounds of crack," says Darren
Pogoda, staff attorney for the International AntiCounterfeiting Coalition.
"It's a low-risk, high-reward type of venture. They produce these
products for almost nothing, sell them for a significant chunk of change,
and don't have any taxes or advertising or research or 401Ks for their
employees to worry about."
The other ostensible victims are the designers whose trademarks are being
copied. Counterfeiting may cut into their sales a little but, far more
important to a fashion house, the fakes degrade the prestige of their
brands. Two of the most frequently copied handbag designers -- Coach and
Kate Spade -- have detailed information on their corporate Web pages telling
consumers how to report fakes, and warning that their products are never
legitimately sold at parties, through online auctions, or on the street.
"The counterfeiters illegally profit at the expense of Coach and
affect the entire economy through lost revenues and taxes," the Coach
Web site states. "Counterfeiters do not typically honor safety and
environmental regulations, namely child labor and antisweatshop laws.
Without a doubt, the high quality of workmanship embodied in genuine Coach
product is not duplicated in counterfeit product; counterfeit quality
is typically poor."
But the design houses are reluctant to discuss how counterfeiting affects
their sales or how they work with the feds to counteract it, perhaps for
fear that publicizing the problem will further taint their brands. Of
the six major designers contacted for this story, the only response came
from Burberry, whose London-based spokesman Robert Gardener commented
by e-mail in the blandest of terms: "Unfortunately, counterfeiting
is something which affects all luxury goods companies, especially those
with iconic recognition," he wrote. "Burberry takes this extremely
seriously and pushes for the heaviest penalty for those found responsible
in any counterfeiting of the brand."
To their credit, the authorities realize that fake-purse buyers couldn't
care less about the financial woes of fashion designers that charge extraordinary
sums for their brands -- Burberry's bags, for example, retail from $225
to $1,350. Instead, the law enforcers talk about how bootlegging affects
the fashion houses' rank and file, who suffer when fewer people buy the
real products. "It may seem like a very victimless, benign enterprise,
but it can have an impact on our overall economy and jobs," says
US Customs spokesman Mike Fleming. "Not just the profit margins and
revenues for large high-end manufacturers, but the people who work there,
or who have subsidiary-contracted jobs to make these products."
All this talk of work loss rings of hype until you consider the sheer
volume of the illicit handbag trade. Fred Gassert, who supervises the
Intellectual Property Rights unit for the US Customs and Border Protection
office in San Francisco, says that in the fiscal year that ended this
August, his unit made 157 busts and took in about $17 million worth of
fake purses. "That's not the manufacturers' suggested retail price,"
he notes. "If the goods were actually legitimate, the value of that
would probably be closer to eight to ten times more."
And that's just local seizures. Nationally, fake purses are the third
most-seized item on the list of counterfeit goods (after clothing and
cigarettes) and account for about 11 percent of the total goods intercepted.
A large number slip through Customs, however -- you'll be seeing a lot
of them in the upcoming months, as shipments of all types of knockoff
goods flood local ports in anticipation of the Christmas season. "Within
the next sixty days you'd be dazzled by the stuff you can find just walking
into stores," Gassert says.
Why handbags? Well, they don't require a lot of sophistication to copy,
at least not if you skimp on materials and workmanship. They can be made
on the cheap and sold at a considerable profit while remaining a bargain
compared to the originals. They're fairly small, which makes them easy
to smuggle. And they're always in high demand. Part fashion statement,
part status symbol, the handbag is an infinitely collectible object of
desire with an appeal that bridges race, age, and economic class. Many
enthusiastic collectors don't even try to pass their impostors off as
real -- they're happy with the fakes. Some even proudly consider their
"replicas" or "designer-inspired" bags an indicator
of thriftiness and good fashion sense.
The Bay Area's Pacific Coast location puts us on the receiving end of
a packed pipeline of counterfeit goods from Asia, largely China, Hong
Kong, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Thailand. Impostor handbags arrive
in every conceivable way -- stuffed inside cargo containers supposedly
containing something else, shipped via parcel services like FedEx, or
brought ashore by airline passengers carrying suitcases full of contraband.
But faux-designer bags are also produced here in California. Customs agents
often seize shipments of forged designer labels and tags, meant to be
stitched onto items produced in-state. Because counterfeiting and smuggling
operations are often fly-by-night, springing up and then disappearing
in rhythm with product trends, there's no single model for how they operate.
Some fakes are produced by organizations entirely dedicated to counterfeiting,
while others come from contractors doing a legitimate run of a product
for a high-end designer, but whose employees save some tags to later sew
into fakes. The majority of counterfeit producers, says Customs supervisor
Baxter, are probably just small factories that will take jobs from anyone.
"Someone comes and asks for something to be made and they make it,"
he says. "If they were to ask them to make legitimate products, they
When it comes to revealing the tactics they use to pursue the fake-handbag
syndicate, both federal agents interviewed for this story were about as
tight-lipped as the high-end fashion houses they work with. But both were
extremely eager for details about the purse parties to which they have
never been invited. Because the parties haven't been very thoroughly investigated,
it's unclear how the handbags that escape Customs enforcement make it
to the party organizers. Presumably the big smugglers get them to smaller
distributors, who sell them to the party organizers, who deliver them
to the hosts. Because the parties are at the bottom of the food chain
and seldom feature more than a couple hundred purses, the authorities
concentrate their resources on the bigger fish. Purse parties have been
busted, Pogoda says, but it's rare.
Thus left to their own, the parties have flourished, thanks in no small
part to the Internet, which has proved helpful for organizing the events,
not to mention as an outlet for direct sales via sites such as eBay. The
easy anonymity of the Web and the fact that purse parties are held in
private homes where hostesses can screen their clients helps shield the
distributors from law enforcement. "You can invite anyone you want
into your house," Pogoda notes, "whereas if you're operating
a stall on the street or a shop somewhere, anyone can walk in, investigators
can make buys, anyone can drive by and take pictures."
All the gloom and doom about
lost jobs and copyright law and sweatshop labor is a downer to handbag
collectors, for whom an important part of the purse party's allure is
that it's a party. The sales events are often marketed as a girls' night
out with snacks, drinks, games, and raffles. "Get the girls together
and have a purse party for fun," reads one recent Craigslist solicitation.
"You could even help the girls start their Christmas shopping early
while you're socializing and having a good time in the privacy of your
It's also not uncommon for other shop-at-home vendors to be invited to
sell their products at the party, or for the hosts' friends to sell handicrafts
like homemade jewelry or knitted accessories, turning it into a sort of
crafts fair for beauty-oriented cottage industries. Party organizers often
solicit new hosts by portraying hosting as a woman-oriented at-home business.
"Be your own boss, work your own hours and determine your own income!"
reads another recent ad. "Our company was created by a stay-at-home
mom for stay-at-home moms! You will have the freedom that you've always
dreamed of by hosting as little as one party a week. Our average parties
run between $500 and $1,000 in gross sales."
Despite the apparent popularity of the parties, getting handbag aficionados
to discuss them on the record is tough -- these women know what they're
doing is illegal. When three vendors selling fake designer handbags were
busted this summer at a festival in Tracy, it sent worried ripples through
the East Bay purse-party community, and made people reluctant to talk
with the press.
Giselle, 25, of Antioch, agreed to be interviewed if only her first name
was used. She has hosted a purse party, and about once or twice a month
assists a friend who regularly organizes them. Her friend is a single
mom trying to supplement her income. "If it's helping her pay her
childcare and not be on the welfare system, I don't see the harm,"
Like many other collectors, Giselle is aware that fake purses violate
copyright law, and feels a little squeamish about the alleged links between
counterfeiters and sweatshops or drug dealers. But she has no sympathy
for the fashion industry. "Not everyone can afford a freaking $1,000
purse," she snorts. Her argument is similar to those you'll hear
from online music swappers: Demand for the illegal copy drives up demand
for the real thing. "You're marketing the real deal by carrying around
a lookalike," Giselle says. "This is how I look at it: I'm 25.
My mother, who is fifty, can afford the real purse. I had one of the knockoff
Vuittons a year ago -- it was a really good replica, and my mom liked
it so much that she went out to the store and bought the real purse."
Other fake-purse fans have their own rationales. Take Meghan, a 26-year-old
Alamedan who owns more than one hundred purses, about a third of them
designer replicas, the rest no-name originals. She's been to one purse
party and is considering hosting her own. "I would never buy a real
one," she says of the designer bags. "It's the money. I'd rather
spend three or four hundred on a trip, not on a purse."
For Meghan, the magic of the purse party is being able to afford a wide
variety of handbags, and have the designs that no one else has. "I'm
really into quantity rather than quality," she says. "I like
to have tons of different purses to have something unique for each outfit.
You get what you pay for, and forty or fifty dollars a purse is still
quite a lot of money for some people. If you're just looking for something
cute to wear on a Friday night or to work, then why not have a knockoff?"
Both women say their interest in hosting is less about cash and more about
staging an event so they can get together with co-workers or extended
family, and maybe hook up with some new people. "The money's not
that great," Giselle admits. But, she adds, "I've met two or
three friends from just booking these parties."
She's hitting on the very thing that makes purse parties a savvy business
model: Women are fantastic networkers. Amway, Avon and, of course, Tupperware
have done amazingly well by tapping into these social networks and crafting
sales events as girly get-togethers. The hipster generation is simply
turning out to be more interested in faux couture than the plastic casserole
dishes that enthralled its predecessors. As Meghan puts it: "Who
gives a crap about Tupperware anymore?"
Since the feds don't have much
firsthand information to offer, and since a true understanding of the
purse-party gestalt seems to be something acquired only through personal
experience, there's just one thing left to do: throw a purse party. My
friend -- let's call her "Janet" -- kindly volunteers her backyard
and offers to be the go-between with a purse distributor. We respond to
a Craigslist posting, invite our friends, set out snacks, crank the tunes,
and then wait for the purses to arrive.
Soon enough, we hear the crunch of van wheels on gravel, and two young
woman in velour tracksuits -- our purse lady and her assistant -- hustle
into the yard lugging enormous shopping bags and plastic bins teeming
with brightly colored knockoffs. The folding table we've provided can't
hold all the purses, so the women just throw the bins and bags on the
grass for us to root through.
All the big names are here: Coach, Prada, Kate Spade, Chanel, Dooney &
Bourke, Marc Jacobs, Burberry. There are somber file-folder-sized black
totes for office work, delicate monogrammed handbags for evening wear,
and gaudy, plastic orange and lime-green bags studded with fake rhinestones
that nobody can quite figure out. Prices range from $25 for a hot-pink
imitation Gucci clutch to about $100 for a fake gold Theda, Vuitton's
"It purse" of the season, a baroque horror that is all scalloped
edges and woven leather stitching. A real Theda would fetch $1,750 to
$6,450 in stores, depending on size and fabric.
Our purse supplier, a petite Latina in her early twenties with a head
of reddish curls and a startling pair of shiny gold sneakers, is more
than happy to dish about the details of her business. Her Kate Spade replicas
are made in the United States, she says, and the rest of her inventory
comes from Hong Kong and Korea. She makes about $10 per bag, and generally
sells about $800 in purses per party. This is not her main job; she does
it to supplement what she makes as owner of a small clothing store. She
prides herself on the quality of her bags, which she claims are indistinguishable
from the real thing. And she genuinely loves purses -- if the gold Theda
doesn't sell today, she says a bit sheepishly, she's taking it home for
As the purse lady sits on the grass, ringing up sales with the help of
a portable credit-card reader and a cell phone with a Vuitton plastic
cover, she confirms something apparent from recent Craigslist postings:
that the Bay Area purse-party game is a fractious and competitive one,
with each organizer claiming that she carries the most authentic-looking
bags. Some of the women even use the popular Web site to trash each other's
products and services, alleging that their rivals take money for preordered
items and never deliver the goods. Hosts, meanwhile, have complained of
having arranged parties only to have purse dealers stand them up. Our
lady claims she, too, has been ripped off -- by customers who bounced
checks or used fake credit cards. She now gets suspicious if anyone buys
more than three bags.
But she's decided we're a creditworthy lot, so she won't even ask us for
ID, she says. Indeed, the party has a genuinely relaxed vibe. The guests
warmly praise one another's choices and model handbags for their friends,
checking themselves out in a full-length mirror Janet has propped up for
them. When they're not browsing, they gather around the picnic table,
chatting about their jobs and travel plans. One of the guests has brought
her own crocheted scarves and hats to sell, and there's a good deal of
cheering when she makes her first sale.
When it comes time to tally the receipts, Janet's cut is modest -- she'll
get a 10 percent credit toward her own bag based on how much merchandise
is sold. The group racks up $400 in sales, so Janet gets a $40 discount.
There's a raffle for a free bag (Janet conveniently draws her own name),
then suddenly it's all over. The purse suppliers pack up their van and
scoot, not having made much of a profit after selling only a half-dozen
bags, but seemingly pleased to have met several potential new party hosts.
Despite having voyaged into the belly of the purse party beast, I still
don't understand the allure of fake handbags, particularly ones with highly
dubious origins. But by that day's end, lying around in the sun, chatting
with old friends and new acquaintances, and downing the leftover cookies,
I have to admit I'm not totally immune to the charm of the purse party.
Maybe the ostensible reason for their proliferation is the thrill of buying
illegal knockoffs, but the real driving force behind this international
crime syndicate may simply be women's desire to get together and enjoy
one another's company.
It's the one thing about purse parties that isn't fake.