False 'Hood

Faking It on Canal Street

The town car pulls up outside the Soho Grand Hotel and a couple gets out, just the kind of people you love to hate: He's wearing a Gucci baseball cap and a two-ton Cartier wristwatch; she's looking on coldly as a bellhop struggles with her mountain of Vuitton luggage. They appear to have spent more than your annual income on their monogrammed valises and big-ticket jewelry, and maybe they did.

But maybe they didn't. Maybe they, like you, are more in love with illusion than reality. Maybe they hailed that car a block away and are sauntering into the hotel draped head to toe in the brand-new, 100 percent fakes they bought just around the corner on the miracle mile—well, really more like a quarter-mile—Canal Street between West Broadway and Lafayette.

A recent trip to this strip confirmed that the ersatz designer merchandise for sale here appear, even to an eye (mine) trained by decades of looking at this stuff, to be virtually indistinguishable from the real things. (In fact, the fakes are so good even the NYPD is impressed. One day after my tour of the street, police traversed a maze of secret tunnels, trapdoors, and fake walls to find $125 million worth of counterfeit watches and handbags—the largest cache uncovered in recent history. Ten people were arrested.)

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In some ways, one could argue, Canal Street copies are even better than the authentic models, displaying an insouciance and creativity high-end design houses continue to struggle for. Wacky Dior pedal pushers dangle from Canal's rafters; fishing hats turn up in plaids the design team at Burberry has yet to dream up. At 423 Broadway, just north of Canal, a shirt printed with black-on-black Fendi Fs, cut like a narrow dungaree jacket and not to my knowledge part of any Fendi collection past or present, is $55, perhaps a tenth of what it would be at Fendi proper—and the merest flicker of interest brings the price down to $50.

For at least the last decade, the high and low ends of the market have been locked in a pas de deux, flirting with and shamelessly stealing from each other. If the street has spent the last 10 years enamored of designer logos, the logos themselves are longing for street cred. Meanwhile the middle of the market, the lines most people end up wearing—the Liz Claibornes and Banana Republics and Anne Kleins—just lie there yawning, uncopied and unloved. "That's where the real challenge is!" a friend who cares about these things remarked over coffee the other day. "Dana Buchman! Jones New York!" Hitting the racks on the third floor of Macy's and teasing out a fabulous look from that depressing cavern, he argued, is the true test.

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In any case, it'll be a while before John Galliano, the notoriously louche designer currently at the helm at Dior (how Christian Dior would weep if he knew), has fun knocking off a Tahari suit, not just tying tin cans to couture dresses as he did a few seasons back in his notorious "homage" to homelessness. Galliano's trailer-trash version of the Dior saddlebag, rendered in denim and replete with patches and the occasional errant sequin, is around $800 at the Dior store on 57th Street; the interpretation at 367 Canal is $80. Eighty dollars, the high end of Canal's price structure, will also buy a copy of Stephen Sprouse's iconic graffiti-splattered Vuitton duffelat 305 Canal, a bag that always looked like a fake to begin with. In another interesting twist, the Sprouse bag is no longer available at Vuitton stores—even when it was, Vuitton deliberately kept them in short supply in order to foster an air of exclusivity—so now the only way to get one is to go to Canal. Either that or deface a pristine Vuitton yourself.

Because so many high-end designer accessories are made not of leather but of far less intimidating material—plain fabric for Gucci, laminated cloth at Fendi and Vuitton—they're especially easy to imitate. (Oddly enough, ersatz Prada totes, though available in abundance, are made of a cheesy thick black nylon that dooms their success as knockoffs.) At any rate, it's fun to see the lengths to which the fakes' manufacturers, whoever they are (and you probably don't want to imagine the conditions under which these items are made), have gone to reproduce every conceivable detail. A counterfeit Vuitton pursein the popular style called Alma, $65 at 357 Canal, has pale leather piping meant, like the trim that decorates a real Alma, to darken with age. At 371 Canal, or more properly in front of it (addresses given are for the buildings in front of which these vendors have set up), there are $25 Vuitton beltsthat come with felt LV pouches and provenance papers. The same stall has fully tagged Gucci loafersfor $55 and Fendi mulesat $35 (though the guy is quick to offer a reduction) that appear identical to the real thing—but even if they vary in some infinitesimal way, who's down there looking at your feet?

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Or your wrist, for that matter. Shoppers who feel that a Vuitton knapsack or Gucci visor is a little too vulgar and obvious, even when it's cheap and fake, might still like to show up on the first day of a new job with a status watch. It is a little-known fact that the quartz mechanism that makes the tiny hands in that cheap watch you are currently wearing go around is exactly the same as the one inside a $4000 watch. What you are paying for is the strap and the case. If you want to, you can spend up to $3000 for a brightly colored plastic Locman watchat Bergdorf Goodman that features a cartoonish rectangular face enhanced with tiny diamonds. How much more enjoyable, though, to get the copy at 343 Canal, where the replica, in exactly the right shades of red or yellow, is $25, admittedly the high end of the Canal Street watch market. For a more typical $10, this dealer also has Gucci G watchesand Coach C watchesand of course a wide range of Cartiers, including the square Panthere model in a bogus version of the steel-and-gold combo Cartier favors. (For the same $10, why not get an all-gold one?) At 349 Canal, a rectangular Cartier tank, a very classy item in pretend platinum with a sham red alligator strap (it even has the words Cartier Paris incised on the back of the case) is likewise $10.

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