Purse Snatching


For almost a year, my friend B. walked around with a crumpled piece of paper in her purse—a picture torn from Women’s Wear Daily of a white canvas tote, like the ones you buy at the art supply store, with a big pink medallion in its center that said “Louis Vuitton.” Vuitton has a habit of launching its bags in magazines long before they’re available in stores as a way to pump up desire, though sometimes this backfires—by the time you can actually buy it, you’re sick of it. That’s what happened with B.’s tote, which Vuitton called the Globus. (Plus, when it finally hit town, it weighed a ton and cost way more than $1,000.) Actually, I’d never even seen anyone with a Globus—and I am someone who looks at handbags—until earlier this year, when I noticed a woman carrying a beat-up, ratty Globus at the 26th Street flea market—a chic young girl, to be sure, but hardly someone who looked like she had $1,500 to spend on a canvas bag.

I loved the way her Globus looked, but I forgot all about it until a few weeks ago, when my intrepid friend J.—who never sees a movie that isn’t bootlegged—called. “Have you been down to Canal lately?” he asked. “You’ve got to see how they’re selling Vuitton now. The guys have cards, and you pick out what you want.”

In theory, I adore copies—their upstart impertinence, the fact that they make bags affordable for everybody. I’ve never understood why companies get so crazy trying to stop them. If you don’t want people to copy your bag, why don’t you make something a little harder to rip off than a plastic tote? And isn’t the time to worry when no one wants to copy your products? In any case, since there appear to be plenty of suckers willing to buy the real thing, maybe these companies should just shut up and take the money.

But the sad truth is, I am one of those suckers. I own plenty of overpriced originals—ridiculously inflated Prada nylon sacks, limp Fendis printed with silly double Fs. When I try to explain to a friend why I buy these things—”It’s like buying into a dream! It’s a fantasy item!”—she gives me a withering look and says, “It’s a status symbol.”

Well, fair enough, but it’s the whole experience you’re paying for—the fawning salespeople, the fancy presentation (at Prada, your bag comes in a shopping bag tied up with ribbons like a birthday present).

All around lower Broadway, there are extraordinary replica purses in locked showcases, including Goyard totes dangling from the rafters. (So recent and convincing are the Goyard fakes that a Deep Throat at Barneys admitted the store took two bags back before they realized the copies even existed.)

Still, there’s nary a Globus—in fact, no Vuitton at all, doubtless because among designer brands, Louis Vuitton is by far the most litigious, going after the sellers on Canal with the fury of a holy jihad.

“You alone?” she asks. “I have that bag—$100. Come with me.” We crossSure enough, right where J. said, there’s a guy outside the No. 6 train subway stop, very discreetly brandishing a laminated card, maybe 6 x 8, with teeny-tiny pictures of Vuittons on one side and Coaches on the other, but no Globus. When I screw up my courage and ask him if he has it—in a low voice, like I’m buying heroin—he nods and calls to a woman with the broad grin and steely eyes of a true industrialist.

Lafayette Street, where Steely Eyes hands me off to another woman, who is sitting on a folding chair in the broiling sun outside a storefront. This new person explains to yet another guy lurking on the sidewalk what I’m looking for. He does a rough drawing of the Globus on a scrap of paper and I nod. Magically, without my asking, the price is lowered to $75, but he says he has no pink trim, only brown. “Well, I’d like to see it,” I say weakly, as if I’m in the Yves Saint-Laurent boutique on Madison Avenue.

So off he goes, somewhere deep in the bowels of the earth under Chinatown, and I am left in the sun to watch the passing show: a family of three, all in sour moods, that Steely Eyes has just delivered—they’re looking for a Vuitton that they’ve picked off a card, but they don’t want to spend $40 for it.

The next arrival is by far the more fascinating. She’s in search of sunglasses—Dior, or maybe Chanel—and she’s sporting a diamond monogram pendant that I am almost positive is by Harry Winston and costs in the vicinity of $12,000. (If it’s fake, I’ve never seen anything like it.) Her very presence throws into chaos my entire belief system: I have always determined whether a bag is real or fake not by the quality of the bag itself (almost impossible), but by sizing up—and costing out—whatever else the person carrying it is wearing. But if Ms. Moneybags is mixing fake shades with Harry Winston, maybe everyone I see—on the subway, in the ladies’ room at Bergdorf Goodman, in the audience at Xanadu—is carrying a fake. Everyone but me.

Finally, after what seems like the better part of an hour, my guy is back. He’s bearing not a beribboned package but a garbage bag, and in it is my Globus. Trouble is, we can’t take it out of the bag: I’m allowed to peek in, which I do, but when I say I don’t care for the brown medallion after all, the woman in charge goes ballistic. “Oh my God! My brother got brown!” “I told you brown!” the brother chimes in, furious.

Now, I don’t just feel like a criminal, but also an ingrate, a user, a cold, unfeeling person who took up nearly an hour of these hard-working people’s time. I walk swiftly—OK, I run—across the street, where I immediately see a couple of other gentlemen lurking with cards. I am tempted to try again—maybe someone else has pink?—but am suddenly seized with the thought that maybe they all work for Steely.

Terrified of another confrontation and feeling unaccountably guilty over the whole ordeal, I scamper up Greene Street, where I find myself inside the gleaming, air-conditioned, near-empty Vuitton store, a far cry from Canal’s raffish encampments. And there I discover this summer’s version of the Globus. It’s called the PM Street, for some unfathomable reason ( pas mal? pauvre moi?), and made of leather cunningly woven to resemble those plaid plastic shopping totes for sale in third-world markets and usually carried only by people of extremely limited means. Of course, the original version—of which, ironically, this is clearly a copy—lacks the round Vuitton logo, but then again it is also available for substantially less than $1,800.

Sick and campy and in extremely bad taste this item may be, but I am ashamed to say I kind of like it. Oh, well, what’s the hurry? Steely and company will be stuffing its likeness into a trash bag any day now.