Volume 75, Number 38 | February 8 -14 2006

Villager photo by Ramin Talaie

Handbags on sale in the front room of a Canal St. shop.

Women go underground on Canal St. for hot handbags

By Alex Schmidt

Trish and Kim didn’t realize how dazed they were until they were standing in line at the Chinatown Starbucks on Canal St.

“I’m shaking now,” Kim said Tuesday. “I didn’t realize how scared I was.”

The two Connecticut women, who declined to give their last names, were on their biannual ritual trip to the big city for a little shopping and lots of talking. They always make a point of hitting Canal St., where they stock up on fake Coach, Prada and designer purses for a fraction of what the real bags would cost. On Tuesday, however, their experience was unique.

“Usually, the purses are right on the street. But this time they took us into a small back room behind a hidden door. That’s where the bags were,” said Trish.

While they were in the room, the store attendant who had accompanied them began receiving calls on his cell phone. As he was communicating in Chinese, he urged the women, “Shh, quiet, police, police. Anything you want, cheap. Please, quiet.” Trish and Kim tried not to move for 25 minutes while the attendant spoke on his phone. Finally, he ushered them out of the room and led them to a back door that led into an alley. “Come back to pay, one hour,” he said. “Good price.”

Recounting her adventure as she recoverd in the nearby Starbucks, Kim said if they hadn’t been ushered out so quickly, she would have taken all the bags in the room for the $10 price per bag the attendant was asking. “But I can’t fit any more bags in my closet,” she said, “so it’s probably a good thing.” Prices for the fake bags usually range between $30 and $50.

A police spokesperson said police made at least 10 arrests on Jan. 30 around Canal St. for trademark infringement, unlicensed vending and selling counterfeit Louis Vuitton wallets. She said there were no arrests reported Jan. 31, the day the two friends got bags.

Trish and Kim are just two of the hundreds of women who are learning about the new order of business on Canal St. Following some attempts by police at a crackdown, The New York Times reported on Jan. 29 that a court agreement recently won by Louis Vuitton Matellier should go some way toward enforcing counterfeiting laws. In the agreement, certain Canal St. landlords will be required to post signs informing customers that vendors are not authorized Vuitton dealers. Additionally, Vuitton and the landlords will be splitting the costs of an investigator who will have free access to inspect their properties at any time.

Victoria Weld, a Louis Vuitton spokesperson, said of the agreement, “This is one action that’s been successful in taking bags off the street…. Where Louis Vuitton finds counterfeit goods being sold, they contact landlords and take these steps. It’s their goal to fight counterfeiting globally. ”

But designer bags seem simply to have moved to back rooms, to property not covered under the agreement, or else vendors have simply found ways of getting around the problem of having their knockoff bags constantly exposed. One Canal St. vendor handily replaced a purse’s small triangular pin that read “XELINA” with a replica of the silver-and-black Prada insignia, dozens of which she kept behind the counter.

Another vendor near the street led this reporter, who was posing as a customer, down the stairs of a subway station after showing a wallet-sized catalogue of the latest Vuitton styles. Downstairs, he unlocked a door in the wall, led the reporter in, and locked it again behind him. There was a narrow hallway filled with dust and debris. He unlocked a door along the wall in the hallway, leading the reporter into an empty, dirty room, and again locking the door behind him. Finally, he unlocked a door within this room, opening into another room that was clean and well kept and was where the bags were stored. Right before reentering the subway area, he called his cell phone, presumably to make sure the coast was clear.

Some women are already familiar with the clandestine routine that is shopping for knockoff bags on Canal St. and feel fine about it. Erin, a high school student from Long Island, came into the city with her mother and a few friends for “a Gucci bag and a show.” “I knew we would go into one of the back rooms,” said Erin. “It was no big deal.”

But the prospect of going down into several locked rooms is a bit much for others. Kim said that the back room was “as far as I’d go. If I had to go to a place where I didn’t feel safe, it would stop me.”

Trish and Kim returned to pay for their purses. The police were still there and told the women to return in an hour, but Trish and Kim had to make their train and they left Chinatown without paying.

And not 15 minutes after the two women had been hustled out into the alley, vendors in front of the same store were back at it — presumably while the police were investigating indoors — quietly mumbling the phrase that remains something of a mantra on Canal St.: “Handbag, Chanel, Coach, Louis Vuitton, Prada, inside.”

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