Illustration by Shino Arihara
“Missy, missy, missy.” Hands clutch at me as a gaggle of girls, perhaps in their late teens, swarm around, drawing ever closer. The chirping “missy, missy, missy” gets ever louder. My attempts to convey an international symbol for “personal space” — both hands over the head then moving down the body to pantomime a kind of barrier — are met with bemused glances and giggles, and barely a pause . . . “Missy, missy, missy.” The hectoring chorus resumes resolute and increasingly insistent as eager hands tug me this way and that. I’m starting to feel like Sebastian Venable at the end of Suddenly Last Summer — except it’s not my body that’s in danger, it’s my soul. Or some reasonable facsimile thereof.
You see, I’m on the fourth floor of a mall in Shenzhèn, China, putting the “con” in consumerism. For this isn’t one of those sleek, air-conditioned temples of shopping that defines the skylines of Shanghai and Hong Kong, never mind the landscape of America; this is the holyland of fakes. Five firetrap floors of fraud. A shrill, grasping paean to the power of the logo. Gucci, Vuitton, Chanel. Nirvana for the label whore who can’t afford a $5,000 purse.
But wait, I’m not a label whore. In fact, carrying, say, that new wait-listed woven LV bag strikes me as showing a spectacular lack of imagination. Just another fashionista in a world that’s becoming ever more bland as brands —high and low — dominate retail. And yet, here I am, letting myself be rushed beyond the cries of “missy, missy, missy” down one corridor to the next, through a maze of storefronts, by a determined saleswoman intent on taking me to where the better fakes are to be had. Even in this citadel of counterfeits, which consists almost entirely of purses, totes and wallets, there’s a sort of hierarchy.
The first three floors of the mall are where the “faux fakes” are peddled: the RV rather than LV monogrammed bags. I barely give them a glance on my way to the fourth and fifth floors, which house the “real fakes,” the purse that might pass. The engraved detailing on the lock of an Hermès Birkin bag, for instance, is correct. (And judging by the number of stores on all floors that carry Hermès Birkin and Kelly bags — in a multitude of sizes and colors — the desire is insatiable.) Then there are the secret backrooms that contain the crème de la copies — a Gucci tote, for instance, which only the most discerning eye could spot as a fraud.
We enter a clothing store and are led into a storeroom by one of the missy girls. Finally, quiet. A teenage boy sits on some boxes while working on a sewing machine. He pushes the boxes aside, lifts the shelves behind him and taps on the wall. A moment later it opens and we’re hurried into a room that’s most decidedly not for the claustrophobic even when it’s empty. And yet there are at least a dozen people jammed in, pressed up against the shelves that hold faux Gucci totes, Chanel clutches, Vuitton bags, Dior purses. The wall slams shut and we’re locked in. This could redefine the concept of fashion victim.
Curiously, many of the saleswomen treat their imitations as the real deal: “Missy, this is a Louis Vuitton bag.”
“Darling,” I say, “it’s plastic and it’s fake.”
“Yes, but look how big it is.”
“So, more plastic and it’s still fake.”
Yet, there’s an odd logic to these arguments: The idea of the label invests the fake with a certain twisted veracity. The saleswomen push purses, totes and clutches toward me, as well as catalogs (the kind you often see on international flights and which appear to have been “borrowed” from various airlines), promising they can get nearly any style — if I just tell them what I want. And want I do, in a perverse way: Bring on those interlocking initials. Besides, they won’t let me out of the room. Talk about a hard sell.
But why do I want these fakes? I contemplate this over two days of slipping in and out of the backrooms, bargaining mercilessly — I’m worse than a label whore, I’m a phony-label whore. Egad, I feel an existential crisis coming on. I believe in designers and design, but the fakes are, in some sense, an anti-fashion statement — a punk prank on consumer society and the glossily elite “branded” lifestyles promoted in ads and high-end mags. Their fakeness is the appeal, at least that’s how I glibly rationalize my conundrum. And while that’s true, it would be disingenuous if I didn’t confess to giving in at least a little bit to the seduction of the label — back home, I notice there’s a certain thrill in strolling into a swanky place with an LV hanging off my arm. The rush only intensifies when I consider where my “designer accessories” originated. Because ultimately, there is something subversive about carrying a faux Chanel bag, even in a town legendary for its fakery.
Of course, the fourth time I wear the bag, a strap breaks.