“Give me your bag and your Manolo Blahniks,” a thief snarls at Carrie Bradshaw, the protagonist in the American romantic comedy-drama Sex and the City. As a barefoot and distressed Bradshaw hops away to find help (from an attractive policeman who makes up the plot for the rest of the episode), one could only admire the thief’s discerning taste. How could he tell a Manolo Blahnik from a Jimmy Choo?

The thief’s seemingly rare talent has, in recent times, been turned into a business opportunity, with whole organisations dedicated to identifying the authenticity of luxury goods. RealReal, a company based in New York, employs gemologists, horologists, art curators and brand authenticators who can guarantee a shopper that their Birkins, Celines and Louis Vuittons are, well, real. Handling their subjects with delicately-gloved hands, these experts use dental mirrors, cultural knowledge and trained eyes to delve into the minutiae of stitching, zippers, among other things, to confirm authenticity.

A service like this might sound extreme, but it is a necessity in a country like India, where a counterfeit industry exists both online and offline. What is found posturing in the window displays of air-conditioned malls is available just as surely at pavement shops as first copy LV. And often it’s hard to ascertain, which of these is the real thing.

Just this January, a police raid at a store in a Mumbai luxury hotel found 62 counterfeit Louis Vuitton bags worth nearly Rs 5 lakh. Rolls of monogrammed raw material and lining fabric were discovered in a unit above the store, which was churning out Louis Vuittons to exploit the familiar human need to find gratification in aspirational brands.

Path to popularity

Louis Vuitton is among the most visible brands in the world. In the late 1800s when horse carriages, ships and trains were the primary modes of transport, the designer and businessman Louis Vuitton ingeniously created the world’s first stackable luggage, which was easy to carry and weather-resistant. His elegant and practical designs were patronised by Empress Eugénine of France. Soon, Vuitton established himself in Paris as a master innovator and went on to create improvements to luggage, some of which are still used today, like the single tumbler lock.

Such was his brand’s popularity that it inspired copycats within a decade of its inception. To tackle this problem, the company introduced a brown striped pattern for its bags, which became the monogram Louis Vuitton is now synonymous with. But as the bags became a symbol of luxury, and the monogram became ubiquitous, there was a downside – counterfeits began selling in some bazaars around the world.

Even in India, Louis Vuitton has enjoyed incomparable popularity for more than a century. In the 1900s, Indian royalty would order custom-made trunks from Paris. Today, with stores opening across the country, the bags are accessible to anyone who can afford them.

Louis Vuitton products at the RealReal store in New York. Photo credit: Mike Segar/Reuters.

But the desire for these bags isn’t limited to the wealthy alone. A Louis Vuitton worth Rs 1.5 lakh is likely to be paraded in chic restaurants in Mumbai just as frequently as a knock-off version worth Rs 700 could be flaunted on local trains. And quality is important to both parties – local pavement shops on Linking Road, Mumbai, claim to pick only the finest counterfeit Louis Vuittons from Bangkok as opposed to importing from China where the finish is less desirable.

For the rich, waterproof and fireproof LVs that come at a starting price of Rs 45,000 for a wallet-sized bag, make for a valuable and durable investment that is often passed down generations. A girl on Quora claims to have spent more on an LV bag than on her first car. This comparison is perhaps the best way to quantify ostentatious luxury: to the aficionado, a bag is more relevant than a vehicle and the desire more critical than necessity. Another LV owner, Indira Mohandoss, says her bag cost her half as much as her college education in the US but she does not regret it. In fact, after that first purchase, the collection of luxury bags has kept on increasing. It would appear that Louis Vuitton is a gateway drug of luxury bags.

Despite its staggering prices and gold hardware, the monogrammed LV is seen by most owners as a practical investment. For instance, a 25-year-old from Ahmedabad claims she uses it for lugging everything from groceries to her laptop, and the fact that butter chicken stains can be washed off her pristine white bag is what makes it a zero-regrets purchase.

It is also the heritage associated with the brand that makes it so appealing to loyalists. “I can’t say the LV bag offered me something that my other bags didn’t,” said Mohandoss. “To the brand conscious, it definitely is a status symbol and an entry ticket to the exclusives club. The bag and the associated image walks in the door before you do, wherever you go and that’s what really sets Louis Vuitton apart from a regular bag. I went to buy my Mansur Gavriel, while I was carrying the LV bag and they [the store attendants] spoke to me like I was a discerning member of the fashion industry.”

Counterfeit LV bags at a roadside shop in India. Photo credit: User: (WT-shared) Traveller at wts wikivoyage/via Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].

Younger rival

It would seem that the very exclusivity that the brand is renowned for, has turned LV bags into an unlikely bridge between the class divide, as the richest of the rich flaunt it with the same nonchalance as the working class. The reasons they carry the bags are ironically the same. In the process, the bags have turned into a twisted uniform of sorts.

To add to the existing conundrum, both sections of society are now reportedly avoiding the bag for the same reason – it’s too common. As the Chinese (once the largest consumers of Louis Vuitton in the world) shun the bag deeming it for secretaries, sales have temporarily taken a hit. The counterfeit market, quick to sniff out this downslide, has switched loyalties to the newest retail darling, Michael Kors.

But after more than a century of success, is it likely that Michael Kors will replace Louis Vuitton entirely? The shopkeeper on a Mumbai street provides a likely analysis. “Those who know of it, will buy it,” he said. “It’s not for everyone.”

Counterfeit or real, perhaps the greatest achievement of this brand is that it is in fact for everyone. Louis Vuitton made a lot of sense to the Maharaja Jagatjit Singh of Kapurtala, who owned as many as 60 trunks in the early 1900s. It makes just as much sense to Chaya, a domestic worker in her late 40s who works in Mumbai’s Santa Cruz, and carries an LV bag to work every day. While the maharaja used his trunks for transporting everything from swords to shoes, the contents of Chaya’s bag are a testament to her profession as well as her syncretism. A photo of Mother Mary and Ganesha live comfortably inside, along with a handkerchief, house keys and half an onion every now and then. And just like the cowhide and gold, customised clasp-bearing originals, her counterfeit LV bag serves the purpose it was created – for carrying stuff.