One of the things that my study abroad students used to ask me every so often was, “Where can we go to get the fake purses?”
There are a few places that are almost like established stores by now, so well-known are they for selling counterfeit luxury goods like Prada, Chanel and Louis Vuitton bags. I had students who had become experts not only in bartering for the best price (“Don’t ever spend more than €25…”) to knowing exactly how to identify the crappy knock-offs from the more authentic-looking ones (“The Gucci bags where the G’s look like 69’s instead of G’s? Avoid them. Way too fake-looking.”)
Personally, I’ve never bought a fake bag and I never intend to. It’s not some sort of statement or snobbery. It’s just that I think I would feel silly carrying one around, when nearly my entire wardrobe consists of Old Navy clothing and Payless shoes. I mean, come on. I pay $16 for a pair of shoes but then I want to try to make people believe that I spent $600 on a handbag? Who are we kidding here?
But lots of people buy them. This article from the International Herald Tribune says that 20% of Italians buy fake goods. Actually, I don’t think that it’s really accurate to examine how many Italians buy the fake goods. My guess is that the majority of the bags are sold to tourists.
I’ve accepted these street vendors without complaint, because they are as much as part of the city as the people who beg for money or the street performers. But I have to say that despite what the article above (from January 2006) says, just recently I’ve seen a marked increase in street vendors selling fake designer purses, sunglasses, and the like. This summer on the more touristy end of my street in Trastevere, madness truly descended. There were so many street vendors with their blankets spread out on both sides of the street, that there was literally only room for people to walk almost single-file. It was becoming like the Vegas Strip, and I found myself searching for alternate routes to avoid the traffic. Luckily I don’t live near that part of the street so I don’t have to bother with the chaos when I come in and out of my apartment, but I have to wonder how the residents who live on that side of the street must feel when they have to maneuver around all these bags and people just to get to their front doors.
A phenomenon you might see when in Rome is a sudden mass exodus of the street vendors packing everything up and getting the hell out of Dodge. That’s because they’ve heard that police are on the beat and so they need to move. Now, I really question whether these street vendors actually ever get ticketed. I think they more likely just find new spots to set up shop, or come back the next day.
For example, towards the end of the summer I saw a sudden disappearance of the street vendors on that busy end of my street, which directly coincided with a marked increase in police cars patroling that particular area. However, around the exact same time, I saw a huge increase in vendors setting up shop in front of the Pantheon (where the photos for this post were taken). It had gotten to the point where one could barely move in the area surrounding the outside of the Pantheon, for fear of tripping over a handbag or pair of sunglasses displayed on the ground or on makeshift tables fashioned from cardboard boxes.
The last I heard, the law was that the person who purchases the fake goods is the one commiting the crime. In fact, the same IHT article says that a Philippine woman living in Florence was fined €3,333 for buying fake sunglasses for €11. While I think that’s entirely possible, I also have to say that I think the chances of a tourist actually getting fined for purchasing fake goods sold in broad daylight in high-traffic tourist zones is just about as likely as the street vendors getting fined or arrested, which I think probably never happens. In my view, there’s an unacceptably high level of tolerance that goes on.
Of course, counterfeit goods are sold in most of the big cities of the world. For three days on my honeymoon I had the opportunity to be in Hong Kong, a simply fascinating and enchanting city, but on certain streets you couldn’t walk two feet without being asked to buy fake electronics or watches. In New York you hear about mysterious secret back rooms where the goods are sold (such as the one mentioned in this article). So I know it’s a problem that doesn’t just concern Rome.
I personally wouldn’t mind if the street vendors were completely wiped off the Rome landscape … to me their improvised street “shops” are annoying and an eyesore, especially in front of such great cultural landmarks, but I know it’s a complicated issue. I haven’t even touched the points surrounding the street vendors themselves, who are most likely all illegal immigrants who certainly have found refuge and a better life here in Italy, or the arguments from the luxury goods companies, who say that these sales not only lower the overall value of their brand, but cause massive job loss in their industries.
What are your thoughts? Have you ever bought one of the bags? (It’s ok to admit it, I doubt the tax police will come hunt you down.) I’m curious to know if you see these vendors as annoyances or as providing some kind of valuable service, allowing people to purchase fake goods at a fraction of the price they cost when they are real.
It’s come to the point where even if I had the money to buy a real designer bag, I probably wouldn’t do it now… I’d be too embarassed thinking that everyone would look at it and think it was a fake.