Ask Auntie Plumcake: How to avoid online knock-offs

Reader Marjean writes:

Hello Miss Plumcake,
When purchasing the ‘good’ shoes online, any tips for determining if I’m purchasing the real designer shoe or an unfortunate knockoff that fell off the back of a truck in some sleazy alley in Hong Kong?

Dearest Marjean,

Excellent question!

We’ve all seen those ads online for discount Louboutins and Manolos at prices that are just expensive enough to keep you guessing. Well you can stop guessing now, those ads are 99.9999% fake. Sometimes they appear on reputable sites via third-party advertisers (and then I have to wax wroth to Manolo who will wax even wrother at the advertising people for being dummies.)

I’ll answer you question in two parts, one today and one tomorrow.

First let’s talk about the nuts and bolts of why and how premium designers choose to sell their product and how much they control the sale price.

Brand Image Control:
Luxury houses have very specific agreements as to where their merchandise can be sold. They take the exclusivity of their product very seriously, because they know you’re buying not just the product, but the prestige. If Manolo Blahnik won’t let his merchandise be sold at Net-a-Porter, arguably the poshest online-only luxury store, because it’s not prestigious enough, you can bet your suitably luscious bippy he’s not going to give a sweeter deal to TotallyNotFakeShoesReallyWePromise.com

Government Protectionism:

Italy and France in particular are maniacal about maintaining the prestige of their luxury goods, often literally destroying the product rather than cheapen its value by selling it at a discount store. So even if Christian Louboutin wanted to sell his merchandise at 90% off, it’s entirely possible the government simply would not let him. Barrels of wine poured down the drain, tubes upon tubes of the only red lipstick I’ll ever really love melted down (Chanel’s Pulsion before they reformulated it)? Done and done. Is it protectionism? Yes. But there we have it.


Collection vs Diffusion & Licensing Agreements:

Luxury houses often have diffusion lines or licensing agreements in addition to what is generally called collection.

Collection is what we mean when we talk about the premium signature pieces designed for the house by the creative director. This is the most exclusive and expensive line. Luxury shoes are generally treated as “Collection” for houses that do Ready to Wear.

A diffusion line is a generally a less expensive, more youth-oriented line from a design house but still receives a good deal of attention from the creative director/designer (e.g, Marc by Marc Jacobs) These products tend to be less exclusive but may still be shown at fashion week. A site or store not authorized to sell Marc Jacobs Collection may be licensed to sell Marc by Marc.

Licensing agreements come in all shapes and forms. Lower-end products such as perfume, sunglasses and entry-level bags are licensed as part of the house’s empire, but may not be designed in-house. This is the stuff you’re most likely to find at clearance stores or online for ridiculous prices. A site or store not authorized to sell diffusion clothes or collection might still be allowed to sell this stuff. No, Calvin Klein did not design your six pack of socks or hand towels.

Shoes generally count as premium merchandise, so while it’s possible you might find a perfectly authentic bottle of Lanvin Arpège perfume at Krazy Klaus’ Internet Wonderhaus, these pair of black satin geometric bowtie sandals with ankle strap and exaggerated banana heel over which your pal Plummy is willing to cut not just one but all of you?


Not so much.

The same thing goes for bricks and mortar shops. While it is not unheard of to find mid-range designers at places like Marshalls, or the low-end diffusion line goods of premium designers (think a pair of Dior sunglasses) you’re just not going to find an authentic pair of Manolos there. Marshalls might THINK they’re authentic, but 999 times out of a thousand they got tricked somewhere along the way (there are plenty of exposes on this sort of thing happening.)

How Luxury Houses Sell Online:

Let’s say Il Maestro comes out with a collection of shoes. Some of the shoes will remain exclusive to the boutiques and some he will agree to have sold at appropriately prestigious department stores. In the states you’re pretty much looking at Neiman Marcus, Saks, Barneys and Bergdorf Goodman.

(Nordstrom also sells an extremely limited range in the more traditional styles, usually shoes that get anniversaire-ed every year)

Several, though probably not all, of those shoes will be available for purchase online through the department stores’ websites. They will go on sale up to a certain percent, but the agreement the store makes with the designer will almost certainly include a clause limiting the discount, usually somewhere around 50%.

Premium designers may also make the occasional deal with an extremely limited number high-profile online-only stores. I can think of only a handful:
Bluefly
Forzieri
Luisa Via Roma
Net a Porter
Raffaello Network
YOOX
Zappos Couture

What about megastores like Amazon or Overstock?

You can feel pretty safe with both of those IF the item is fulfilled by Amazon/Overstock itself. If it’s fulfilled by a third party, I wouldn’t touch it. I know for a fact there are plenty of fakes on Amazon (I once ordered a MAC 217 brush for pretty much what I would’ve paid at the MAC pro shop and got a fake) and I don’t know about Overstock, but I wouldn’t take the risk.

When does a premium designer shoe go on sale for more than 50% off?

Generally, this happens when a shoe has been in stock for more than one calendar year and there is extremely limited availability. With bricks and mortar stores they go to their outlets, e.g., Neiman Marcus Last Call (Bergdorf’s stuff goes here too), Saks Off Fifth and Nordstrom Rack. If the shoes do not sell at the outlet prices, they do NOT get sold to Marshalls, etc. but returned to the manufacturer.

Phew! That’s a lot of info! Time to put this pony show to bed.

Tomorrow:

How to spot a fake website

10 Responses to “Ask Auntie Plumcake: How to avoid online knock-offs”

  1. Sapphire February 22, 2011 at 6:29 pm #

    Thanks, Plumcake! That was fascinating.

  2. Janet February 22, 2011 at 11:25 pm #

    Plumcake, I just had to thank you for the superior content. There’s so many niche blogs out there, treating us as two dimensional people. Yours acknowledges that the same woman who is concerned about the health of her friends and family is equally interested in shoes, feminine empowerment, jewellery, all the fun stuff.
    Thank you again, so much!

  3. Thea February 23, 2011 at 10:56 am #

    Wow! Thank you Plumcake

    I’m in the middle of reading “Deluxe” by Dana Thomas so between your column and her, I feel like I’m about to get a PhD. in ‘Lux’

  4. Miss Plumcake February 23, 2011 at 12:04 pm #

    @Sapphire: Thanks Nurse Sapphy!

    @Janet: Thanks! I’m glad you like it. I really think I need a blog just called Plumcake Tells You Things because I’m terrible at keeping to one subject for too long. I know the way to make money in online publishing is to find your niche and stick to it, but even *I* would get bored of talking about shoes and eating disorders all day.

    @Thea:
    Thank YOU for asking! I’m only sorry it took so long for me to get to it. It was a fantastic question.

  5. Nariya February 23, 2011 at 12:29 pm #

    There are also certain online stores that specialize in selling overstock of designer items at sale prices, such as gilt.com. A lot of these tend to be invite-only though, and it’s pretty easy to discern from a little research whether you’re dealing with a bona-fide boutique or a knockoff hub.

  6. daisyj February 23, 2011 at 2:15 pm #

    That’s interesting about the designer goods at discount chains– I knew they did “official” knockoffs (i.e., the Lucky jeans at Ross are not the same cut or quality as the ones in their boutiques) but I didn’t realize they were getting actual fakes.
    .
    Speaking of quality; I don’t know if you’re doing follow-on questions, but I have one I’ve been wondering about for a while that’s kind of related. Namely: How do you know from looking at it in the store (or even online) if a shoe is well-made? Do you just have to go by the reputation of the brand, or are there good/bad signs to keep an eye out for? I don’t mind paying for quality, but I hate shelling out for something and discovering that it’s just overpriced crap.

  7. wildflower February 23, 2011 at 5:14 pm #

    Don’t you have a post tag, “TELLING you things!”

    I love it! :~D

  8. Lara February 24, 2011 at 8:02 am #

    This Google search reveals the extent of the knockoffs problem:
    http://www.google.com/search?num=100&q=louboutin

    Beyond the first page of Google results, almost everything is fake.

    At the bottom of every page there is a DMCA note showing how many fake sites have been already removed. Every page has at least several results removed. Some pages have had several dozen removed.

  9. daisyj February 24, 2011 at 1:58 pm #

    Back on topic; you can probably add Etsy to the list of suspect sources for designer goods:
    http://www.regretsy.com/2011/02/23/flag-day/

  10. alice February 24, 2011 at 4:05 pm #

    Thanks for this post…maybe someday I’ll have the ability to walk in designer heels, now that I know where to find them!
    (speaking of, where does one email a question? I sent something to the address on the ‘contact us’ link and it was returned.)