The Turkish Phenomenon of the “Genuine Fake”

Of COURSE they're genuine fakes!
Of COURSE they're genuine fakes!

It was on an informally guided tour through the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul where I first heard the term “genuine fake.”

I had been sitting down at a cafe just outside the centuries-old maze of stalls to get some breakfast. The owner of the restaurant introduced me to his “cousin” who owned a stall in the bazaar. As I sat and drank my chai and ate my adana kebab, the smiling cousin stood off to the side and did not budge one inch. 

Reaching deep within my soul and gathering all the patience I could muster to not tell this guy that I’d been hounded by vendors since stepping foot in his beloved country and would he please just leave me alone, I pushed my empty dishes away and followed him into the labyrinth.

Me, summoning my patience / Image courtesy of JoJo's Bizarre Adventure
Me, summoning my patience / Image courtesy of JoJo's Bizarre Adventure

The Grand Bazaar is not the open-air market you might be imagining, but rather a 330,000-square foot warren featuring every kind of ware you can imagine. The spices, tea, coffee, produce, and snacks that have been a staple of the bazaar since its inception around 1455 have since grown to include bags, leather goods, clothes, watches, chains, jewelry, sunglasses, smartphones, and more. It is among the world’s most popular tourist attractions, attracting up to 400,000 people per day.

Grand Bazaar, Istanbul, Turkey
Grand Bazaar, Istanbul, Turkey
Grand Bazaar, Istanbul, Turkey
Grand Bazaar, Istanbul, Turkey

The cousin of the cafe-owner eventually lead me to his stall, specializing in leather goods. I had told him that I wanted to buy a handbag for someone back home, so at least I had a reason to be there. The racks were teeming with Louis Vuitton and Gucci and Coach, and the vendor proudly announced that they were all “genuine fake.” 

I thought he was making a tongue-in-cheek joke and rolled with it, even though he seemed quite serious. After inspecting three different bags and him boasting of their “genuine fake” status each time, I finally bit.

“Okay,” I asked. “What is a ‘genuine fake?'” 

“Fake is fake. Bad quality. Made in China. Genuine fake is good.”

“Sure, but…how? What makes it better?”

He was a little hesitant at first, but I pulled every trick I had learned at journalism school, asking just enough questions and leaving just enough silence to get him to crack. It was clear that this term “genuine fake” was not a joke, but a real thing.

Genuine fakes
Genuine fakes

Real Louis Vuitton bags can retail for well over $3,000 and are handmade in Italy. They often have little QR codes and serial numbers  inside them to prove their authenticity. 

A fake Louis V (for the purposes of this article, a fake fake) would be a product of some Chinese sweatshop and be of questionable quality. It would look passable, but closer inspection would turn up defects: polyurethane instead of leather, plastic buckles instead of metal, inferior stitching, etc. Not much effort to make it a passable copy; it would literally just have the right logo. 

genuine fake, as the vendor explained, is actually made in Turkey. Furthermore, it was common for former Louis Vuitton designers to actually fly to Turkey to validate designs and oversee production. The Turkish bags are of demonstrably higher quality, last longer, and look virtually identical to their real counterparts. Short of actually being made in Italy, they’re as close as you can get to the real deal. 

Everything he told me could have been bullshit, but research bore him out. In short, counterfeit goods are of good quality, and priced accordingly. The Turks take their counterfeiting very seriously. 

How seriously? According to one report, Turkey is #2 in the world for production of fake goods, second only to China, representing a $10.8 billion industry. All of that money boils down to vendors like this guy getting these Turkish-made products for peanuts and then ballooning the figures up astronomically. I chanced asking him how much he made a week doing this gig but he waved my question off with a laugh. 

A similar stall to the one I was in
A similar stall to the one I was in

I really wanted to see what kind of money he thought he could get for these products, and I really wanted to get the girl a bag, and on top of everything, I didn’t want to completely waste the vendor’s time. So I picked a small handbag I thought she would like and got down to haggling. 

He started at 1,200 lira. About 65 dollars, already one-forty-sixth of the price of a real Louis V. After much going back and forth, I got him down to 400 lira, or about 22 bucks. Deal.

I paid the man and he bagged up the “Louis V.” I felt very content with myself, happy to have used my skills and experience to have gotten a good price on a genuine fake of an otherwise expensive status symbol. 

As the vendor was wrapping up my purchase in tissue paper, a stout woman in a hijab came in and walked right up to him. Knowing exactly what she wanted, she pointed to another Louis V bag, very similar to the one I had just bought. Having studied some of the basics of Turkish, I knew that she asked the vendor how much it was. The vendor gave me a quick glance and told her “Dört yüz lira.” 

400 lira. 

The woman, looking shocked, stormed out of the stall amid a tempest of hand waving and Turkish invectives that needed absolutely no translation. 

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