It is the world’s biggest market for luxury goods — and their counterfeits — so an expert eye for telling a bona fide Chanel handbag from a bogus one is a skill set in hot demand across China.
Enter the “luxury appraiser,” an eagle-eyed differentiator of real from fake, trained to triage handbags, belts and garments for dodgy serial numbers, stitching and logos.
China’s factories churn out huge quantities of luxury goods, much of which is destined for a domestic market worth about 4 trillion yuan (US$618 billion), data provided by market researchers UIBE Luxury China showed.
The country’s second-hand luxury market is also booming, as those unwilling to part with tens of thousands of yuan for a handbag seek out the prestige at a discount price.
However, a vast shadow trade in counterfeits lies in wait for the bargain-hunters.
Many are fooled by “good imitations with little difference” from the originals, said Zhang Chen, founder of the Extraordinary Luxuries Business School, who tools his graduates with the gift of detecting fakes.
His seven-day course teaches students how to detect forgeries, value second-hand goods and learn the skills needed to appraise luxury products.
While the course’s fee is 15,800 yuan, Zhang said that it is a price worth paying as it provides a foothold in a second-hand luxury market that is only just taking off.
China’s second-hand luxury market value last year reached 17.3 billion yuan, almost double the previous year, consultancy Forward Business Information said.
“Chinese people buy one-third of the world’s luxury goods, but the circulation rate of 3 percent is far below the 25 to 30 percent in Western countries,” Zhang said, referring to the percentage that is later resold.
Zhang drills the rules of luxury into students who are hooked onto his every word.
“The lining of a black Chanel handbag must be pink,” he said.
Trainees check ID cards on handbags from the French luxury fashion brand under a special ultraviolet light.
“Two letters will light up, and that’s the secret,” said Zhang, who learned his own skill appraising luxury goods a decade ago in Japan.
Knowing which letters in the Chanel logo use a rectangular rather than square font can “detect one-third of the fakes on the market,” he added.
His students are all affluent, but from a variety of backgrounds, including the former editor of a fashion magazine from Shanghai and a bartender looking for a fresh start after his business was hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I realized that second-hand luxury bags could be sold at a very good price,” a 31-year-old stock market trader said.
A Louis Vuitton Neverfull handbag bought two years ago can still be sold at 9,000 yuan on second-hand platforms, a 20 percent discount, while a small Chanel Gabrielle bag goes for about 60 to 70 percent of the counter price.
“I think the logic behind the sales is very similar to the financial products I’m selling now,” he added.
However, the condition of the bags can have a heavy impact on value.
“Pay special attention to the scratches around the buckle, as a lot of people get manicures these days,” Zhang said, identifying grazes from long nails.
Seasonality is also essential, with red — the color of good luck in Chinese culture — selling quickest during holiday season.
His school has even attracted former counterfeiters as students, Zhang added, adding that many of them wanted to build on existing skills, but shift to less disreputable work.
In most cases, it takes Zhang about 10 seconds to tell if a product is real, he said, holding up a genuine Hermes bag.
Some clients send pictures of watches, shoes and clothes for an online diagnosis.
Verifying luxury products is set to become more high-tech with fashion houses introducing chips to trace pedigree.
Louis Vuitton in 2019 announced that it would launch a blockchain platform called AURA to record its goods.
Microchips have been inserted in the sole of women’s shoes made by Italian brand Salvatore Ferragamo, while Burberry has experimented with radio frequency identification technology in its goods.
However, with the technologies still in their infancy, Zhang is unconcerned about the threat to his analogue line of work.
“Any technology has the possibility of being cracked,” Zhang said. “The market for identifying luxury products will always exist, it’s just that the methods will have to adapt.”
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