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It all seemed to happen at once.
There had always been the women who bought luxury handbags outright and then the rest of us, toting around our wonky Zara dopplegangers, hoping to at least mimic the silhouette. Then, one fall morning last year, I looked up from my phone and saw them: four different, glorious Chanel Flap Bags, hanging from the shoulders of four separate women in my subway car. I ride the Metro to work in LA, where 59% of female riders fall below the poverty line and most make less than $50K a year. The basic Chanel Flap Bag currently retails at $5,000. Did everyone have a Chanel bag except me?
The answer is no. But many people—actually a fifth of all luxury buyers—have an *air quotes* “Chanel bag.” And they probably bought it using social media.
The subreddit r/RepLadies is a self-described “happy place” for discussion about replicas and “fashion at any level.” It has 71.9K subscribers and thousands more lurkers, and it’s far from your run-of-the-mill Reddit forum. It’s a community that revels in the granular buying process of finding, locating, and shipping fake goods. There are guides on how to get verified on WeChat, how to speak in conversational Mandarin on Google Translate, how to reserve a shipping locker (Guangdong or Beijing?), and how to group items to avoid getting flagged by customs, all in the name of having, for example, a pair of “Givenchy” bike shorts. r/RepLadies is a digital world where women attempt to beat capitalism at its own game using ingenuity and resourcefulness. The forum would make excellent fodder for a sociological study of compare-despair cycles, self-flagellation and shopping addiction. And, it’s a cave of wonders where all that glitters is gold-plated…until self-sabotage, guilt, and fear sets in.
I first discovered r/RepLadies in the comments section of an article on Caroline Calloway. “If you think Blogsnark has drama, [a reference to the snarky subreddit that first flagged Calloway’s bizarre behavior], you should look at RepLadies,” someone wrote. Sure there are the normal posts: the HAUL posts featuring goods fresh from Chinese warehouses, the W2Cs (Where to Cop) posts asking how to find certain goods, and the AUTH posts where buyers share HD photos documenting every stitch, seam, and label from retail stores for factories to reference. “ya’ll have ruined me for most auths now,” one user posted before sharing a gallery of pictures of a Loewe bag tagged on Imgur as “erotic.” There are posts saluting their favorite counterfeiters, or TS (Trusted Sellers) for their art and artistry and FFF (Friday Foto Flex) posts which ask users to incorporate multiple fake items into an outfit to win others’ adoration and support.
Things get weird around the QC (Quality Control) posts, where recent or prospective buyers ask other Redditors to rank the items they’ve already bought or are thinking of buying. Users post their own (usually harsh) self-assessment of the bag using a complicated scoring rubric while active community members are called upon to reassure or critique them because, as the forum’s guidelines state, “We are a community, and you have to contribute and do your part if you want to get something out of it.” It’s all very, “bless your heart,” with comments like, “Personally I would ask for a refund for this bag. I don’t think you’ll be happy with the flaws. But follow what your bag heart tells you 😊” on a faux Louis Vuitton satchel or “The heart is slightly off on bottom left but I am the person who notices when someone puts on eyeliner!!! Most people wouldn’t notice!!!” on a $350 Gucci Marmont dupe.
Before social media, counterfeit items were purchased down back alleys, or through word of mouth. “My marriage is a fake Fendi!” exclaimed Charlotte in a 2000 episode of Sex & The City, which featured Samantha dragging Carrie to a San Fernando Valley-based fakes dealer. “Even if everyone else knew it was real, I’d always know that mine came from a cardboard box in a trunk,” lamented Carrie. Carrie’s feeling is apparently a universal one, as RepLadies’ posts often stray from on-topic buying and selling of luxury fakes. Many posts read like late night emotional spirals, with titles like, “Has buying reps made you realize that some of your dream auth handbags are impractical?” or “How to Not Feel Bad About Wearing a Rep.” There’s the drama around customs seizure, with posts like, “Help Rep Fam, Woke Up to This Really Freaked Out,” or trash talking scammy sellers and adding them to a banned seller list.
There’s also the thousands of Imposter Syndrome posts like, “How to carry reps in a high profile office?” “What to do if someone asks to hold your rep?” and “Do you tell your besties???” Still other problems bubble up. “Rep life has ruined me,” remarked one user who “can’t stop QC-ing everything in sight.” This post about jealousy is a sight to behold, with one commenter claiming they avoid certain friends while wearing rep bags and find the RepLadies community to be more supportive and welcoming than her friends in real life. There are also the sociopolitical discussions about child labor. In a post titled “Let’s discuss reps ethics & factory conditions!!” an argument broke out about whether or not it’s even possible for children to make these kind of bags and shoes, until someone who works in a factory in China responded by using Google translate. Inside the Cave of Wonder of their own creation, it’s almost like their punishment for subverting the luxury fashion economy is a kind of self-sabotage. If they don’t feel guilty about their boss copping the bag, they wonder about child labor or ethical consumption around fast fashion.
These fakes aren’t cheap. The prices are extremely upper middle class, with items ranging from $150 for smaller leather goods to $2000 “superfake” Birkins that are custom-ordered, monogrammed and take months to build. A recurring “RepFinance” thread shows these upwardly mobile software designers, engineers, middle-managers, and start up founders spend thousands of dollars yearly on reps – often equalling the price of their authentic counterparts.
User Abnruby responded to the internal struggle she used to feel on one post, calling authentic bags “a nice bag you can use to carry your bankruptcy paperwork around in,” before standing up for the Rep Community: “Auth or rep, the whole idea of status symbols is nonsense, but often, participation is survival. I see replicas as a way of subverting that system and I’m very fucking okay with that.”
I’m not sure I agree that buying $29 fake Gucci slides is a form of anti-capitalist protest when you could be spending QC-rubric-making energy on…not buying things at all. But consumerism is a gilded tomb that many feel requires mandatory, constant participation, regardless of the societal risk of being “called out” as a fraud. The users of r/RepLadies are still working on making their peace with that.