What a Steal! 

Counterfeiters apply the Tupperware business model to an illicit new enterprise: purse parties.

We are on a secret mission, my friend Leslie and I. We are trolling the suburban streets of San Leandro, looking for an address given to me by a stranger I met on the Internet. After parking way down the street so no one will spot my car, we walk nervously up the front path toward one of those nondescript apartment complexes that seems to have taken its architectural cues from a Motel 6. The screen door is closed and we can't see through it, but we can hear women laughing. We're uneasy and quiet because we are about to do something illegal. We are attending a purse party.

Never heard of a purse party? Think of it as a black-market Tupperware party, but instead of dealing in salad bowls, the women who host them are shilling fake Burberry, Gucci, Prada, and Louis Vuitton. It might sound no more threatening than a toy poodle cartel, but because the handbags sold at these parties are almost entirely bootlegged versions of those made by high-end fashion houses, and because many of them are spirited into the country from abroad, the popular phenomenon falls within the broad criminal categories of counterfeiting and smuggling and is therefore the sort of thing that could go down on your permanent record.

The people who deal in fake handbags and other luxury apparel items are doing so at incredible volumes. The top five types of counterfeit merchandise smuggled through the ports in Oakland and San Francisco are, in order, handbags, clothing, watches, wallets, and cell-phone covers. All can be readily purchased at your neighborhood purse party for a fraction of the price of the original -- genuine designer handbags typically run $200 to $1,000 a pop.

All of this makes purse parties of more than passing interest to the federal government, which in recent years rolled customs enforcement into the deadly serious Department of Homeland Security. Yet purse parties usually escape law enforcement scrutiny. For one thing, busting them is a much lower priority than catching the smugglers and manufacturers. For another, it's not that easy to get invited. It helps if you're a girl who really likes purses -- something these G-men clearly are not.

Invitations to purse parties are usually passed by word of mouth among friends, family, and co-workers. Organizers also advertise on Web sites such as Craigslist, but they aren't looking for new guests -- they're looking for party hosts. You supply the location, bring in your friends and family as customers, and the organizers will supply the bags. They do it this way partly to make sure anyone who comes to the parties has a stake in the business or is known to the host -- and partly because the whole phenomenon has a sales-pyramid aspect. Top distributors profit from purse sales made by the hosts, who in turn profit if any of their guests hold their own parties later. Hosts sometimes get a cut of the cash, although more often they're paid in free handbags, sunglasses, jewelry, or other merchandise. The more merch they or their recruits move, the greater the rewards. As a result, there is a serious drive to bring in as many new hosts as possible.

So every time I approached a purse party organizer online asking to be added to a guest list, she politely but firmly insisted that I host. Any excuse I made for why I couldn't hold a party at my house was quickly batted down. "How about at your mom's house?" they would press. "How about your office?"

After about a half-dozen rejections, someone finally sent me an invitation, promising a party with cocktails, appetizers, and even a layaway plan. Leslie and I hit the road.

Just one problem: Like the G-men, I am not a girl who likes purses. The only thing I own that resembles one is a battered and lumpy messenger bag whose defining feature is a large maple syrup stain incurred in an Eggo-related incident in '97. I am convinced this will instantly blow my cover as a spy in the House of Handbags, so for disguise purposes Leslie, the most fashionable person I know, has outfitted me with a sedate black Prada -- a fake, naturally. I try to remember to push it nonchalantly behind one shoulder instead of clutching it in both hands like a little girl with a death grip on an Easter basket.

If getting on the list for a purse party was tough, getting into the party proves easy. We just push open the screen door and walk in. A dozen women, mostly in their twenties, are milling around a living room transformed into an indoor swap meet. There are several card tables upon which women have set up displays for their own small businesses selling silver jewelry, candles in disconcerting animal prints, Body Shop cosmetics, and fruit-scented massage oils and body glitter. When Leslie and I mosey over, the proprietor whips out catalogues from which we can order gummy candy handcuffs and other less G-rated merchandise that isn't on display because, we're told, this is a kid-friendly party. There are, in fact, a few moms here with toddlers, and a table of toys has been set out for their amusement. There are the promised appetizers (a grocery-store vegetable platter) and cocktails (several unopened bottles of vodka).

And then there's the main attraction: neat rows of imitation Burberry, Gucci, Hermès, and Prada purses. A larger display shows off the Vuittons, particularly the popular "monogram multicolore" design, in which the company's distinctive "LV" logo, usually reproduced in a sedate gold on brown, appears in an eye-popping rainbow of colors on white leather. The purses have oversize pink and white price tags, all marked from $25 to $60.

It's pretty well accepted in this world that you'll get what you pay for. Take the Vuitton wallet we find for $30 -- the real thing sells for $285. Leslie whispers to me about the poor print job, in which the green parts of the design don't show up for lack of ink. A genuine Gucci would set you back $600 to $4,800, and when I pick up the $35 version, Leslie doesn't even recognize the design -- she thinks the counterfeiters just glued a Gucci label to a purse of their own creation. She shows me the inside, which has a cheap fabric lining and none of the labels, stamps, or serial numbers a real designer purse would have to prove authenticity. These purses are wrapped in thin clear plastic and stuffed with tissue paper -- the real deal would have its own carefully fitted dust bag for protection.

But people seem to be here for the bargains and the camaraderie, not because they're fashion experts. Leslie is horrified when a bunch of women begin debating if the "G" pattern on a certain bag is for Gucci. She points out that it's for the more déclassé Guess, and they look at her in glum disappointment.

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