Mon. Oct 18th, 2021


Rachel Koffsky, senior specialist in handbags and accessories at Christie's, with a 1994 Hermès Kelly bag, photographed for the FT by Harry Mitchell
Rachel Koffsky, senior specialist in handbags and accessories at Christie’s, with a 1994 Hermès Kelly bag, photographed for the FT by Harry Mitchell

Graham Wetzbarger knows what fake tastes like. ‘Tiffany & Co counterfeits can be covered in aluminum. If you taste it, it’s like a soda can, it has a metallic taste that sterling silver does not have, ‘he explains.

Wetzbarger, an expert in luxury goods in the US and former chief verifier at the consignment site The RealReal, firmly believes that the art of validating a luxury object, whether it is a work of art or a sneaker, on the use of various senses rely. Although he admits, taste is very rarely used. “You smell a lot; there is a lot of glue in fakes. ”

According to Bain, spending on second-hand luxury goods rose from £ 20 billion in 2017 to £ 28 billion in 2020, significantly exceeding the growth in the overall luxury goods market. Online markets and consignment sites, including The RealReal and Vestiaire Collective, have made it as easy to buy and sell second-hand as new, as prospective buyers no longer have to spend hours searching for brick-and-mortar consignment stores in search of ‘ a coveted handbag or dress.

In this emerging environment, counterfeiting has increased. Fashion archivist Greg Chester of One of a Kind in London says the forgery of handbags has become so skilled that the store has begun to avoid the category altogether. “It’s not worth the risk to us,” he says. The RealReal has previously been accused of not noticing a false error.

Kate Moss in a John Galliano autumn dress from autumn / winter 1995, available at One of a Kind for £ 25,000.  .  .

Kate Moss in a John Galliano silk dress from autumn / winter 1995, available at One of a Kind for £ 25,000. . . © WireImage

.  .  .  and a Vivienne Westwood Fall / Winter 1994 hook look, available at One of a Kind for £ 6,500

. . . and a Vivienne Westwood Fall / Winter 1994 hook look, available at One of a Kind for £ 6,500 © WireImage

Human verifiers are expensive, and technology-driven solutions designed to improve — and perhaps eventually replace — continue to evolve. In April, LVMH, along with Prada and Cartier owned by Richemont, launched the Aura Blockchain Consortium, a global platform that gives unique digital identities to products so customers can ensure their purchases are the right thing to do. The verification company Entrupy claims an accuracy rate of 99.1 percent after training its image recognition technology on a self-built database of hundreds of thousands of items.

An Atelier Versace strapless autumn / winter 1997 dress, available at One of a Kind for £ 26,000

An Atelier Versace strapless fall / winter 1997 dress, available at One of a Kind for £ 26,000 © Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

However, these systems are still in their infancy. Image recognition technology needs to be trained in databases of images that are still being built. People are needed to ensure that the visual references fed to the machine are of genuine products.

Blockchain, on the other hand, is usually applied to the source when a product is first created. When applied to vintage products, the items must first be certified, which brings us back to human verifiers. Industry professionals see technology as a useful addition to a job that will remain largely human-based in the foreseeable future. “It’s still a difficult skill,” says Wetzbarger. “More than ninety percent of the entire industry is human.”

Christie's Koffsky, who has studied art history and mathematics, acknowledges her educational background for critical analysis skills

Christie’s Koffsky, who studied art history and mathematics, acknowledges her educational background for the critical analysis skills © Harry Mitchell for the FT

Back to taste, smell and touch it. When a suitcase of a very unusual metal arrived at Christie’s in 2018, Rachel Koffsky, the senior specialist in handbags and accessories, made it feel like it could be a rare piece of Louis Vuitton from the late 19th century. of aluminum. At the time, only one was known to have been stored at the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris. In search of scientific confirmation, Koffsky brought the trunk to the National History Museum, where it was analyzed in a basement laboratory.

As part of the verification process, Christie's had this Louis Vuitton suitcase analyzed at the National History Museum

As part of the verification process, Christie’s had this Louis Vuitton suitcase analyzed in the National History Museum © Christie’s

‘The tribes made at the end of the 19th century were made for explorers traveling all over the world, and they had to be very light. “Aluminum has just been invented and it was a very expensive material, known as the white gold of Napoleon,” she explains. “Making sure it was aluminum was critical to making sure it’s the historical piece we have a feeling it’s going to be.” The trunk was sold at auction in December 2018 for £ 162,500.

Details such as where the manufacturing label and brand label were placed, as well as the construction of the garment itself, and in the case of a Chanel bag, the number of stitches between two quilted sections, can help to substantiate an item. “It’s like learning a language,” says Chester, who maintains detailed timelines for each brand, producing details such as changes in finishing techniques or labels. “If you’ve been dealing with certain designers for so long, if something does not look right, stick it out like a sore thumb.”

Strong second-hand luxury goods market

Counterfeiters make a profit by selling well-made goods at high prices, and finishing techniques are often the place where the real thing does not happen. For Chester and Wetzbarger, it’s essential to turn a garment around. “Counterfeiters spend 99 percent of their time on the outside of an object to deceive the eye, so when you get to the bowels of the pieces, you start to see flaws,” says Wetzbarger.

Hardware elements such as buttons, studs and fasteners are also an important indicator. For example, when it comes to zippers, luxury brands rarely use the Japanese brand YKK, the largest zipper manufacturer in the world, and instead opt for Riri or Lampo zippers, which Wetzbarger calls the BMW and Mercedes zippers. Anything designed to improve management and inventory control, including serial numbers, date stamps, or manufacturing labels, can be used by verifiers to track the style and date of a garment. “All the itchy things on your side that many people end up cutting out – it makes our job harder,” says Wetzbarger.

Luxury verifiers come from different backgrounds and learn a lot about trading through direct experience, which overshadows other verifiers as there is no formal way to the field. Wetzbarger says many of his best recruits were previously luxury sales assistants who were already trained to locate and appreciate craftsmanship, often by brands themselves.

A limited edition Hermès Constance bag in quick leather and marble silk

A limited edition Hermès Constance bag in quick leather and marbles his © Harry Mitchell for the FT

Relying on seasoned verifiers to teach newcomers the trade might have worked if second-hand luxury was a niche market, but as the sector continued to expand and attract new players, the demand for skilled verifiers far exceeded availability. Wetzbarger says basic training can be done within six months, but it takes a few years of autonomous work before a verifier is considered an expert. He laments the lack of a trade organization or a third-party verification guild that can provide a shared industry standard.

“Companies are all training their own armies of verifiers because everyone is fighting for market share,” he says. ‘There are industry standards, but they are not really [formally] agreed. “

Resolving these issues is critical to the success of the second-hand luxury market, says Bain’s partner, Claudia D’Arpizio, who remains the core of the profession despite the promise of blockchain people. “You have to have the human touch there.”

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