There was once a conversation I overheard in the Economy class of a KLM flight from Manila to Amsterdam between a Filipina and a European woman that gave me an idea on the outrageousness of Italian designer handbags.
The Filipina who sounded incredulous after hearing that the pink Gucci bag the Caucasian woman was bringing with her as a hand luggage costs 3000 Euros then proceeded to the all-Filipino tradition of converting the sum to Philippine peso. Her voice almost approached to that of shouting when her calculation revealed that the bag costs nearly 190,000 pesos. She then enumerated the things the amount could buy back in the Philippines: a down payment for a condominium unit, a farm land in the province, education of her children in an exclusive school in Manila, a secondhand car, a capital for a small business.
The other woman, unable to contribute her part in the conversation kept quiet the entire time except for occasional “uhm”s and “ah”s. The Filipina’s list almost stretched to eternity when at last she finally added: “you can buy the same bag in Quiapo for 300 pesos, then did the currency conversion for the European woman, mga around 5 Euros”.
“Really?” was the white woman’s only response. The conversation took place a year ago.
And because the world is experiencing an economic slowdown, the worst since the 1930s Great Depression in the US, global consumption for luxury items also follows a downward spiral as most consumers hold on to their cash. The market for fake goods, on the other hand, remains thriving especially in economies not directly affected by the collapse of the US financial institutions like the Philippines.
I was in Shangri-La Mall, a department store for high end goods in Mandaluyong City almost everyday in the previous week to watch free screenings of French films. The mall, I found out is a good place to observe people and their interaction with each other.
While waiting, for the screening schedule, a friend and I had a conversation on why almost all the women in that mall are carrying with them a bag by a designer label. There were Gucci, Chanel, Prada, Louis Vuitton, Versace and all other Italian brands whose price, provided they’re real, can actually buy those things mentioned by a Filipina in that KLM flight.
It can’t be that they are all carrying with them originals, a friend said. If that is so, I asked, then how can we spot a counterfeit from an authentic? Ultimately, we came up with a rather shallow means, that is, to judge the owner of the bag.
In the Philippines, with its highly stratified economic classes, most people rely on observable symbols to tell whether the people they see or socially interact with is in lower, the same, or higher class, a process important in deciding the kind of socialization they will have. But because of the prevalence of fake goods, judging by a handbag, at least for women, will not be that accurate. So we often resort to more verifiable means, say the ownership of a car, the outward appearance, the proficiency in the English language, or their work.
If a handbag costs as much as a year’s salary of a minimum wage earner, or even more, won’t it be offensive to one’s sensibilities to carry a Gucci bag around?
Not so much in the Philippines. Since fakes are difficult to distinguish from real ones, owning an Italian designer bag will not lead to any social disturbance as opposed to strutting a Prada in Bronx.
Driving a Porsche in the slums of Quiapo, on the other hand, is a totally different thing.
Now here’s an elementary (if not an idiotic) way we have come up to tell whether a Vuitton is a wannabe or not:
1. If it’s carried by a high school girl, it’s a fake. Most women who can afford a pricey handbag are already graying since they have more disposable income from retirement or from money sent by children working abroad.
2. If the woman holding a Gucci is carrying another plastic bag in her other hand, the bag is a fake unless that plastic bag is carried by another woman wearing a white or floral uniform who is an assistant or a nurse of that old woman.
3. If the Vuitton is already the tenth of the same kind of Vuitton you’ve seen that day, chances are all ten of them are fakes. A woman who can afford to buy an original won’t bother buying an ultra-expensive bag that looks exactly like the one her amiga brought from Divisoria.
4. If the woman has a Prada tied on her shoulder and she’s walking with small children, the bag shouts ‘counterfeit!’, but if those children are carried individually by their own uniformed nannies then she might have paid dearly for that shoulder bag.
5. If a woman enters through the main entrance of the department store holding a Versace tote bag together with the rest of the proletariat members of the society, the tote’s totally phony. But if she used the entrance from the mall’s parking lot, there’s a high probability that that tote’s true.