Travel Experience: The Luxury Knock-off Markets of Thailand

Last year I took a long vacation backpacking/mini suitcasing through Thailand (barely missed the Coronavirus outbreak over there btw). While there is so much to talk about from that experience and I plan to do subsequent travelogues around it, one aspect really stood out very amusingly for me.

I had researched Thailand quite a bit while planning my trip and in the process had read about the thriving gray and black markets in the country but since that wasn't exactly my focus, I didn't delve too deep into it. Cut to my first day in the country in the beautifully controversial city of Pattaya. After a bit of sightseeing during the day I had the evening off to myself before catching some of the Ladyboy cabaret shows the city is famous for so I decided to go check out the street markets opposite Pattaya Beach. 

You can buy literally anything there from juicy Dragonfruit to a fake Rolex. I was strolling along scanning the shops when lo and behold!...walking past a shop selling local handicrafts I suddenly stumbled upon...a store full of designer items!...or at-least it seemed so at the first glance. I froze for a moment when I saw it. Rows upon rows of monogrammed canvasses, since the one I had chanced upon apparently sold those exclusively, with a few fake leather token pieces in the back. I'd read somewhere about the new eco-friendly coated canavs Gucci has recently switched to but this shop actually ended up being the first place where I got to sample what that new material was supposed to look like...or something close to it. I saw the real thing later in a boutique in Bangkok and ended up with new respect for this knockoff mafia. 

The shop of course looked nothing like the natural fancy habitat of designer pieces-it was a temporary structure with bags piled all over. The owner was a paranoid looking man supported by a small group of young women who were happy to show you any piece as long as you didn't ask too many questions. 'No questions asked' anyway seemed to be an unwritten rule of the place.

I saw the shop and immediately knew I'd found something to keep me occupied for the rest of the trip (apart from everything I had planned to do of course). At first glance it's actually pretty hard to tell if the bags are real or not. They have Louis Vuitton down to an art and it's only when you inspect the bag closely that you realize it's a fake. They're sold at a price point starting from around 1000THB for an average-sized handbag and around 300THB for a SLG. Of course price varies based on how popular the original design is, how closely the bag replicates it, and how hard of a bargain you can drive. 

I found these shops across Pattaya, Krabi, Bangkok and Phuket with quality pretty consistent throughout. It's not a legal business of course and if you are found in possession of these fake goods at the airport they will be confiscated but it doesn't prevent almost every street market in the country featuring such stores in multitudes. Unfortunately they would not let me take any photographs of the merchandise and I did not care enough to bargain with them for it but I did visit every store I could find to try and understand the business. In each store there would usually be multiple attendants and someone would be keeping a close eye on you at all times. Because of the legality aspect it was also pretty common for me to walk in on tourists in the backs of the shops with open suitcases, piling in pieces with nervous smiles at having found a "good deal."

So the question then...did I buy any? Not really. Why? The simple reason was that I don't buy designer for the purpose of showing off the fact that I own something designer. I buy it for the quality and the reliability, which by all means was missing in these pieces. Here's what's off about this market. The first and most hilariously obvious example of just how commercial the intent of the whole thing is without any understanding of what the originals really stand for came to me in the form of a row of handbags in one of the stores. They featured the classic woven Bottega pattern with the words 'Bottega Veneta' neatly emblazoned in golden hardware on them...the exact opposite of which the brand is unique for. 

And then there is the quality. The bags are at that price point for a reason. The moment you hold one, you can tell the difference between the canvas of an original LV and the plasticky cheaper material used here. It looks almost the same but once you touch it you can tell it's harder, stiffer and just feels off. It's the same story with other brands as well. The pieces may fool you at first glance but if you are a regular user you can easily tell the difference the moment you look closer or actually hold one. And if that's not a giveaway then as soon as you open the bag you are bound to know. You may come across some pieces here and there which try to get the lining right but most often it's just cheap material. They may monogram it but it still feels rough to the touch. Also, the hardware is light metal which you can tell will tarnish and discolor pretty fast.

From all my morbidly fascinated touring of these stores (I was doing other stuff too but couldn't resist walking in whenever I saw one of these) I realized that what they offer is a fascinating range between trying to get things exactly right (as in the case of the Gucci canvas) to absolutely not caring what they're making as long as it looks designer. Apart from the Bottega bags I came across loads of SLGs and bags in designs the brands never produced in their history. There were many wallets and pouches which were a common design across brands. The people who sell them to you are also equally unaware and disinterested in what they are selling and can often get impatient and rude....though probably in that aspect they are probably rather close to many authentic luxury buying experiences (cough *Chanel* cough).

The purpose of this market is to give its clientele something they can show off. I couldn't find some of the more complicated bags like the Lady Dior-though the Book Tote and the Saddle Bag were plenty along with sundry others in the Dior Oblique monogrammed canvas. Monograms form the majority and what isn't monogrammed usually has a brand name or logo prominently featured on it. This isn't a place for the sophisticated but a quick fix for those looking to find something they can show off to their friends. It can still be a pretty surreal experience though and if you are ever in Thailand do go check these out (hopefully they'll survive what's going on in the world now). 

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