From the CEO: My encounter with an NYC counterfeiter

 
We thought we knew what it would be like to buy something from a NYC counterfeiter. We were wrong. // Image: Asel Peña / Unsplash

We thought we knew what it would be like to buy something from a NYC counterfeiter. We were wrong. // Image: Asel Peña / Unsplash

A few weeks ago, my partners and I were in New York for the Friends of Ebay demo day. I thought it would be a fun idea to do some market research by looking for knockoffs on Canal Street. Our experience ended up being so fascinating that I really wanted to share it.

When we first arrived at Canal Street, it was by all accounts unremarkable. It looked like your typical big city street market. There were storefronts selling cheap “I ❤ NYC” key chains and not much else. We were just about to leave when a man sporting an all-black tracksuit and a Louis Vuitton Damier crossbody bag approached us and asked, “Are you guys looking for Rolex?”

Bingo.

Knockoff watches are cliché. So instead I asked the man if he had any Yeezys (I figured most counterfeiters should carry at least a few pairs of fake Yeezys). He said they had plenty in stock and told me they were $150. After I acquiesced on the price, he made a call to an associate and told me to wait. After a few minutes, another man dressed in a green sweater, jeans, and Nike sneakers arrived and told us to follow him. As we were walking behind this stranger down Canal Street, watching him exchange glances with men wearing faux Supreme and Gucci, we realized there was a small army of these street vendors hiding in plain sight. We just never noticed them.

A 2016 report from Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development lists footwear as the #1 counterfeited product and Yeezys is one of the most popular shoe line being counterfeited. // Image: Greg T / Unsplash

A 2016 report from Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development lists footwear as the #1 counterfeited product and Yeezys is one of the most popular shoe line being counterfeited. // Image: Greg T / Unsplash

He stopped at the corner of Canal and Broadway. He introduced himself as Woody and pulled out his phone to show me photos of the Yeezys he had to make sure they were the right colour. Watching him peruse through hundreds of images, I asked what other kind of products he sold. His response was more like a commercial for Nordstrom’s than a counterfeiter’s manifest – Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Hermès, Chanel, Givenchy etc. In a side comment, he noted that his team recently stopped carrying Prada after seeing a major drop in sales. I guess even counterfeit shoppers pay attention to fashion trends (Prada has been facing serious challenges maintaining its appeal over the last several years).

Once I approved the photo, Woody made a call to another associate who was tasked with transporting the shoes to the corner. I then became very inquisitive, asking him why I couldn’t just go to his store, whether the Yeezys were real, and if I could buy them online instead of waiting on the street corner. To my surprise, Woody was very upfront. We couldn’t go to his store because the landlords didn’t know about his side business selling luxury goods. He reassured me the Yeezys were the same as the ones sold in stores. He also told me that his online business got shut down because they found out he didn’t have the proper licenses. His candor was kind of endearing. It left me guessing whether the Yeezys were actually authentic and perhaps manufactured during some ghost shift in Vietnam.  

We waited another 15 minutes for his associate to bring the sneakers. I continued my line of questioning, which had now branched into how many cities his team worked in, where they sourced their inventory, how many associates he had etc. At that point, a woman wearing a purple jumpsuit and a Michael Kors crossover bag appeared around the corner and whispered something into Woody’s ear. Woody pondered for a minute, then told us quietly to split up. “The police are watching”, he said. “Meet me at the McDonalds down the street”. Yet another example of Woody’s honesty – he clearly wasn’t concerned about hiding the illicit nature of his business.

We nonchalantly crossed the street and made our way to the McDonalds, taking time to notice the many uniformed police officers roaming the market. After waiting for 20 minutes, my partners told me that he probably thought I was a cop. To their point, I was asking him very detailed questions about his organization. I conceded that I likely scared him off and we headed back to the office.

Later that evening as I was packing up to go back to the hotel when my phone started ringing. Caller ID claimed the caller was from New York. Thinking it was someone I met earlier in the day, I answered. “Hey Perry, it’s Woody! Why did you leave?”

He went on to explain the cops saw us talking and it was too risky to give me the sneakers. He offered to meet again on Canal Street, but I had events to attend for the next two nights. “No problem man, you can come whenever. I can even show you my warehouse if it’s after 5pm.”

I never did have time to reconnect with Woody. But I’m going to set aside a solid two hours the next time I’m in New York to visit Woody’s warehouse. Stay tuned for Chapter 2!

Arylla