05/29/2007 08:01 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Cuckoo for Counterfeits

To get things started here, let's play some word association.'s the word..."counterfeit."

Quick, what word are you thinking?? I bet a lot of you saw green, and thought -- "money." But it's very possible also that you thought "fake," or maybe "knock-off," or even, in the case of the more austerely cultured among us, "painting." What's strange about me (among, perhaps, other things), is that first word that popped into my head was "handbag." Second runner-up-"scarf." This is an occupational hazard, I guess. As an eBay seller of 100% guaranteed authentic luxury goods, nothing sends shivers down my spine like the word "counterfeit" or its more plebeian cousin, "fake."

But the theft of design, of brand, and of fashion is so widespread now it has turned into a cliché. A cliché that's built a booming global business. I have to admit I remain somewhat baffled by the ballooning of this underground market, and the seemingly impenetrable gullibility of some of the consumers they target. I imagine my position on this subject is analogous to that of a woman born with natural double d's, confronted with the silicone of South Beach. Real is real, and fake is fake, even when you can't tell at first glance. Like burning music off the Internet without paying for it, buying and selling counterfeit handbags, scarves, sunglasses, and who knows what else has become acceptable form of criminal activity. However, far more interesting than the moral relativism demonstrated are the cultural anomalies that created the industry in the first place. What makes a product so powerful that it spawns a copycat? What makes a need for an object so overpowering that its imitators have a million dollar industry of their own?

It's all about the brand, baby. We all know it, even if we hate it, even if we hate ourselves for being part of it. We don't get our coffee at coffee shops -- we get it at Starbucks. We don't buy books in a bookstore -- we go to Barnes & Noble. Branding is the semi-legitimate lovechild of capitalism and corporate interests, and it ain't going anywhere. After all, the logic goes, who doesn't like to know what they are getting, both in terms of service and product? Of course, we might feel differently after the choices have been whittled down to twenty or so mega-size, big-box, uber-stores, replete with matching fast food restaurants. Or maybe that's exactly what we want. Hard to say, really.

In higher-end clothing and accessories retailing, there is an exceptionally powerful sales principle being leveraged. These designers and companies successfully springboard their products, and their brands, off of our own desire to create our selves through our clothing. I mean, if clothes make the man, it must be pretty damn important what man makes the clothes, right? So they give us what we want. And what we want, regardless of our bank account, is to parade our brands around. We want the name on our watch or our purse or our suit jacket to be so expensive, so dripping with money and good-taste, that it makes people drool. We want to carry the products unintended for the unwashed masses, we want the items that proclaim our buying power to everyone who passes. And the super-rich, apparently, want the same thing, judging by the ludicrously inflated prices in Palm Beach boutiques. It is singularly disconcerting how instead of our name-neediness decreasing with income level, the exact opposite is true. The wealthy keep raising their own gilt-edged bar, to the point where Hermes carries $875 leather key chains. Puh-leez, people, it's a KEYCHAIN -- for crissakes.

Now, I have an admitted weakness for fine things. My wardrobe is almost completely designer. And I have been known to drop serious money for something I truly feel is exceptional. But I do have my standards. I mean, jeans are made from denim, people -- how fine can they get? Four hundred dollar fine? Five hundred dollar fine? That's downright silly for an item of clothing you can't even wear to many a better restaurant. To me, it is no more than name-based price gouging. And the same principle applies across the board-after a certain point, you can only achieve a certain level of quality. What, do you think Louis Vuitton puts their cows on a special diet? That Prada sunglasses can see through walls? What I have learned in my eBay venture is that after awhile, the brand itself starts to take a life of its own, overshadowing the products themselves, becoming an ideological entity much greater than the sum of its dry goods.

And this -- this is why counterfeiting happens. It happens, and it flourishes, because we have created an environment where all-too-often we attach our own importance to the tag in our shirt or the design on our belt buckle. And if we can't buy, beg, borrow, or steal the real thing, we settle for something that might fool strangers, even if it's just for a second. This is why millions of black market dollars circulate down Canal Street. This is why hapless housewives hoard their grocery money for a handbag, only to get fleeced by a relentlessly dishonest industry. Because whether the watch is real Rolex, or a fake one, what our worst kind of brand-worship does is create happiness based on nothing more than a corporate owned registered trademark. And that particular brand of happiness is the most counterfeit brand of all.