'Where's Freddie?'

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'Where's Freddie?'

A shopping trip to Seoul's back streets yields bargains too good to be true.

Every year, during one of the big sale seasons in July or January, Hiroko Mori travels to Korea on a package tour from her home in Osaka. Each morning while in Korea, Hiroko, 26, accompanied by her sister Keiko, 24, eat a simple continental breakfast in the Lotte Hotel. At around 10 a.m., the two head for the duty-free shops around downtown Seoul.

Hiroko doesn't work for a living. Unless she travels overseas, she stays home most of the time reading fashion magazines. Occasionally she goes out to shop with the allowance she gets from her well-to-do father, a real-estate broker. Her sister Keiko is, in the Japanese lingo, an "OL" or office lady, who works regular hours at her father's friend's trading company. The trip to Korea this time is a gift from their father. To many young Japanese women with money, being fashionable ranks just behind breathing.

Hiroko and Keiko dress with tremendous style. Hiroko, with long blonde hair, on this day is wearing an ivory-colored Dolce and Gabanna blouse and shimmering Galliano pants. Compared with her older sister, Keiko appears more conservative. Sporting short black hair, she is clad in a simple Hermes shirt and jeans.

In the duty-free shops at the Lotte Department Store and the Shilla hotel, the sisters don't find anything to buy; the latest, most popular fashion items - Celine clogs, for example - appear to be gone. For a couple of uninspiring hours, Hiroko and Keiko limit their purchases to a few French cosmetics. At a little past 2 p.m., they have a quick bite, then catch a cab to Itaewon, one of Seoul's most famous shopping areas.

Neither Hiroko nor Keiko speaks a word of Korean, but they have no problem getting around. On Itaewon's main street, which this day is crowded with foreign tourists, the hawkers and shopkeepers speak English, Japanese, Russian, Chinese - whatever's useful. By the time they reach the Hamilton Hotel, Hiroko and Keiko are a bit lost. As the sisters wander along the sidewalk, a group of Korean hawkers howl in Japanese, "Gabang arimasu!" ("We have bags!") and "Mirudake iidesu!" ("You can just look!")

At one corner, near Pizza Hut, Hiroko pauses and is immediately surrounded by three Korean men, all shouting special offers. Nervously looking about, Hiroko coyly asks the three, in Japanese, "Where's Freddie?"

Three years ago, during one of her previous trips to Seoul, Hiroko had met a man named Freddie through a Japanese counterfeit-goods dealer disguised as a tourist traveling with her tour group. The Japanese dealer told her that Freddie made the best fake bags in Korea.

A terse "Hai!" - "yes" in Japanese - is heard. "Freddie? This way, Miss." One of the men motions Hiroko and Keiko to follow him. The sisters are led to the shabby entrance of an underground store, out of which peeks a short, steep concrete staircase. As Hiroko begins going down the stairs, she suddenly recognizes the entrance. At the bottom of the stairs, the sisters pass through a door made of flimsy plywood. As they enter, a couple of Korean women in their 30s walk out, clutching large brown paper bags.

"Where's Freddie?" Hiroko asks the shopkeeper, the first person they see. The man, in his late 20s, has a paunch. His greasy, sallow face shines under the florescent light, and every few minutes he sweeps his wavy black hair away from his face. He introduces himself in fluent Japanese, "Freddie is my older brother. Don't I look like him? So, what are you looking for?" As he speaks, Freddie's brother grins and rubs his palms together expectantly.

The sisters nod quietly. They've been through this before: The place hardly looks like a store. A formica desk and several raggedy stools stand in one corner. Freddie's brother pulls out two stools and asks the sisters to sit down. There is nothing covering the concrete floor. The rickety furniture is surrounded on four walls by sagging but nearly empty shelves.

Freddie's brother hurriedly speaks to reassure his customers, who wear disappointed expressions. "We have removed the merchandise from the room in fear of a police raid. You know how it is. But we will bring you anything in this catalogue." He spreads out several magazines, including a catalogue from Louis Vuitton. Excited, Hiroko and Keiko, lean over and study the latest Vuitton bags called "Monogram," "Damier Glace" and "Marie."

Working with several assistants who walk in and out of the room, Freddie's brother closes one sale after another. One of those assistants, a thin man in his early 20s, carries a walkie-talkie in the back pocket of his pants. Freddie's brother dispatches the man off somewhere and tells Hiroko and Keiko to wait a few minutes. Soon the man returns with a huge, black garbage bag. He empties the bag and about three dozen boxes spill out. One of the boxes contains a handbag that Hiroko is after. Freddie's brother rips open the clear plastic bag while the sisters watch in awe. Keiko begins examining the bag, then hands to her sister. "I can't tell the difference," Keiko whispers.

"Look!" Freddie's brother snatches the "Marie" bag from Hiroko's hand and turns it upside-down. Gesturing wildly, he exhorts the women to examine the metal studs on the bag's bottom side. Each of the four studs bears a tiny "LV" mark, the Louis Vuitton brand logo.

"Ahhh!," exclaim the Moris.

Freddie's brother then swiftly unzips the bag and asks them to feel the material inside. "See? Look at the lining. We use the same material as the original. Unless you're an expert, no one can tell the difference!" Freddie's brother picks up the leather strap of another shoulder bag and points at a number inscribed on it. "We even have a serial number! This is a work of art!"

As soon as Freddie's brother puts down the bag, Keiko snatches it up and takes a closer look. Then she puts the strap over her shoulder, trying it on for size. Bursting into laughter, the sisters began examining the merchandise up close.

While the two young women debate what to take, Freddie's brother has his assistant bring over a brown Kelly bag from Hermes. The bag arrives, but the sisters take one look and lose interest, Hiroko frowning and Keiko saying, "That's not it." The Hermes bag is a bit too yellow and the leather is a little too hard. This bag looks fake.

After a few minutes of pondering, the two choose seven wallets and two bags. They are all neatly wrapped in onionskin paper and put inside a brown box bearing the legend: "Louis Vuitton: Made in France." Hiroko is short of Korean won and asks if she can pay with a credit card. Freddie's brother pauses and complains that he will have to pay too much tax. He doesn't mind accepting Japanese money; he actually prefers foreign currencies now that the Korean won has devalued. In fact, anything is better than a credit card. Hiroko and Keiko pool their cash and hand over 42,000 yen (about $350) and 100,000 won in cash ($77).

Content, the sisters leave the Itaewon basement, each carrying a large brown paper bag. As they stand in the street waiting for a taxi to return them to their hotel, Hiroko turns to Keiko and says, "What are we ever going to do with SEVEN wallets?"

Spotting a Phony Can Take X-Ray Vision

What Hiroko and Keiko bought were so-called "Grade A" items, the kind most popular with avid counterfeit collectors. Of the various qualities and makes of replicas, the merchandise labeled Grade A is top quality, almost "indistinguishable" from the originals, according to shopkeepers and dealers specializing in fake goods.

How Much Are the Top Quality Fakes?

They do cost more than other, cheaper fake goods. Hiroko's counterfeit Louis Vuitton handbag, called "Marie," cost her 14,000 yen (about $108) in Itaewon. A real one costs 1,058,000 won ($814) at one Louis Vuitton retailer in Seoul. Many tourists, Japanese in particular, travel to Korea looking for a great bargain, but the difference in prices between the countries is minimal compared to the best fake goods made in Korea.

Where Can They Be Found?

So is Korea a wonderland of counterfeits? Not exactly. Most merchants have stopped displaying famous name brands in their show windows, and the items now carry different labels. Prada bags, for example, have "Pagoda" written inside the company's triangular label. Louis Vuitton bags have some initials other than "LV." Gucci and Chanel logos are inverted to avoid lawsuits. But should a shopper hesitate purchasing an item because of the label, shopkeepers often say that they can change the label.

What About Trademark Regulations?

A few years ago, Louis Vuitton ran an advertisement in daily newspapers in Korea, condemning the manufacture and sale of imitations. And periodically, there have been repeated attempts to crack down on fakes in Itaewon and other local markets. Such campaigns only drive the illegal markets deeper underground, but the demand never seems to stop. Shopkeepers in Itaewon and Dongdaemun markets said anonymously that after the laws became more strict, their clients still bought the imitation bags, but with the labels packaged separately. Or the merchants shipped the bags to Japan, then personally carried the labels there, and later reassembled the pieces and sold fake bags as real ones at "discount" prices. One shopkeeper claimed that most brand-name goods sold at boutiques and outlets in Korea and Japan are counterfeits.

Nam Yeon-woo is an investigator in the Special Investigations Division at the Korea Customs Service. He told the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition that there had been a few investigations of trademark violations in the past, and in such cases, the violator might be stopped from leaving the country and could even face up to a five-year jail sentence. However, Mr. Nam said he regrets that the current customs law only requires inspections for security reasons when people leave Korea at the airport, and does not extend to counterfeit purchases.

by Inēs Cho

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