Did these people make your handbag?

 

It doesn't matter how much you paid for it, nor where you bought it: the accessory on your shoulder probably started life in China, the work of one of the 300,000 people who work in what has become a multibillion-euro industry. Clifford Coonan visits the heart of handbag country, where cheap knock-offs rub up against designer labels.

It's a long way from a dusty factory floor in the vast, humid, polluted industrial zones of Shenzhen, in the booming southern Chinese region of Guangdong, to a table in an upmarket restaurant in Dublin. But it's a route millions of handbags take every year. Most of the world's handbags come from factories in Guangdong. In one of them, in Dongguan, owned by a company called Ya Jia, Wan-Peng Tseng, its sales manager, is showing me some of the materials that go into making the nine million handbags her firm manufactures each year. She and her husband, Yi-Chen Deng, are a young couple from Taiwan. After they got married, in February, they decided to spend their honeymoon at the factory - home is an apartment in the grounds - and will wait until next year to go on holiday. The handbag business is good, so they prefer to be available in case of problems.

Like many young Taiwanese, Tseng has a cosmopolitan background - she has studied and lived in London and Hawaii - but her father owns the company, and duty called. Now she and Deng are learning about the handbag business from the bottom up. "It's the same principle regardless of whether it's high-fashion handbags or backpacks for kids. The first step is always the paperwork, the design," says Tseng, holding up a cardboard design template in the firm's research-and-development department.

Ya Jia, which turns over about €17 million a year, has 1,000 workers at three factories; the others are in a remote part of Jiangsu province and in the booming province of Zhejiang, in eastern China. Tseng's father is based at the Zhejiang factory; the province's air is traditionally considered good for the lungs.

"The material is cut by hand - it's very labour-intensive - and then stitched, then sewn together," she says as we walk through the factory. Swathes of material are lying around, in lurid pinks for Batman backpacks, black canvas for iPod holders, and leatherette, both white and brown, for the handbags that many of the plant's 200 employees are working on today. It is a little surprising, as you watch them cut and sew, how much effort goes into each bag.

Labour-rights activists often cite handbag factories as poor employers, but this one could be a model employer; it operates for only eight hours a day, according to Tseng, who adds that the government is strict about working conditions. Most of the staff earn about €100 a month, which is average for the area; the factory's high-speed seamsters get about €150.

When the bags are finished they are shipped around the world. Ya Jia supplies big names in the US, including Wal-Mart, Kmart and Target, and a number of European outlets, although Tseng doesn't know which ones, as the bags are distributed by a trading company in Taiwan.

Half of the world's finished goods are now made in China. It is a cheap place to manufacture anything: labour is plentiful, it is easy to get goods in and out, and everyone is keen to be an entrepreneur. Almost 20 other firms in Ya Jia's industrial estate, some with more than 1,000 workers, make handbags, and China as a whole has almost 6,000 handbag manufacturers. The latest data is three years old, but even in 2003 the industry employed 300,000 people and had annual sales of €4 billion.

Given that most handbags are made in China, it's not surprising that this includes three-quarters of all fakes. The market for counterfeit designer handbags is very nearly as old as that for real ones. As long ago as 1896, Georges Vuitton, son of Louis, designed the L and the V of the Louis Vuitton logo to make it harder for counterfeiters to copy the company's luggage.

He wasn't entirely successful: the trade in knock-off designer handbags and other luxury products is estimated to be worth €25 billion a year - or about five per cent of the trade in all pirated goods - and Louis Vuitton's bags are among the most copied. In the markets of Shenzhen you can pick up a Louis Vuitton handbag whose real version has only just been unveiled in Paris - and is still not in the shops. According to Interpol, the counterfeiters include triad gangs, which moved into the market because of margins that can make fake bags as profitable as cocaine.

Guangdong's factories are within shouting distance of the luxury-goods shops of Hong Kong, where customers circle designer bags that sit on plinths, eyeing the detail, the finishing, half-smiling at the beauty of the design. But, of course, if a shopper can do it, so can a factory owner, dropping into a Louis Vuitton or Hermès boutique to buy a bag for reproduction at his plant.

Sometimes he doesn't need to buy one - or even get out of his chair. Just as surely as a potential buyer is checking out the latest Hermès or Tod's bag on the internet, so too is a canny copyist, working out measurements and materials. Customs officers have discovered shipments of fake handbags that included detailed specification sheets.

Globalisation has brought another problem. In the past few years, to cut costs, fashion houses have moved chunks of their production to China. There are plenty of stories about "production over-runs", of companies meeting their targets for production, then selling the rest on the black market. These factories reputedly have "day shifts" devoted to the production of genuine designer goods, followed by illegal "night shifts", staffed by illegal workers. Their replicas are much sought after, as they are of high quality but still relatively cheap.

Keen to be seen to be tackling piracy, to help boost its international image, the Chinese government periodically moves to drive the counterfeiters off the streets. That's why market hawkers are wary of cameras, as they are constantly on the watch for police stings.

In Beijing last December, a group of luxury brands, including Prada, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Burberry, won a court ruling aimed at stopping the sale of knock-off handbags in Silk Alley, the city's most famous market, a block from the US embassy. The €20,000 fine that came with it was less than what most counterfeiters are said to pay every week in bribes to the authorities responsible for enforcing intellectual-property rights, and the fake handbags were back on sale within days.

There is a more cautious air about the market these days, however, which means you have to look beyond the rows of bags in Silk Alley to find the good stuff. Some of the fakes are obvious: Adidas spelled Adiddass, for example, and shirts with Hugo Boss labels but Ralph Lauren logos. For other items, such as convincing copies of Hermès handbags, touts take potential buyers to nearby lanes, to show what they have to offer.

It's a funny place to go shopping.

"You are black-hearted man. You say price, I say price, you say another price, I say another price, we make a deal. That's how it's done," one hawker calls after a burly German, barely suppressing a grin. The customer is skulking away from her stall, grumpy at her outrageous initial demand of 400 yuan, or €40, for a patchy Hermès rip-off. Haggling is essential.

At one stall, an Yves Saint Laurent logo is casually stitched on to a bag, but it's just any old handbag that now has a fake label. The stitching meanders slightly at the edges. The Hermès might have scraped a B, but, in the rigorously classified world of knock-off bags, this is a C. Like the Ballys and Burberrys nearby, it is on sale for 140 yuan, or €14, a pop. Time to bargain. No way, I tell the saleswoman; you can do better.

Had I gone to the back of the shop I might have been seen a AAA bag, such as a Balenciaga made in Korea from Italian leather. Not that it would have been expensive. A black-and-white pony-skin Gucci whose authentic version costs more than €1,200 in the shops will here set you back €20 at most. A Gucci Amalfi, supposedly worth €1,500, is €20, too, although it's poorer quality.

The back of the shop is where traders keep their best copies. They'll show them to you on request, to protect themselves against police investigation (although, as many of the goods are produced in factories in the provinces, often with local-government backing, production is unlikely to slow, despite the periodic clampdowns).

In the leather-goods section of the basement of the Yaxiu market, in Beijing's Sanlitun diplomatic area, the only brands on very obvious display are Tod's, Chloé and Versace. In fact, someone should tell Diego della Valle, the man behind Tod's, that the label is primed to go massive in China this year: Tod's handbags and loafers fill every stall.

A lime-green Tod's D-Bag and light-blue Offshore tote will set you back nearly €1,000 from an approved outlet; the embossed Découpage retails at €850. At Yaxiu they come in whatever colour you want - just check the catalogue - and varying quality, for between €20 and €40. A woman working at the stall says she used to work in a handbag factory. "It was terrible. I got tired too easily. This is much easier," she explains.

Seven stalls here claim to be selling real crocodile-skin purses. Most admit that theirs are, in fact, made from cattle leather. "I don't know much about where the bags come from," says one trader. "My boss does all of that. I know they come from Guangzhou or somewhere in the south. I know we say this is crocodile skin, but you're not going to get real crocodile skin here; this is a market."

Nobody in China with cash would dream of buying a counterfeit bag. Real handbag junkies - and they are legion in the malls of the new China - can tell even the very best fake Pradas from the real thing, and they scoff at the knock-off Dolce & Gabbanas you see on the street. But for a receptionist at an import-export company, keen for a bit of western flash, they'll do nicely, thanks.

The friendly former handbag maker asks for €5 for a smart Longchamp bag that folds down beautifully into a compact baguette shape. Definitely A class, we think. Perhaps even AA. A closer look at the clasp shows it is not by "Longchamp, France" but by "Lmddhbnp, Frende".

Bags of style

Perhaps a woman's most treasured accessory, the handbag is deemed more reliable and useful than a man - and more revealing of status, taste and ability to dress than any other item. All this, and you can put things in it, too, from lip glossand sunglasses to guilt-wrapped chocolate bars and sanitary towels. A woman's handbag is her rock, her icon, a beacon of stability in a crazy world. Those of Margaret Thatcher (below) became icons that defined the 1980s and had public-school-educated Tories quivering in their shoes.

Handbags began, hundreds of years ago, as pouches attached to girdles; later they became bags, carried as réticules, in post-revolutionary France, to hold smelling salts and visiting cards. In the early part of the 20th century handbags were used mainly by men; then women wrested them back, and by the 1920s they were symbols of women's independence - they could carry their own stuff, thank you very much. By the 1950s the handbag was an essential part of every outfit, and they continue to inspire in women the kind of mania that only football or cars can prompt in men. It's said there is a clairvoyant in Paris who will read your bag and its contents like tea leaves and see your dark secrets.

The legendary Birkin bag was invented after Jane Birkin, the singer and actress best known for singing Je T'Aime . . . Moi non Plus with Serge Gainsbourg, spilled the contents of her too-small bag on to the lap of a Hermès designer during a flight in 1981. People now wait up to two years for a rectangular Birkin, which has a lock and key to keep it shut. Two years ago a black crocodile Hermès Birkin, customised with a diamond-covered clasp and lock, sold at auction for €54,000. In the same sale, a royal-blue ostrich Birkin went for €13,000.

When a product can be so lucrative, it has the power to rescue corporations. Fendi was a moribund Roman furrier until it sprang back into action with the Baguette, a cute bag you carry like a stick of French bread, back in 1997. They sell for up to €5,000 these days.