Ethics in a world of knockoffs

A woman stands on Canal Street. Nicole locks eyes with her. “You want Louie?” whispers the woman. Nicole nods.

I wonder, Who’s Louie? The woman beckons us to follow her around the corner and scampers down Hester Street. We enter a Little Italy souvenir shop.

Or is it?

Was Louie here? Yes and no. The “Louie” the woman refers to is Louis Vuitton, and affordable counterfeits of his pricey handbags along with those from Gucci, Coach and other designers are available.

Despite repeated investigations, crackdowns and arrests, counterfeit designer handbags are bigger business than ever. And while buyers seem exempt from arrest, the sellers are at risk, and act accordingly.

We are led to a back room, as our contact rushes from the store. Five minutes later, she is back with the phony Louie — which Nicole, a court worker who doesn’t want her last name used, examines carefully. “I don’t even think a pro could tell this apart from the original,” she quietly tells me.

Nicole is one of countless women who can’t afford a $1,000-plus handbag, but like the look. Was it wrong for her to purchase the bag?

“If it was stolen, I wouldn’t buy it,” Nicole says. “But it’s just an imitation, and no one has claimed otherwise.”

Later, we sit in Great NY Noodletown slurping down beef chow fun as Nicole happily sneaks a peek at her quarry. Counterfeit handbags are costing New York State substantial tax revenue, and hurting famous brands. Some of the sophisticated knockoffs are made in foreign factories under grim working conditions, often with child labor.

Should I have guilted Nicole from making the purchase? Experts recently told Vogue UK that some fakes are manufactured in the same factories as the originals, using the same oppressed labor, as more and more designers operate out of China and India. Many of these $40 to $70 fake bags are so close in look, stitching and overall quality to the originals that even experts can’t tell them apart.

If the report is true, one must ask: Who are the real thieves here?

Playwright Mike Vogel’s comedy “Second Chance” is running at Seven Angels Theatre in Waterbury, Conn.