In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: Even jurors are fans of brand-name knockoffs

Oh look, bargain hunters. The very first stall, the very first vendor, just a few steps from the parking lot, not far from a fluttering Florida flag the size of a king-size sheet.

At least the flag looks authentic.

But here, in the shadow of the Swap Shop Drive-In screen Number Nine, there’s a mighty assortment of handbags and canvas totes festooned with the Michael Kors trademark. Some are slathered with “MK” initials. Others have golden — make that goldish — MK medallions dangling from the handles.

Some shoppers might find the presentation, for such snazzy brand-name merchandise, a bit wanting. A few bags are displayed on hooks in the open air stall. Most remain in big cardboard boxes, mashed flat from shipping, requiring the customer to root around inside as if they were hunting for fresh produce in a vegetable bin.

But, oh my, the prices. The bags go for a flat $25 each — considerably cheaper than comparable Michael Kors bags for sale across town at Macy’s for $198 or $328 or more.

Won’t Momma be pleased, come Christmas morning?

Unless Momma knows better.

“These real?” I asked the vendor.

“Authentic,” Mr. Vendor answered. The lie was delivered with a Caribbean lilt.

Well, they were handbags, sure enough. Can’t argue with that. Each with a utilitarian value not much different than the brand-name stuff sold behind the Macy’s counters. The Swap Shop version of Michael Kors bags carries the same volume of stuff while lending owners a snooty prestige presumably worth more than $25 a whack.

Of course, if these aren’t actual Michael Kors bags, if they’re counterfeits, then the buyers are contributing to a criminal enterprise. (Not to mention cheating Momma out of the real thing come Christmas.) And there’s ample reason for trademark skepticism coming out of U.S. District Court this week.

Coach is the brand-name plaintiff in this particular lawsuit, filed against the Fort Lauderdale Swap Shop, accusing the owner of the 88-acre flea market off Sunrise Boulevard of harboring vendors who sell knock-off merchandise with coveted Coach trademarks and the look-alike designs. Coach filed the lawsuit last year, claiming its investigators discovered “multiple tenants/vendors advertising, displaying, offering for sale, and/or selling in plain view various goods bearing logos that are imitations of one or more of the Coach Trademarks.”

Suing has become routine for Coach, which filed hundreds of trademark infringement claims over the last few years. Most are settled out of court. But the Swap Shop’s 82-year-old Preston Henn is famously ornery. And known to relish a tussle.

It took a bit longer than expected to pick a jury as the trial opened Monday. The Sun-Sentinel’s Paula McMahon reported that so many potential jurors admitted during voir dire questioning that they had either shopped at the sprawling flea market or purchased their own Coach knock-offs elsewhere that Judge William Dimitrouleas had to call in an extra batch of candidates before he could finally seat a jury.

The jury problem revealed the dilemma in these trademark disputes. Brand-name knock-offs have become utterly ubiquitous, especially in South Florida. Cops and Customs agents regularly sweep through flea markets, scarfing up fake Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Kors, Dior, Coach, Rolex and Calvin Klein merchandise. In June, federal and local cops reported seizing $957,390 worth of counterfeit “designer” sunglasses, watches, handbags, wallets and belts. The cops busted a couple of immigrant vendors on second-degree felony charges and confiscated two old Chevy vans.

My stroll through the Swap Shop Wednesday didn’t find much evidence that counterfeit sales have been snuffed out. Not by police raids or the Coach lawsuits or the self-policing steps that Preston Henn claimed he initiated to make his 2,000 vendors do right. The Swap Shop, a multi-screen drive-in cinema at night, remains a daytime romp among high-tone designer names (along with Nike and Reebok and Adidas), attached to shoes, clothes, perfume, cell phone cases, bags and wallets. Logos of superheroes, from Marvel comics and the Miami Heat, were everywhere. All of it so cheap, compared to the real stuff.

McMahon reported that the trial opened with Henn’s lawyer calling Coach a bully. That must have sounded precious to locals who’ve crossed the famously volatile Henn, known to be something of a bullyboy himself. But trademark law requires big bad brand names to stomp out their imitators. Unless they demonstrate a robust defense of their trademark, famous outfits stand to lose their claim to their pricey brands. Plus, brand names, in lawsuits filed in California and Tennessee, have gotten traction in federal court going after flea-market owners. Except that Henn, a onetime race car driver (a member of the winning team in the 1983 24-hour sports car endurance race at Daytona) insisted on fighting back.

Of course, the root problem with counterfeit merchandise lies in those cheap labor mills in poor Asian nations. The same kind of lowdown, low-wage factories that crank out designer merchandise are cranking out even cheaper knock-offs. Apparently, third world contractors who make a living exploiting women and children factory workers have failed to grasp the moral imperative in protecting brand-name integrity.

Just tell Momma, as she opens the gift box with her knock-off Michael Kors coated canvas tote on Christmas morning, that for economic reasons, for the good of the stockholders, you’ve decided to outsource the guilt.

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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