Secondhand Nose

(Helayne Seidman - Helayne Seidman Ftwp)
By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 30, 2007


The young man with the sandy-brown hair holds up an orange handbag that at first glance looks like an Hermes Birkin. His voice takes on an aggrieved tone and his mouth curls into a hint of a sneer. For Matt Rubinger, this fake designer handbag is especially insulting because it's so badly done. The handles have the wrong proportions, the leather is too slick, the zippers are cheap and the tiny keys to the bag's distinctive padlock haven't been tethered with a leather string, but instead are clipped to a metal key ring. To the average eye, the bag may look like an orange Birkin. To Rubinger, it is a travesty.

Rubinger is the sort of fellow a shopper would want to have along on a fashion bargain hunt. He knows if a bit of gold has been machine-stamped or etched. That an empty Balenciaga bag should melt into a buttery puddle rather than retain its shape. And he knows how authentic Hermes bags smell, which is a bit like a saddle that has spent time on a horse.

One might think Rubinger, 22, worked for some fancy handbag brand, but he does not and never has. He used to sell designer handbags on eBay, and now he works for the luxury auction site Portero as an "authentication consultant." It's his job to spot fakes and make sure they do not end up on the Portero site and ultimately in the hands of its customers.

There have been uncomfortable occasions when a seller, who in good faith wanted to put a purse up for auction, has to be told an embarrassing truth. "But it was a gift!" is the usual response, Rubinger says. It also is the the most damning one.

Rubinger, along with experts in jewelry, watches and art, are the human capital in the Portero experiment, which is seeking to change the mind-set of shoppers who indulge in high-priced fashion. Co-founder Michael Sheldon envisions a marketplace in which, all things being equal, fashion shoppers will make purchasing decisions based on resale value, the same way someone might select a car or a condo. He also believes they will be willing to make those fashion investments using the Web if they can be guaranteed they won't be taken for a ride.

In May, the Portero Web site boasted just the kind of fashion item that Sheldon believes exemplifies his concept: a used crocodile Birkin selling for $41,999 (a brand new specialty that Birkin can sell for as much as $85,000).

"Wouldn't you be more likely to purchase a $42,000 crocodile bag if you knew you could sell it after you got tired of it?" Sheldon asks. "Which one could I justify: Polo or Hermes? Which would I buy if one holds its value better?"

Sheldon is making this bet at a time when conventional wisdom defines luxury fashion by exclusivity, personalization and experience. That's the philosophy behind brands such as Goyard, which monograms its $1,000 tote bags, and Hermes, which keeps its supply of Birkin bags far below the demand for them.

As good design has trickled down to H&M and Target, high-end brands are distinguishing their flagship products by promoting limited editions. They're using the glamour of celebrities to lend pizazz to their image. They are highlighting their history: Christian Dior celebrated its 60th anniversary with a bash at Versailles. Valentino whooped it up on its 45th anniversary with an enormous blowout in Rome.

Sheldon would like to equate buying a Chanel handbag with picking out a mutual fund.

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