RESEARCH QUESTION: New York's Canal Street is paved in Prada. Just don't be alarmed if your bag reads Prahda and carries a price tag that, in the real designer world, wouldn't buy you a grommet. While the Lower Manhattan avenue's dubious bounty is no secret to the multitudes who shop there, knowing how to deal with the scene is another matter. We wondered: What do first-time Canal Street bargain hunters need to know?
METHODOLOGY: The blocks-long strip between Little Italy and Chinatown is like Barneys on a Target budget. Its famous sidewalks are jammed with knockoffs -- also called fakes, counterfeits, [insert famous name]-inspired, pirated -- that appeal to accessory-aholics who can't afford elite labels and have no qualms about going pseudo. We spent an afternoon milling about the giant curbside closet, then talked to experts about the legality of it all.
RESULTS: We found that the fashionable accouterments obviously don't come from quaint ateliers in Italy or France, where women with knotted fingers hand-stitch sequins one by one. Instead, the items are mass-produced and shipped from China and other locales where the labor's cheap and the pleather abundant.
In addition, the quality is questionable: Labels are often glued on and pop off even before you hit the subway; the spelling of the designer's name can be atrocious (we saw one bag that read "Loddhmpd" . . . Longchamp?); monogrammed patterns often break at the seam; and handles sometimes look frayed and even gnawed, as if some mouse had an appetite for fashion.
The signless, three-sided stalls along Canal are covered in product. Handbags, coats and shoes in all hues, fabrics and sizes scale the walls and carpet the floors, leaving scant room to preen and strut. There are "Kate Spade" satchels in grass and sky shades, ideal for an afternoon wedding in Nantucket. Cost: $20, about $150 less than the real thing.
We also picked over "Burberry" raincoats, "Gucci" slides, bottles of "Chanel" perfume and "Lulu Guinness" purses with glittery girly designs. Most items start at $40 or so -- but they'll let you have 'em for half. And if you want two, well, watch them deal.
Of course, no outfit is complete without a pair of shades ("Gucci," "Oakley," "Ray-Ban"), watch ("Movado," "Rolex," "Cartier"), piece of jewelry ("Elsa Peretti" silver cuffs, "David Yurman" cable bracelets) or hat ("Gucci," "Kangol") -- all of which are stacked high on trays or dangle from hooks, with no price tags, a tacit signal to bargain.
If you don't see something, speak up. Most likely, someone will have it in stock, or a neighboring vendor will. You can even inquire about an item's provenance (China, New Jersey -- forget it!) and authenticity ("Real? No, it's just a copy"). In addition, many featured styles and colors are unique to Canal Street and are not part of a designer's true collection.
Finally, beware of the shady characters who sidle up to you like cartoon villains and, in our case, shove in your face a Cartier tank watch with an $1,825 price tag still attached. When asked where he got it, Darth Vendor replied, "My cousin stole it from a UPS truck."
CONCLUSION: When strolling Canal, safeguard your belongings, as you don't want to find your own goods being sold on the next block. Remember that no matter what any seller says, the goods at the very least are fake, and at the very worst stolen. And do your homework: Pop into the designer's store beforehand to peruse the season's latest trends, or preview the offerings online.
Keep in mind that the Manhattan tourism office distances itself from Canal's goings-on. Also, the Bush administration kicked off the "Stop Fakes" campaign last fall (www.stopfakes.gov), which doesn't target Canal Street directly but does strike against vendors and piraters -- and the black market trade in general.
But don't worry, you probably won't get five to 10 for that "Burberry" umbrella: "It's illegal to sell, but not to buy," says Roger E. Schechter, professor of law at George Washington University. "It's not dissimilar from the drug trade, where they go after the drug kingpins but not the guy who buys the nickel bag."
-- Andrea Sachs
To reach Canal Street by subway, take the No. 6 to Canal/Lafayette or the N, Q, R or W to Canal/Broadway. For general info about New York City: NYC & Co., 212-484-1200, www.nycvisit.com.