Clearly, the easiest way to do this would be to walk into the nearest Louis Vuitton store, point to said item, whip out your credit card and try not to cry when you get your bill the following month.
But what happens if you don't live near a store? Or you (or your girlfriend, or your mom, or someone you must love so very much to even think about buying one of these things) want to buy something that was a limited edition item? Then, my friends, here is a guide to navigating this murky world.
Please note that some of this information following may be wrong. I am no expert in every type of bag out there, but this writeup comes directly from spending the last half a year trying to find one of these goddamn bags for a loved one. May God help me. Six months ago, I was innocent. No longer. I have been tainted.
Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessey is a brand name that has world wide recognition for their high class items that they sell, particularly bags (at least under the LVMH name. Their wines are pretty well known independently). They have stores all around the world, either independent or in very select department stores. They rank among the most admired among a healthy bag industry led by the big houses such as Chanel, Fendi, Celine.
If you should admire a bag you see from a magazine or on display, do be prepared to shell out at least half a grand. The only things that they sell under the $500 mark are typically the wallets, coin purses, planners - that sort of thing.
Places to Buy
Official Online Stores
Louis Vuitton has its own webpage, but it does not deal directly in the sale of their own bags online. Their official designated e-tailer is currently Eluxury.com, and this store stocks a very limited number of LV items, namely the standard Monogram series (those ugly brown bags with the LV logo plastered all over it like a bad ad). If your loved one wants one of the standard bags or you really don't want to think too much about it, this website is the way to go. You won't ever get a fake bag from Eluxury (and be glad of that, these prices are murder). However, Eluxury will only sell items that are immediately available. If you want a new bag that has a very long waiting list, then you will have to try the following ways.
If you are a cheap bastard and want to save a couple of bucks, then possibly Ebay might net you better deals. (Note: this only applies to the Monogram, and possibly the Epi series. All other series will most likely be cheaper through Eluxury. Honest.)
If you have the option of getting it from consignment stores (i.e., if you live in New York City or Los Angeles where women shed bags like fur so they can keep up their shopping drug habit), then this might be the best way to go aside from going to a LV store. If the store is trustworthy, then the bag has been pretty much authenticated for you.
The other major bonus of going to consignment stores is you get to put your paws all over said item. The easiest way to identify the bags are by smelling and feeling it.
The drawback to this route is if you know very little and/or are a person who finds that entire industry distasteful. Then you will find it very distracting to examine said bag while a cooing lady peers over your shoulder saying how you/your girlfriend will just love it, and its price is ever so reasonable. Yeah right, lady, only in comparison to the rest of the market, and not, oh, I don't know, in reality.
The other avenue to getting your hands on a bag is either through consignment stores and/or auction sites, Ebay being the most popular. However, getting your hands on an authentic piece will be the death of you; before you buy a real bag, you will have spent days, possibly weeks (or months, in some cases), rifling through webpage after webpage of fakes.
The simplest way to find real items on Ebay is probably to price rank your search and pick and choose through the most expensive items. This will hurt, as these ever so kind sellers have prices two or three or even four times the retail value. If you are bargain hungry, then patience is a virtue, my friend.
Louis Vuitton Store
Aside from online auctions, this is really the only other way to get your hands on new items with long waiting lists. You go up to lady, ask for said item and agree to be on the waiting list. I believe you pay in advance, (though I'm not sure about this).
This is possibly the most mind-boggingly painful way to get a bag, because a) you not only lost a huge chunk of change, but b) you don't have anything to show for it when you walk out of said store.
Trademarks of Louis Vuitton Bags (read: Doing Your Homework)
Remember to test every zipper. Fake bags have incredibly crappy zippers that are difficult to open and close, and this is probably the easiest test to do, even for a complete newbie.
The real bags always have very good zippers. Get your hands on a bag and try it out; a real bag will have zippers that open and close very smoothly. I believe there is only one major zipper company in the world: 'YKK', which is short for Yoshida Kogyo Kabushiki Kaisha (Yoshida Manufacturing Corporation). I believe they are the largest zipper company in the world, and chances are 99% that every zipper you come across will be manufactured by them. Louis Vuitton is no exception; they use YKK zippers, one of the higher grade zips. If you find the bag's zipper snags or you find it difficult to open and close, chances are pretty good that it's a fake.
Note: Though all the zippers I've ever seen in person had the LV logo and there was no sign of the YKK logo, I've heard that it is possible to have LV zippers with a YKK logo underneath. Not sure on this matter. Your mileage may vary.
There's a whole bunch of nonsense on the web about LV logos being upside down because it's made from one piece, and that if the logos face up on both sides, it's fake, etc, so on and so forth. Truth is, they do it both ways: the logo can either show up upside-down or rightside-up, it just depends on the bag in question.
The best clue to knowing what is real and what is fake is to go to the Louis Vuitton website, or purchase a catalog, and get pictures of the item you want to buy in question. Pay attention to the placement of the logos and the charms on all sides of the bag; every single Louis Vuitton bag of this particular style/size will look like that. Go look at the item that you want to purchase in question.
This is the quickest way to figure out what's fake and what's not. Fake bags tend to be very poor at being accurate about the placement of the logos/charms on the bag and will throw them willy nilly all over the bag in some randomized placement better suited for Winamp. The keen and discerning buyer will not be fooled. If it's not placement of charms, it's the size of the charms. You can rule out half the items on Ebay alone by the fact that the logos on the bags are too big/too small (too big is more likely than too small, incidentally). If it's neither, then it's the color.
Either way, as long as you've got pictures of the real thing, there is very little you can go wrong with.
Note: This is not the case for all the bags, but a couple of Louis Vuitton bags have changed their appearance over the years because of the quantity of fakes. The Monogram Ellipse, for example, has changed the cut of the leather on the bags, so the monograms line up a little differently, depending on the bag. The lesson of this: spend a week or two doing a lot of research.
Louis Vuitton bags have a lot of metal parts to it: locks, keys, studs, screws, corners, etc. Typically these are a shiny brass color, with the LV logo stamped on them. Some people think that they're all made of brass, but apparently this isn't the case. If you know what you're looking for (see above for having photos of the real thing), this is also another easy way to spot fakes.
Things to look for:
Color. The color and reflective hue of the hardware - easiest to spot with locks and keys - are a giveaway.
Size. In the case of the studs, pay attention to their size. Sometimes the only big giveaway of a fake is the fact that that the studs are too big or too small. This is particularly a good thing to spot with bags like the Papillon, Pochette, etc.
Screws. If you can get photos of the bag you want to buy, see if you can get pictures of the screws. Louis Vuitton seems to use their own unique type of screw, a screw that seems to be shaped vaguely like a flower. This is by far the hardest thing a bag can imitate; chances are very little they can emulate this.
Corners. In the cases of wallets like the Porte Tresors and such, pay attention to the corner hardware. The real items may be curved; the fake ones may be rectangular. Pretending to be Sherlock Holmes and paying attention to every detail goes a long way.
Most Louis Vuitton bags have date codes. These are 6 alphanumeric characters printed somewhere on the bag and is a pain in the ass to find (some of them are printed very close to stitching, and in some cases, you have to pull out the stitching to find it). This basically is a marker of when the bag was produced, not any measure of authenticity; if you should bring an LV bag back to a store to have it repaired and they replace the leather that had the original date code, you'll simply be issued another date code.
Way too many people get caught up on this date code issue, since many people think that it's the only clue to authenticity. Don't be fooled.
Note: Not all bags have date codes. Older bags don't, for example. Also, nobody on the net really seems to know how to decipher date codes; I'm sure there is some mathematical way to decode the numbers and a programmer with some free time could write a program, but it won't be me.
Leather on real bags have a certain feel and "give" - they are supple without being soft as suede, and firm enough so that they keep the shape of the bag. The special thing about the leather from LV is that it is ridged ever so slightly, and covered with a slight sheen. The sheen comes from LV's special secret sauce; nobody knows what exactly it is (and LV isn't telling), but it gives the leather a certain hue and shine that shows itself very well in photographs, and this is accented by the ridged, bumpy surface. Identifying fake from true bags from touch is best left to people who have touched and handled real bags before. Incidentally, that sauce does nothing to protect the bag. At least as far as I can tell.
LV bags have a pleasant leather smell, nothing out of ordinary. What is out of ordinary is the fact that the leather is untreated; meaning that, over time, the leather will age and darken into a honey golden color. It's apparently a trait that LV bags are famous for. New bags tend to have a pale hue to them; older bags pick up a darker patina, unless they've been stored inside a closet or something. Unless you rarely use the bag, the patina does not age evenly; after all, in heavy duty use, you'd be carrying it around in rain and sun and the entire bag doesn't get equal share of abuse. Also, because the bag leather is untreated, water stains will not come out. Meaning that these bags aren't meant for the rain, if you catch my drift.
Interesting note: some of the hardcore fanatics will do anything to make sure their bags get that famous honey color that LV bags are famous for. Apparently they'll store the object in question away for a year in a closet so that all sides age evenly, and then spend another year putting it by a windowsill and rotating it so that the entire bag ages evenly. Talk about crazy.
Good Things to Know
There are no such thing as wholesale deals. If they claim they are wholesalers or that they got the bag from wholesalers, stay away from them. The bags are fake. The end.
Louis Vuitton will authenticate your bag. Buy an item but not sure if it's real? Go to the nearest store and get it authenticated for free. Make sure you get the manager to authenticate it for you; the customer service staff may not have enough experience to be able to differentiate real from fake, but the manager typically is supposed to.
There are a few caveats to this. If you bring several bags from the same seller and they're all fake, then you are pretty much required to hand over the name of the seller, as Louis Vuitton will prosecute sellers. This may or may not involve you getting your bags confiscated (probably not, but you never know). You, in full knowledge, will also not be able to sell these items back to the public at the risk of breaking the law. Isn't it lovely?
The other caveat is that there is a small chance of being publicly humiliated with a fake bag. Some people think "better safe than sorry", but hey, you've got your own pride too.
The last caveat is that even if they authenticate it for you, they won't provide a letter of authenticity. This is not such a big deal unless you are planning to sell the bag in the future. This ties hand in hand with:
Bags that come with letters of authenticity are fake. Apparently, once upon a time, a long time ago, LV used to offer letters for those worried, but people abused this system and provided letters when selling fake bags. So LV stopped issuing letters.
If you need authentication and you don't live near a Louis Vuitton, there are a couple of folk online who live, breathe, love to the bottom of their hearts everything LV. Poupette from mypoupette.com is one of them; if you need a letter, she can easily issue one (notarized and everything), provided you have the cash.
Prices are not standardized. LV bags do not have standardized prices across the globe, due to fluctuating currency and market bearing. This means that prices will vary slightly from store to store, region to region, country to country. That simply means that you honestly don't really know how much a bag is worth for any given bag. You will be accurate only up to a certain degree.
On the bright side, prices for any given bag (with the exception of the Monogram line) never go down, provided the condition of the bag is still excellent. It's almost as good as gold.
Louis Vuitton can repair bags. Saw a real bag in a consignment store/auction that was a little scruffy? Got a lot of time and/or patience? You apparently can bring it in to a Louis Vuitton store and get it repaired - they'll replace leather, hardware, you name it. If you get your hands on a dirt cheap item, repairing it might be cheaper than picking up a new one (note: in all honesty, though, you'll probably pay the same in the long run).
However, Louis Vuitton charges a hefty fee for this. I'm not sure if they have a standardized price list, but repair of any given bag will cost a pretty penny, depending on what needs to be fixed, prices usually starting from $30 and up. This also takes a lot of time, as they have to send the bag back to the factory that it was made from to have it repaired. Expect to wait many weeks or even months.
This option may or may not be available if you the item you own is discontinued; I wouldn't guarantee it, though, since some of the discontinued items have special leather that I doubt Louis Vuitton keeps around for the hell of it.
Navigating the Internet
This section is only for those who need to get a bag online, either through auction sites or a website and can't get it from Eluxury. This will be a fairly brief section and can pretty much apply to all auctions in general.
Know what you want to buy. That means doing above research. Especially when knowing what the bag should cost; trust me, it won't be much lower than that price. Getting scammed not only sucks, but is expensive; if a fake bag sells for half the price of the real thing, and the real bag is $1000, losing $500 well, gee, hurts.
Feedback means nothing. Lots of sellers have lots of feedback saying "A+ SELLER!!!!! Will buy again!!!!!!!". It isn't that hard to mail off a few CDs and gewgaws to rack up good feedback ratings. Whether or not said sellers know anything about the item they're selling is another thing entirely. Not to mention there are some people banking on their good feedback to bulldoze their way through a sale of a bag they know perfectly well is fake.
Feedback is just a start. Read the feedback, especially if the seller sells a lot of big ticket items, particularly bags. You'll usually see more feedback along the lines of "Went to LV store and it was authentic, I love you" kind of things, if they're honest. If feedback is kept private, don't bother.
It can't really be said to be the same if the auction is private. A lot of good sellers will keep auctions private so that bidders' identities are hidden (apparently there are a lot of scammers who will hit the bidders with offers that look like second chance offers and such).
Do the usual thing: send email, ask for more photos of said item, read feedback. What you should do if you're buying anything online, really.
Seriously think about escrow. It's expensive, and it's time-consuming, but that's all the protection you've really got. Ebay and Paypal are probably the most unhelpful monstrosities you'll ever meet, especially with items worth more than $250. Your only real line of defense is the United States Postal Service after you get scammed, and I wouldn't even know what you could do if the seller is not from the United States.
Escrow gives you the option to get the item in question and get it authenticated first (if you set up the contract that way).
Avoid Bidpay. Best thing about Paypal is its chargeback option if you pay by credit card. Bidpay doesn't even have that protection. It's very popular with overseas scammers. Keep that in mind.
If you are scammed, there's not much you can do. Ebay's insurance is abysmally low - something like $200 or $250 compensation should everything go pear-shaped for you. Paypal is not much better.
If you know the name of the person and/or address, this is a pretty simple matter. Report it to the United States Postal Service; they are probably one of the biggest government agencies who have any clout in the courts. They also have a special hate for mail-order scams.
There's always reporting it to Louis Vuitton themselves. They, too, are pretty nasty, and think nothing of bringing the full clout of the law down on the poor sod.
There's also small claims, if the object under contention is not worth over $5000, you can try this. Anything over, and the cost of hiring a lawyer might just not be worth it.
Bonus Section: Takashi Murakami (or more lovingly known as "Can you guess what I had to look for in the last six months?")
The famous Japanese artist, Takashi Murakami, was tapped on the shoulder by LVMH to design a couple of limited edition pieces for a few Louis Vuitton bags. He basically turned the LV world upside down with his cheerful, irreverent pieces. Bags that you will no doubt see in the arms of women in New York City and Los Angeles: white and black leather bags with colorful monograms and charms (the "Multicolore" line); white and black bags with colored charms, including that of an eye (the "Eye Love" line); ultra feminine monogrammed bags spotted over with drifting sakura (cherry) blossoms with smiling happy faces (the "Cherry Blossom" line); and odd suitcases/jewelry cases with odd, quirky anime-ish characters on them: pandas, aliens, and odd plant creatures that look like they came directly from Pikmin (I believe these are also part of the "Cherry Blossom" line, but not sure, as these are a very rare beast indeed). They are a combination of high fashion and kitschy pop culture, and they have been very popular; so popular that the waiting lists for some of these items extend into the years. Murakami makes it pretty clear that his Andy Warhol-esque vibe stems directly from commerce: his art process is "more about creating goods and selling them than about exhibitions." It's a sentiment that is embraced by the average bag-loving lady.
In some of the older limited edition items, there are no more waiting lists (the Cherry Blossom line) and the only way to get these is waiting on Ebay, basically. The white and black colored monograms are still "in print", so you can get your grubby mitts on one if you are willing to stand on the waiting list in Louis Vuitton.
This part of the writeup is for those who are interested in the cherry blossom line, since they are by far one of the hardest items to get hold of (at least for authentic pieces) and unfortunately for many poor sods, they are also one of the most popular due to their striking appearance.
Murakami made very few items that sported the smiley face cherry blossoms; the bags used are not the sleek popular wonders like the Alma or even the Speedy, but rather very girly "I'm trying to be 13 rather than 30" kind of bags: rounded, bowtie-bedecked, studded things, colored deep brown, pale pink, or warm cream. These bags are not for the faint of heart, as wearing these bags can make you look incredibly stupid. My guess is that he made these bags to echo the Japanese girl sentiment of "buy all things kawaii."
There are 3 color combinations you can find any of the discontinued accessories in: the standard brown leather with pink blossoms; pale pink leather with, well, pinker blossoms; and cream leather with red blossoms. The pale pink one might arguably be the most popular item, ever since Catherine from Sex and the City wore a pink Papillon on her slender arm (and managed to not look like a doofus doing so).
The Murakami cherry blossom accessory items out of print:
A... well. Mirror. A mirror that originally cost ~$150 US. But apparently not so anymore.
A wallet-shaped item with little hanging hooks inside to hang your keys on. You use this to protect the inside of your bags/pockets from being scratched up by the key edges. Very small, and seems to be not much of a market on this. Original price was approximately ~$200; they typically sell for $300 now.
Yes, an address book. No, I don't know why you'd buy this as this is going a leeetle too far. It averages around $300 now, which leads me to believe it's not a very popular item as inflation has not affected it significantly.
A small coin purse. Originally ~$250. Very small, and one of the items that you may still find for under half a grand. This will probably change in the near future, as prices are going up very rapidly and the cost of this item is already very close to ~$500.
Another coin purse. I initially thought these were fake, as I've never seen reports of real ones, but looks like these are for real. They differ from the Cles in that they truly look like wallets and the "lid" folds over to clip, much like the Porte Tresors, while the cles is a flat zippered pouch. I can't say how much these are worth, but since the Cles ends at $400, I will hazard a guess and say $500.
A checkbook sized wallet. By far the hardest item to find (and the one I had to look for, woe is me). These were originally approximately $500, but since these are incredibly hard to find, prices for these items lately have approached and exceeded the $1000 US mark. Even some of the bigger bags from this line don't go for much more than that. Somehow very sad.
A small, rectangular bag that I believe is meant for make-up, but can double as a purse (it appears to me like a really huge makeup bag, but I guess some ladies carry more makeup than others (note: Porte Tresors do not fit in these, don't even bother)). Not sure how much they originally cost, but their current prices average $1000 US.
A round duffel-like bag with long loop handles. Comes with a tiny bow and a little gold lock. The name of this bag comes from the fact that when you lay the handles of the bag out and look from above, it looks rather like a butterfly (I can see it provided I am heavily drunk and/or taking some very good drugs). This is probably the only bag among the cherry blossoms that you can walk around with and still look dignified. Prices for these were originally approximately $850 US; now these are rapidly beginning to exceed the $2000 US mark.
The Retro is the essence of girly cuteness; I find these extremely hard to take seriously (perhaps if I was a 12 or 13 year girl, I would see differently). It is a half moon shaped bag whose main attraction seems to be its huge bow and studs all over the handles. Not sure how big it is, but probably very small, to match its cuteness. These are around the $1500 US mark now.
Spring 2004, Murakami teamed up with Marc Jacobs to produce another small set of cherry blossom LV merchandise. These have pretty much sold out before they even hit stores; I wouldn't even guess to how long the waiting list is. These look strikingly different from the original: instead of leather, the new bags are made of mahogany-colored satin, with deep wine-colored cherry blossoms that look embroidered on. Don't know much about these, but these are still available. Not that you can afford it.
Bags of this line:
Beefed up looking Pochette.
A miniature version of the Papillon. I have no clue what you would put in these. Possibly keys and nothing more.
Unless you really, really love LV, shopping for them will give you the biggest headache in the world.
Credits go to
a) Howe, Jeff, The Two Faces of Takashi Murakami, Wired Magazine, November 11, 2003 (http://www.wired.com)
b) Poupette, mypoupette.com (quite the resource if you are interested in this sort of thing; being endorsed by her basically means you're set for selling bags)
c) Louis Vuitton website for some minor details: http://www.vuitton.com
d) YKK website for some very minor details: http://www.ykk.com
e) Me for being an idiot for trying to get a bag for a very special girl, a) without breaking the bank and b) without getting scammed. Unfortunately, I only succeeded in the latter goal.