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August 31, 2006

In the News

The Town Dandy
Who's a Eurekan?

Short Stor

Counterfeit jeans confiscated in Arcata
Merchant blows whistle on substandard denim

story & photo by HELEN SANDERSON

Laura Wagenfuhr looked over the hundred-dollar denim pants with mild curiosity. She flipped the waistband, ran her finger over the stitching, cocked her head, inspected the tag. She was shopping at Alirose, an upscale Eureka boutique. But the jeans were not for sale, at least not anymore.

Not that Wagenfuhr would ever have bought them to begin with. She knows better.

"The craftsmanship is bad," she concluded with a certain measure of aplomb only a well-heeled teen could pull off. The jeans bore a Seven for All Mankind label, but Wagenfuhr could see that the pants with the crystal-encrusted pockets were fake, counterfeit. "I can't believe they were selling these in a store," she said.

Typically, Wagenfuhr continued, you could only find fake jeans at "jeans parties" -- a sort of underground Tupperware party for hawking imitation denim. A friend recently bought a pair of fake Citizen for Humanity jeans for dirt cheap -- $80 -- at such a gathering in Eureka. Otherwise, counterfeits are usually sold at big city flea markets and online auction sites like eBay.

Alirose owner Laura Dubois, 37, had a sour look on her face as she yanked a pair of faded, shin-length Joe's Jeans from a lumpy garbage bag. As Wagenfuhr looked on, Dubois laid the $85 pants next to a real pair of Joe's Jeans -- a favorite of it-girl actress Lindsay Lohan -- to show her the difference. "Feel how soft," she encouraged, rubbing the fabric of the authentic pants. The least expensive Joe's Jeans in Alirose store are $140.

It was clear the other pants weren't real Joe's. The pockets? Too big. The fabric? Too rough. The logo, perhaps the worst offender of all? Missing a signature leather circle.

"The Joe's are horrible," surmised a smartly-dressed Justin Forbes, 17, before pressing his cell phone to his ear. He was Wagenfuhr's shopping companion for the day.

Wagenfuhr, 18, and Forbes, both of Eureka, know jeans. They've each dropped $200 on one pair of Seven's and other designer brands insanely popular among Hollywood's lithe-legged A-listers.

Fakes usually sell for about half the price. But neither teen would ever wear knockoffs because, well, it would just be embarrassing. They both have jobs to fund their wardrobes. They expressed genuine pity for those who resort to buying imitation denim.

Then an Alirose employee held up the cropped Joe's by the belt loops. "Look at the butt of these!" she said. Everyone chuckled at the ill-conceived pocket design.

It was a brief moment of levity in a months-long fiasco that left store owner Laura Dubois reluctantly holding the counterfeit pants Wednesday. She frowned at the bag as though it truly contained garbage.

"What am I supposed to do with this?" she wanted to know. "I don't want it around me." She declined to pose for a picture with the jeans.

The denim debacle started back in early July, when an Alirose customer let Dubois in on a secret: The same brand name jeans went for half the price at Willow and Rags clothing store in Arcata.

Dubois went to Willow to confirm the shopper's tip. She immediately spotted them as fakes. That made her mad -- irate, really, because she figured Willow's illegal sales was hurting her legit business.

To even carry brands like Seven and Joe's, "You have to have excellent credit, you have to tell them what other lines you carry, you have to send them pictures of your store," she said. "No one within 100 miles of here carries Joe's legally, besides us."

So Dubois called the Arcata cops, the FBI and the denim manufacturers. The jeans makers told her to buy a pair of Seven for All Mankind's and Joe's from the Arcata store and send them to their Los Angeles headquarters. On July 6 she paid over $200 for the fake pants and overnighted them south.

Then onto the Internet she went. She learned that counterfeits were made in China by children, a particular offense to Dubois, who worked for child welfare services for eight years before opening her Old Town boutique. She researched further, and consulted the California Penal Code: Section 350 states that any person who willfully manufactures, intentionally sells or knowingly possesses counterfeit merchandise can be imprisoned up to a year and fined thousands of dollars.

And this is where Dubois has a major problem. The Arcata Police Department, she said, was "unresponsive" to her criminal charges against Willow all summer. She believes that the APD is not taking the case seriously.

"I am a distributor of premium denim. [The officer] didn't seem to understand that," Dubois said. "He treated me like I was crazy."

The cops told Dubois they could do nothing unless the manufacturer filed complaints with them first.

The situation came to a head last week when an investigator with Joe's Jeans, Carlos Fernandez, flew from L.A. to Arcata to seize the counterfeit merchandise from Willow. APD escorted Fernandez into the store to confiscate 39 pairs of pants: 20 pair of Rockin' Republics, 15 pair of Joes and four pair of Sevens.

Fernandez took one pair of each ripoff brand -- Joe's, Seven and Rockin' Republic -- to bring back with him to L.A. He dropped the rest off in a garbage bag brimming with over $4,000 worth of pants with Dubois. (Fernandez did not return the Journal's calls before deadline.)

Willow employees refused to acknowledge that the store was raided Wednesday. On Friday, Willow owner Gordon Townsend stopped by the Journal office to say that neither he nor store employees "would have any way of knowing" the jeans they carried were counterfeit.

"We just thought, 'Hey, what a good deal,'" Townsend recalled.

In a follow-up conversation Tuesday, he said he received two shipments of Sevens this summer and one shipment of Joes and Rockin' Republics. His selling prices ranged from $68 to $165 for Rockin' Republics. He said the store sold 20 pairs of the Sevens, five pairs of Joes and none of the Rockin' Republics.

Townsend estimated he paid close to $2,000 for the 64 pairs of jeans he received from the L.A. distributor, whose name he refused to provide.

APD Officer Todd Dokweiler said the cops' involvement in the case is over because the manufacturer does not wish to press charges. But Dubois thinks the police are simply not upholding the law, and says Willow should be charged with grand theft.

On Thursday Dubois brought the bag of jeans -- what she is now calling "evidence" -- to the Arcata Police Department.

"It is not my job to do an investigation of another store," she said. "I have gone above and beyond trying to provide them information."

Dokweiler said the evidence will be destroyed, possibly by incineration.

Willow owner Gordon Townsend said he would refund anyone who bought counterfeit jeans from his store.

"I certainly wish it had never happened," Townsend said. "We've learned a lesson to be more careful."



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