The headquarters of Investigative Consultants, a Lawndale, Calif.–based firm hired by many of premium-denim’s biggest players to combat the counterfeit jeans trade, has a security system that would make any corrections officer or backwoods militia drool.
Wall-mounted cameras survey every inch of the pink stucco, two-story building, which is located 15 miles southwest of downtown Los Angeles in a working-class neighborhood of bungalows, Vietnamese restaurants and auto smog-check centers. Naturally, consultations are by-appointment only.
“I don’t want to be reactive. I’d just rather stay five steps ahead and provide a place where law-enforcement officials who we work with feel safe to visit,” says Kris Buckner, Investigative Consultants’ 39-year-old president and chief investigator.
Unlike his fortified compound, Buckner doesn’t exactly fit the mold of a private-investigating powerhouse. Neither his watery blue eyes nor the red Kabbalah thread tied around his left wrist would likely raise the pulse of most career counterfeiters. But with 13 years in the business, the former L.A. Sheriff’s Department deputy is revered by a gaggle of high-end denim companies who hire him, including Rock & Republic, 7 For All Mankind, Citizens of Humanity and Joe’s Jeans.
“He’s the top dog,” says Barbara Kolsun, senior vice-president and general counsel for 7 For All Mankind. “Kris gets criminal action after criminal action, and that’s what we like, because it gets to the heart of the problem … he’s great at pulling together a lot of actions involving many brands, which is far more compelling to law enforcement.”
Surrounded by black-framed photographs of memorable sting operations and dry-erase boards that log future actions, Buckner regularly puts in 12-hour days, sometimes six to seven days a week. When he’s not in the office, he’s shutting down small-time vendors in Norwalk, crashing knockoff denim parties in Orange County or pulling the plug on Web sites that peddle fake designer jeans, from the shoddily constructed to the painstakingly precise. The LAPD, L.A. Sheriff’s Department and other southern California law-enforcement agencies depend on Buckner to identify what’s authentic and what’s not.
The counterfeiting trade in the U.S. shows no signs of waning. Knockoff shoes, handbags, sunglasses and other goods cost U.S. companies $200 billion to $250 billion a year, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Apparel accounted for 16 percent of all goods seized by U.S. customs agents at major ports and border crossings last year. And of the 37 counterfeit apparel arrests made by law-enforcement agencies in May with Investigative Consultants’ assistance, half involved counterfeit denim, Buckner says.
“In the last couple of years, I’ve seen an explosion in counterfeit denim. It’s a natural progression,” he says. “First it was handbags; you’d see them on the street and then at purse parties. Denim is evolving the same way.”
Though most premium-denim companies with international distribution and an ounce of celebrity cachet have their own in-house, anti-counterfeit teams, many still outsource investigative work to embedded private firms. “They rely on regional investigators who have specific contacts and informants,” says Carlos Fernandez, president of the Pasadena-based Intellectual Property Enforcement Company (IPEC), which conducts investigations for True Religion, Monarchy and Antik, among other denim makers. “If the companies have someone on the ground who knows the players, they’re able to get better results.”
Buckner, who founded Investigative Consultants in 1994 after working as a subcontractor for Fernandez at IPEC, employs a five-member, all-female undercover team to track down illegal vendors. Each investigator undergoes extensive training. Subtle differences in security tags and buttons on fake jeans are analyzed. Hours of hidden-camera surveillance tapes are watched. Seeking to protect his company’s trade secrets, Buckner declined to elaborate further on his training methods nor did he allow DNR to watch hidden camera footage with an IC investigator.
The bulk of investigations continues to take place in urban areas with major ports where goods are smuggled in, Buckner says, including New York City, L.A., Long Beach and Miami. Customs agents routinely intercept boxes of Chinese counterfeit denim bound for shops in Spanish Harlem and downtown L.A. or fly-by-night vendors on Canal Street. But experts say both men’s and women’s counterfeit denim is quickly infiltrating other parts of the country, thanks in part to the proliferation of jeans parties held in private homes.
“Jeans parties are a smarter way to distribute because they’re not in a fixed retail location,” says Buckner. Counterfeiters concoct myriad explanations for buyers who may be skeptical that a bona-fide pair of J Brand jeans, for example, could be bought off of a neighbor’s kitchen table for a fraction of retail price, he adds. “Those jeans are slightly irregular; this line has been discontinued; my sister works for the manufacturer and gets a sweetheart deal.”
Paige Adams-Geller said she first got her hands on a counterfeit pair of Paige Premium Denim in the U.S. from a friend who had bought them in February at an Anchorage, Alaska, party—one that was even hyped as legit by a local blogger for the Anchorage Daily News. Although the hardware and whipstitching on the jeans looked convincing, Adams-Geller knew immediately that they were phony.
“People say that imitation is the highest form of flattery, but to me it was a direct insult,” she says. “My brand is based on expert fit, beautiful fabrics and great quality. When I tried these on, the fit was terrible. They flattened my butt, and I’m known for having the best butt jeans.”
As the number of jeans parties increases, so do the amount of seizures and arrests. Last month, for example, Orange County Sheriff’s deputies raided two homes in the gated community of Coto de Caza, confiscating 200 pairs of counterfeit jeans from two women who run Bella Boutique, a jeans party and jewelry business. Buckner, who worked with police on the raid, said he was given information about the party from 7 For All Mankind, which in turn had received an anonymous tip. The women were selling the jeans for about $80 to $120.
“It’s the lure of profit that brings people in from all different walks of life to this business,” says Buckner. “The problem is not exactly concentrated in one area. No one person controls the market here.”
Several brand representatives interviewed, however, said they are gaining the upper hand in another counterfeit venue long considered a headache: Internet auction sites. John Hur, general counsel for AG Adriano Goldschmied, says he’s seen a downtick in the volume of counterfeit goods, in part because of increased regulations on Web sites like eBay, which now limits the amount of same-item auctions a seller can post at one time and allows trademark holders greater power to shut down illicit online vendors. “In 2005 we’d see about 500 jeans or corduroys pop up, but now it’s around 250.”
Kolsun of 7 For All Mankind says she has seen eBay auctions of their fake denim drop to about 5,000 a month, down from about 18,000 a month when she joined the company in 2005.
Perhaps unique to the denim world, says Michael Heimbold, an intellectual property attorney and partner at Steptoe & Johnson in Los Angeles, is the growing amount of cooperation in investigating the counterfeit trade—even among brands jockeying to be the it-jean of the moment. “Competitors share resources now,” he says. “When one company gets a lead, they’ll pass it along to others.”
This tag-team mentality among denim brands eager to squelch black-market denim is crucial to effective seizure operations, says Buckner. “Above all, my goal is to give law enforcement an education in what to look for. The greater the cooperation out there, the better.”