Thrifting 101: How to identify counterfeit handbags at the thrift store

On Monday I went thrifting, and I came across this:

Discovering a high-end designer bag is a thrift score even the most adverse to thrifting would celebrate. For seventeen bucks, this huge vintage Gucci tote seemed almost too good to be true. I gave it my usual once-over in the store, checking for frayed stitching, tears, funky odors and stains. It was clean - and even came with its original control tag. All my years of thrifting had paid off. I had located my thrifting holy grail.

Or so I thought. On the way home, I was nagged by the thought that the bag might be fake. After all, who in their right mind would donate a near-perfect vintage Gucci tote? Had I just wasted seventeen dollars that could have gone to better use? Though I carried it on my arm the very next day, I couldn't shake the feeling that I might have been swindled.

According to the International Chamber of Commerce, counterfeiting makes up five to seven percent of global trade, or $450 to $500 billion. Buying counterfeit merchandise helps keep sweatshops and child labor in third world countries in business. While any name brand is at risk for counterfeiting, the most commonly ripped-off labels include Louis Vuitton, Kate Spade, Christian Dior, Prada, Gucci and Burberry.

So, how can you tell the difference? Experts say it’s the small details that are often overlooked by manufacturers of designer knockoffs. All you need to do is take the time to pick apart the fakes to reveal their many flaws. Here are some tips for identifying and avoiding counterfeit bags at the thrift store.

Understand the difference between an illegal fake bag, a designer-inspired bag, and the genuine article:
  • Illegal fake bags make every attempt to copy a genuine designer bag, right down to the very last logo, tag, and hardware. Fakes copy everything about the designer bag, and pass themselves off as the original brand, with no attempt to distinguish themselves as look-alikes. It's illegal to make fake merchandise, and while buying it is not illegal in most countries, doing so supports illegal activity.
  • A legal knock-off/imitation is "designer-inspired" but is not a direct copy. Such a bag does not claim to be the original designer's bag and does not attempt to use the trademarked symbols, logos, or features, and as such can legally imitate the style and colors of a bag while avoiding breaching copyright. Without close inspection, it can be easy to mistake a legal knock-off for the real thing.
  • A genuine designer bag is made by the original well-known designer and the bag's logo, hardware, attachments, etc., are all congruent with the original design - down to the exact positioning and number of such features. Tags, signatures, or marks stating the designer's name form an integral part of the bag's overall design and authenticity.

Know the signs of a fake knock-off bag:

There are numerous signs that can point to a bag's lack of authenticity:

  • Stitching: Look closely at the stitching of the bag. Sloppy, slanted, and uneven stitching is a sign of a poorly made, and therefore, fake bag. Some knockoffs do take the time to stitch the lining into place; in these, look for threading that is pulling in spots. A real designer bag would have near-perfect threading. Designer bags will always have quality stitching because it is part of the designer's reputation to produce a quality item.
  • Tags or labels: Check the inside tags – are they stamped into leather or hand-stitched? An obvious fake will have no name on the inside tag. Check outside tags as well because many designers include authenticity labels on the outside of the bag.
  • Material: If it's leather, it should smell like leather. If it's supposed to be durable canvas, it should be strong and well stitched. The material can communicate a lot about the bag's quality. If the real bag normally has a pattern inside, fake bags typically will not. Often, the lining inside a fake bag feels cheap and thin.
  • Logo: Logos are often a slip-up area for copies. The designer name might be spelled slightly differently, such as Carter instead of Cartier. A logo embedded into a pattern, such as Louis Vuitton's alternating "LV" design, should be continued throughout the bag without interruption. 
  • Hardware:  It’s difficult for counterfeits to exactly duplicate the hardware design of authentic items. For example, authentic Gucci Horsebit bags will have complete closed connecting rings while counterfeits will have a break in the rings.
  • Serial number: Some high-end designer bags have serial numbers on a tag or stamp inside the bag. An authentic Gucci bag, for example, has a brass plaque inside the purse that says Gucci Made in Italy on a leather tag with the serial number embossed underneath.
  • Handles: Genuine Louis Vuitton handles are made of an entire strip of natural leather. When first purchased, the handle is light tan in color; over the course of a few weeks, it should oxidize and turn into a darker, cognac color. Fake bags don’t change color like this because the handles are usually painted.
  • Do your research: If a Coach bag has a leather strip down the middle, the strip should say "Leatherwear." If it doesn't, it's a knock-off. Louis Vuitton purse snaps are monogrammed, as are those from Gucci. Knowing where a bag is made helps as well. Coach bags are made in China, not the United States.
Wondering about my own thrifted Gucci bag? After some research I made the discovery that my bag is real! How do I know?

Gucci bag

My Gucci bag is made from heavyweight vinyl-coated canvas that feels substantial. The stitching is even and straight. Solid brass logo hardware is present, as well as a rounded interior tag (knockoff Gucci bags have a rectangular or square tag with sharp corners.) An authentic vintage Gucci also has a brass plaque inside the purse that says Gucci Made in Italy - it will be on a leather tag with the serial number embossed underneath, just as mine has. Furthermore, the serial numbers on my bag correspond to those present on a vintage Gucci bag. Serial numbers on vintage Gucci bags almost always start with a 0, 1 or 2. Ninety-nine percent of NEWER authentic Gucci bags do not start with these numbers. If you see a Gucci bag in a style from a recent collection with serial numbers that start with 0, 1 or 2, the bag is fake.

Have you ever bought a designer bag at a thrift store?


  1. I have! I scored a LV Sac Plat! I knew it was real. When I bought it, the handles were really rotting/worn. I know that LV has a lifetime warranty. So I took a chance and went to the Galleria LV store to have the handles redone.

    Well, they totally replaced the handles! I paid 200 bucks for the handle...but ummmm the purse retails for yeah...I'm okay w that!

  2. What a lucky find! I'm glad it was real.

    Honestly, I usually practice spotting fakes especially when I see them on the street. I think if you keep looking at people's bags, you'll soon see what makes a real bag and what makes a fake one.

  3. Congratulations on your thrifting victory! That's very exciting. The Sally Ann seems to pick out the genuine articles and put them up for auction on specified days for higher prices. That's OK because it all goes to a good cause.

  4. I've yet to be so lucky to find a designer bag at a thrift store, but when I do, these tips will be super helpful!

  5. OMG. What a find!!! Love reading about your thrifting...gets me motivated to try it more often!

  6. A couple years ago I found a lovely red vintage Coach purse at a thrift store in Grand Rapids. It cost $1. I felt so bad about it (it was a charity shop) that I sent them a donation later!

  7. No way!!! Wow!! I've found designer bags, some real some not. Nothing this great, though! Usually just a lot of Fossil and a couple of Coach bags.

  8. Love this post! When I found my Gucci clutch I researched the same things... except a lot of these things don't apply to random clutches. I knew mine had to be real because the silk was heavenly (haha... true!). Awesome score!!!!!!

  9. I have found several, but often freak myself out of buying because I'm worried about fakes. I definitely have non-buyers regret from leaving some lovely bags that I now know were real behind. I keep planning to make a trip to Gucci, LV, etc retail stores to check out some authentic merchandise, just to familiarize myself. Those stores always intimidate me, though!

  10. You can go to the Gucci store and have them confirm that it is an original. Great score!!!

  11. Wow, I am so impressed (and a little envious!). I thrifted my current favorite handbag, a nice Coach bag in perfect condition for $7--but that doesn't come even close to your score. Enjoy it! Velma

  12. Not all vintage Gucci has a brass plaque. All of them do have a serial number for sure. One thing you can look for are high quality zippers, most designer bags have a stamped zipper From the zipper manufactur. Coach bags always have ykk zippers. They've gotten clever on where it's stamped some newer bags the ykk is so small it's hard to see.but if it doesn't have a ykk zipper it's for sure a fake. Anyway fantastic find!!!

  13. Awesome find! I once scored a vintage Tod's purse for five dollars, as well as a vintage Louis Vuitton garment bag for five dollars (same store, same time)! I didn't even realize what Tod's was until a girl commented on my awesome handbag. And yes, both turned out to be real! Definitely one of my best thrifting trips ever!

  14. AMAZING! Love the bag!
    I collect vintage Gucci, so if you ever need me to take it off your hands, I'm so game ;)
    And what a great, informative post. I haven't bought a fake Gucci, but I did end up buying a fake Chanel bag once via eBay (when I received it it wasn't even leather!) and it was a total bummer. PayPal gave me my money back, but what I really wanted was the real Chanel! Oh well! One day...

  15. I have a question if anyone can help me please. I just got a coach purse and once I got it home I realized the design on the bag was the number 38 not c does anyone know what this means?


  17. My hobby is hunting down designer bags in thrift stores and a flea market in my city. I found a real louis vuitton epi bag originally retailled at $925 for $10, and an authentic prada pochette worth about $395 for $15. Found a real vintage Prada at a thrift store for $3.50, havent found the original value yet. Also have a boatload of authentic Coach purses and wallets for anywhere from $3-$25. I have been doing this so long that I know the ins and outs of how to spot the real and fake ones, at least for the particular high end brands I look for. Alot of times I find thrift stores pricing fakes at ridiculously high prices thinking they are real and locking them up and I have to explain to them they are fake, and explain how and why I can tell. And then other times I find them at ridiculously low prices because the person pricing it didnt notice what they had. With the black canvas gucci bags its hard to see the g's in the canvas at a quick glance I suppose unless you are really paying attention I have two and didnt pay more than $8 for either. I guess I have found my holy grail over and over :-). This is fun for me. My boyfriend tells me I have laser focus I can walk in and zero in on the nearest designer purse in seconds. Its though. Love thrifting.

  18. I do quite often. I found a Louis Vuitton Epi bag yesterday valued at $925 authentic for $10, and a Prada pouchette for $15 worth $395. I have made quite a hobby out of hunting for high end handbags. I recently moved in with my bf, we literally had to buy special shelving to hold all the handbags I have. I recently found a vintage prada for $3.50 and a chanel for $10. I have more than a dozen authentic coach bags and wallets that I have paid anywhere from $3 to $25 for. I have been doing this for a long time so I have taught myself the ins and outs of spotting the real ones and the fakes. I ended up with some fakes early on but the more I collected them the more I decided to learn about the purses for my own peace of mind. If you really like to shop for these handbags and are concerned about the authenticity there are dozens of sites that can educate you about ways to learn whether your bag is authentic or not.


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