The Grand Bazaar: Nightmare for Luxury Brands or Free Advertising?

By Isola Ansideï

Istanbul, a city with more than 15 millions of inhabitants, a city that hides treasures, but also the capital of a country known to be the second largest producer of counterfeits after China. In the heart of the Grand Bazaar, one of the largest covered markets in the world, illegal copies of the biggest luxury brands circulate every day.

Smiles, laughter, children running around. Delightful smells, constant yet enchanting noises, and over 4,000 shops. That’s what the Grand Bazaar is, a market that stretches across dozens of streets, brimming with hidden treasures. More than just a market, it represents the culture of a country that has existed for over 400 years. However, the Grand Bazaar, originally known for its spices, has now become one of the largest counterfeit markets in the world. Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Prada, Yves Saint Laurent… these are the first items that catch your eye when entering the bazaar. It wouldn’t be surprising if more than half of a market that was originally focused on craftsmanship, spices, leather, gold, carpets, and ceramics is now entirely devoted to counterfeiting. The reason is not insignificant. Since the fall of the lira and the economic crisis gripping the country, the sellers have simply had to adapt. The counterfeit market is booming, and the demand from Europe is constantly increasing. Turkey, forming a sort of path between Asia and Europe, is thus an extremely favorable ground for the production and sale of counterfeit goods.

The luxury fashion market is the most affected by counterfeiting. At the Grand Bazaar, you can find copies of all the major luxury brands, ranging from poorly made items to ones that would deceive any knowledgeable person, without a genuine serial number. But the big question is: do all these counterfeits have a real impact on luxury brands? According to Isabelle Denis, assistant manager at a Prada store in Paris, the answer is no. She says, “Our customers are loyal; they would never want to buy counterfeits because they can afford to visit our boutiques and enjoy the customer experience.” It is true that, while walking the streets of the bazaar, the faces of tourists are not the same as those of shoppers strolling along the Champs-Elysées in Paris, searching for the latest trendy bag. The influence of luxury brands is everywhere. They set the trends, and fast fashion collections are defined by their runway shows. These big brands govern the world of fashion and luxury. “These brands have become a means of social recognition, an image. So, I understand the attraction to counterfeits, but in the end, they are just copies, and you will never be able to experience the exhilaration of wearing a designer piece, and that’s what our clientele is looking for,” says Isabelle.

The main impact of counterfeiting on the luxury sector lies in the infringement of brand rights. Counterfeits usurp the unique work of a creator and can sometimes cast doubt on a brand’s craftsmanship. “Brands usually collaborate with artisans from around the world. For example, Prada works with artisans in India specialized in goat leather braiding. This collaboration is completely transparent, but it is now being questioned because of the ‘Made in India’ label,” explains Isabelle. Counterfeiting has impacted customer trust, who now seek only 100% Made in France or Made in Italy products to ensure the value of the item. This increasingly prevents luxury brands from outsourcing their production to other countries, even though it is necessary. Some counterfeits are so perfectly made that they can be given as gifts. Isabelle shared, “As a manager, the most difficult part is informing a customer who comes for repairs, that their item is a fake. And this often happens with counterfeit goods that were given as gifts.”

An almost impossible market to stop?

Although Turkey has signed major intellectual property agreements such as the Paris Convention, counterfeit networks cover the entire country. Moreover, markets like the Grand Bazaar are well-known. But why isn’t anything being done to end this market? According to Sevin Buber, an expert in Intellectual Property Law with 15 years of experience, “It is almost impossible to dismantle a counterfeiting network.” Despite brands having intellectual property rights, these counterfeiting networks are pervasive. Goods are directly imported from Asia, and Turkey serves as a bridge to Europe. However, there are also numerous production sites in Turkey, including Istanbul. Warehouses are often located in basements, and the locations constantly change, as do the places of resale. Sevin tells us, “Legal action takes a long time in Turkey, and by the time a decision is made, the merchandise has already disappeared. The same goes for sending warning letters. The best thing to do is to conduct raids to confiscate the goods.” Nevertheless, there are significant limitations, and “a brand cannot simply turn a blind eye,” she adds. Constant market surveillance and regular contract verification are necessary to protect the brand.

However, putting an end to counterfeiting in a tourist destination like the Grand Bazaar is possible, but it is evident that very little is being done in this regard. An anonymous vendor interviewed on-site says, “The worst thing that can happen to me is having my merchandise confiscated and receiving a fine. Regardless, the fine will never match my profits.” Sevin adds, “The country is experiencing an economic crisis, and the demand for counterfeits is only growing. So, yes, it is almost impossible for it to stop someday.”

Since the opening of new cheaper Turkish Airline this last decades, which operates not only in Europe but worldwide, including Asia, Russia, and South America, a new form of tourist clientele has emerged, some of whom travel solely for the purpose of buying counterfeits. According to the manager of a store in the Grand Bazaar, “The face of tourists has changed significantly in the last decade. Many pass by us without even paying attention to what we sell, but head straight to the alleys filled with counterfeits, to leave with a smile on their faces and a copy of the latest Yves Saint Laurent bag.” It is clear that 70% of those who visit the market to buy food or spices are locals. Sevin mentions that the proliferation of counterfeits has directly impacted artisans: “The rent prices at the Grand Bazaar increase every day, and it’s getting worse with the increasing number of counterfeiters and tourist demand.”

According to Isabelle and Sevin, these brands are powerful and capable of stopping these counterfeit markets if they truly wanted to. “If they don’t make every effort to do so, it’s because, in a way, they benefit from it,” says Isabelle. Indeed, promoting a brand requires a significant amount of time and money, and ultimately, according to her, all these counterfeits are essentially free advertising. “People who wear these counterfeits, display them on the streets or on social media, influence consumer behavior. They create a desire to buy, and these customers will come directly to the store,” she says.

What about the consumer’s perspective?

During an on-site survey conducted at the Grand Bazaar, with the sole question “Why buy counterfeit goods?”, tourists responded. A group of French students said, “We can’t afford to buy from boutiques, and some items are of such good quality, so why not? We also want to showcase ourselves on social media, with a Chanel bag on our arm.” A few meters away, young parents in front of a children’s shoe stall said, “Children’s clothes are so expensive. Look at these mini Nike sneakers. In a store, they would cost 70 euros per pair, and in 2 months, our son won’t be able to wear them anymore. It’s better to buy them here, and no one will notice the difference.”

It’s true that even though tourists face a high risk when passing through customs with counterfeit products, most can play the card of “I didn’t know.” Sevin reveals, “Yes, buying counterfeit goods is illegal, but if you want to return to France with a fake Nike t-shirt, customs will never say anything. The main targets of customs are the production and distribution networks.”

In the end, turning a blind eye also allows customers to afford something they could never otherwise buy, and it may also allow an entire country to thrive. So, whether counterfeiting is a good or bad thing is difficult to conclude, but one thing is certain: the era of counterfeiting is only in its early stages and will continue to grow as long as everyone benefits from it.