SHANGHAI, CHINA — Near its western end, Nanjing Road here winds past luxury malls featuring some of the world’s most exclusive brands, including Tiffany, Coach and Gucci. Then, as it winds east toward the elevated highway that divides the famed shopping avenue, the prestige brands give way to local ones and then, eventually, a nondescript high-rise that doesn’t advertise any brands at all — at least, not on the outside.
Inside, though, a bank branch does brisk business in the lobby and, just beyond it, aggressive English-speaking touts stand in front of closet-size stalls selling quality fake versions of Tiffany, Coach and Gucci — in addition to other luxury and non-luxury brands.
That’s where, to my surprise, I found a collectible item bound to be coveted by many Minnesota Vikings fans.
Shanghai’s biggest ‘fake’ mall
Welcome to one of Shanghai’s biggest and most popular “fake” malls, a three-story emporium of middling-quality knock-offs and — as savvy locals and expats know — an unauthorized outlet for the sale of “real” goods diverted from factories in South China that manufacture items for the United States and other export markets.
The mechanics of these markets are murky, but the general principles are well-known: For example, if Nike orders, say, 10,000 Kobe Bryant jerseys from a factory in Dongguan, that factory, without the knowledge of Nike, might run 11,000 jerseys — and then divert the excess without the added expense of licensing fees due to Nike.
In Shanghai, at least, that’s a widely accepted explanation for the recent emergence of “authentic” and “licensed” professional sports apparel in the city’s better fake markets. The Nanjing Road fake mall, for example, has three stalls selling sports jerseys from the NBA, MLB, NFL and NHL — despite Major League Baseball, National Football League and National Hockey League having almost no following in China. (The National Basketball Association, however, does have its fans here.)
For example, on Sunday, I visited the Nanjing Road fake mall and found high-quality North Stars, Wild and Twins jerseys (including vintage Kirby Puckett items) and — notably — a preview of a potential Minnesota bestseller: a high-quality “authentic” Reebok-branded Brett Favre No. 4 Vikings jersey. Needless to say, Favre isn’t even a Viking — yet.
After a bit of negotiation, I came away with the high-quality Favre jersey for the equivalent of about $16. (That’s quite a bargain, given that a similar-quality Vikings jersey can retail for $259.99 at NFLShop.com.)
So what’s going on here?
Foreigners gobbling up Favre jerseys
According to the young woman operating the stall, the first shipment of Minnesota Favre jerseys arrived two weeks ago. Since then, they’ve been her most popular NFL item among foreigners. “No Chinese” take an interest in the NFL, she added. “They only want NBA and [English] Premier League.” She wouldn’t tell me how she obtained the shipment, but when I questioned her about the quality of the garment, she knowledgeably pointed out the various “authentic” features, including three types of nylon and polyester incorporated into the garment, the stitched name and numbers, and authentic (looking, at least) NFL, Vikings and Reebok patches. “Not fake quality,” she insisted. “Real quality.”
It was an assessment shared by an acquaintance of mine who works in the apparel sourcing business in China, and whom I visited with the Favre jersey shortly after leaving the mall. This person, who prefers to remain anonymous, also pointed to the use of various fabrics and the stitching of names and numbers as proof that the Favre jersey was, at least, manufactured by a company knowledgeable and/or experienced in meeting NFL apparel standards. “You can be damn sure that some Southern Chinese factory manager didn’t come up with the idea to make Minnesota Favre jerseys on his own,” this person told me. Instead, the idea likely came from an NFL-savvy American company (Reebok is a licensed manufacturer of NFL apparel) in anticipation of a Favre signing with Minnesota, and the “sourced to” contractor over-ran the order.
Does this mean that Reebok knows something about Brett Favre’s 2009-10 season plans that others don’t? Reebok has yet to return my call in regard to this question, and others. Of course, even if the Shanghai jerseys were, in fact, diverted from an actual Reebok order, that doesn’t mean that Reebok has specific knowledge of Favre’s contract status. A more likely explanation is that Reebok ordered a run of Favre jerseys as a hedge against a possible run on Minnesota-Favre memorabilia. It’s the same approach that sports apparel companies might take when ordering “Super Bowl Champion” T-shirts for both Super Bowl teams in advance of the game. In that case, and the Favre case, it’s much better to have worthless inventory than to be caught without any inventory at all when fan mania strikes.
As it happens, on Sunday I purchased the last Favre jersey at this particular stall. But the woman running the booth told me not to worry. “We have more coming next week,” she said. “And I’ll give you a good discount if you want to buy some for your friends.” At that, she handed a business card to me and moved on to a customer seeking Dallas Cowboy apparel.
Adam Minter is an American writer in Shanghai, China, where he covers a range of topics, including religion in contemporary China, the Chinese environment, and cross-cultural issues between the West and Asia. He can be reached through his blog, Shanghai Scrap.