Thursday, September 4, 2014

Handbag Dispute Leads To State Court Suit

The Hermes Birkin, a popular handbag among celebrities and Hampton socialites alike, is only occasionally offered by Hermes, and can retail for anywhere from nearly $10,000 to as high as $150,000—essentially an unattainable purchase for the common man, and thus a symbol of luxury and status for those that can afford it. The Kardashian sisters, famous for their curves and airing their dirty laundry via reality television show on the E! Network, are no exception to the celebrity Birkin bag following.

The Birkin bag made metropolitan area headlines earlier this month in a different context: Dr. Tara Allmen, a Manhattan-basted doctor, is suing Tisha Collette, founder of Collette Consignment, a local vintage store with shops in Sag Harbor, Southampton and Manhattan, accusing her of selling a fake Birkin handbag.

This month, the case, which was filed as a civil suit in January 2013, is now at the State Supreme Court, because the plaintiff is seeking punitive damages upward of $50,000, according to Dr. Allmen’s lawyer, Joseph Vitulli, himself a part-time Quogue resident.

Dr. Allmen said his client claims that eight years ago, in 2005, Ms. Collette sold her a fake Hermes Jean Paul Gaultier Birkin handbag, with a price tag of $3,500 in the shop. According to the plaintiff’s attorney, Ms. Collette claimed that the Hermes Birkin was authentic at the time of the sale.

Ms. Collette maintains, however, that she never even sold the bag in question to Dr. Allmen.

In a phone interview earlier this month, Dr. Allmen explained that she pressed charges only recently because she was unaware that the bag was a fake until a cleaning company would not clean the bag because it was not a bona fide Hermes Birkin. Dr. Allmen maintains that it was Ms. Collette who sold her the fake, and that the bag had been owned by Ms. Collette herself before she sold it to Dr. Allmen.

However, Ms. Collette adamantly says that Dr. Allmen was wrong about the entire situation.

“I don’t own a Birkin and have never owned one,” she said in a phone interview. “I am in the business of selling them.”

Ms. Collette insisted that Dr. Allmen never purchased the orange bag in question from one of Ms. Collette’s consignment stores. “Tara Allmen never bought that bag from me and has no proof that she bought that bag from me ... nor has she even come into the store with the bag to inspect,” the store owner said.

The he said-she said continues: Mr. Vitulli stated that he and his client, Dr. Allmen, had previously “tried to resolve this with the retailer, but they were being very foolish,” he said, referring to Tisha Collette. He added, “She’s doing bad things.”

The two parties do seem to agree upon this: Ms. Collette said that she did offer to have Dr. Allmen come into the store so that the store owner could inspect the bag and work out a resolution. “She used to be a very good customer of mine,” Ms. Collette said of Dr. Allmen.

Ms. Collette insisted that she wanted to help Dr. Allmen in any way that she could. However, it did not pan out that way: Instead of seeing Dr. Allmen with the bag in question, Ms. Collette was served with court papers and a lawsuit.

In the interim, several others have come to Dr. Allmen’s defense—or, rather, lined up to criticize Ms. Collette—although she is the only one to actually take her complaint to court. Tracy Tooker, owner of an eponymous hat shop on Hill Street, claims she is owed more than $1,000 after Ms. Collette sold four of her hats and turned over only $150 to Ms. Tooker. A friend of Ms. Tooker’s, Victoria Henderson, was similarly critical of Ms. Collette, though she offered no specific examples to support her remarks.

Ms. Collette said that after the stock market crashed, copies of designer items—not just Birkins, but other high-end accessories—began popping up everywhere. Essentially, people didn’t want their Kardashian-like lifestyles and seemingly wealthy reputations to suffer, even if their pocketbooks were literally in the dump. So they turned to the symbols of prosperity—fake Birkin bags and all.

“Clothes and shoes were even turning up as copies, but bags are the number-one copy,” said Ms. Collette.

Her point? Dr. Allmen may have received the Birkin as a gift or perhaps purchased it somewhere else, the store owner says, but she did not purchase a fake bag from Collette Consignment.

Ms. Collette said Dr. Allmen should have been tipped off about the bag, wherever she bought it, when she paid only $3,500. Even in 2005, for a previously owned, authentic Hermes Birkin, the price tag should have been much more than $3,500, according to Ms. Collette. “I have six in my store right now, and the cheapest is $16,000,” she said.

Ms. Collette expressed sympathy for Dr. Allmen, saying, “She used to be a very good customer of mine.” Dr. Allmen had bought handbags, clothes and more from Ms. Collette in the past, the latter said.

The store owner said Dr. Allmen has failed to produce the actual bag or produce a receipt for the purchase of an Hermes Birkin. She acknowledged that Dr. Allmen did have a receipt for purchasing an orange bag from her, but said it does not specify that it was an Hermes Birkin that was sold. However, in an email this week, Dr. Allmen stated she does have a receipt from Collette Consignment that specifically states the purchase of an Orange Birkin with the store owner’s initials, next to the description. Dr. Allmen failed to produce the receipt, however, at the discretion of her lawyer. “My lawyer forbids photographing it, as it is a critical part of my case showing that Tisha herself committed the fraud,” she said.

Still, the store owner shows concern for her former customer, Dr. Allmen. “I feel terrible that she has been duped somehow, somewhere ... I’m not sure ... it’s a little bit weird,” Ms. Collette said. She also called it “all a little strange that it’s happening all these years later.”

The Birkin made a name for itself long before the Kardashian sisters could even spell Hermes. At the height of its popularity, circa 2004, “Sex in the City” devoted an entire episode to the cultural phenomenon that was, and still is, the Hermes Birkin. A salesman put it perfectly when he once told Samantha “It’s not a bag ... it’s a Birkin.” And at that, Samantha had to have it. The problem? The waiting list was longer than the larger-than-life price tag itself.

Samantha learned what every other woman in New York knows: A Birkin sets you apart from other people, because a Birkin is not just any bag. Materialistic socialites, Samantha included, know that a Birkin is not just an expensive accessory, but a status symbol as well.

Who wouldn’t want a Birkin? They are more than bags—they are statements of material wealth. In 2011, it was reported by InStyle that Kourtney, Kim and Khloe together owned 13 Birkins; and the numbers only went up from there. Kim Kardashian, arguably the most famous of the Kardashian trio, received a larger-than-life, custom-painted Hermes Birkin courtesy of her then-fiancé Kanye West this past Christmas.

Ms. Collette has owned Collette Consignment for 14 years, and she maintains that you don’t get the reputation she has by selling fake purses and tricking customers into thinking they are authentic. “Every single one of the bags in every single one of my stores are authenticated,” she assured. “I can spot a fake really easily. If any one of them needs authentication, we outsource to an authenticator ... especially for high-end items.”

There are a few key things to look for when purchasing an Hermes Birkin, Ms. Collette said. Most important, underneath the strap there is a stamp that says “Hermes.” The inside of the zipper also contains the same label. Each and every authentic Birkin bag on the market is handmade. When buying anything designer, craftsmanship and quality are two qualities to look for in differentiating genuine from counterfeit items, and an Hermes Birkin is no exception, Ms. Collette said. Before she finalizes any deal regarding an Hermes Birkin, Ms. Collette said, she looks for these marks of authenticity.

Regarding the pending lawsuit, Ms. Collette said that she and her attorney have filed a motion to dismiss Ms. Allmen’s complaint and are waiting to hear back. “I’m just letting the lawyers handle it at this point. I have nothing negative to say about her at all ... just letting the courts handle it,” she said.

Dr. Allmen, on the other hand, said she was “appalled to have Tisha Collette be so despicable in her business dealings. One must do the right thing and make Tisha Collette responsible,” she said.

“I’m not in any way concerned. The judge already threw the case out once,” Ms. Collette maintained. The store owner had a piece of advice for fellow consignment shop owners: “Be careful. What’s to protect the consignment store owners?” she said.

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