So I Bought a Case of Fake Watches on Canal Street

So yes, last week I bought an entire case of fake watches on Canal Street. I’ve been seeing this guy for the longest time with the most beautiful cases of watches, and a couple weeks ago things clicked, that this would be an important thing to save and document.

And you know what was the most nerve-wracking part? Trying to explain to Sara what I had done. And why.

This was one of those relationship situations where you have to make the infraction and then hope for mercy. And there were a few long blinks as she was processing what was she was seeing, my son next to a massive case of fake Rolexes, but I am happy to say that I am still alive, and a very lucky man that she was able to see the method to the madness, or at least pretend to.

42 watches daddy.

I’ve shared this documentary project in evolving forms with you here. It started out called Greene Street, then I expanded the area for the story and called it Crossroads of Luxury, and now the project is in a more final form, called HYPE.

That’s the fun of the mailing list format, it’s a journal where you can share and test things out, and where you all get to see the progress and change, and which hopefully gives you some ideas of similarly ridiculous things to do.

Communicating can be a big part of this, explaining the thought process and finding words for it, eventually makes the idea clearer.

And it’s been massively insightful to be able to take people to these areas and share perspectives about it. Occasionally, new parts of the story would jump out of the conversations. And new ideas for photos as well.

I think it’s getting close to its final form, and ultimately, I want to show this work alongside a variety of the goods.

You can view the project and this full text below in a web browser here, HYPE, and if you’re interested in exploring and photographing this area with me, check out the photography workshop on Oct 7+8th.

Pardon the workshop plugs, but they fund the ability to do this stuff, and this is the only place I advertise them so I need to throw in reminders (and they’re super awesome).

Here’s the current writeup, majorly evolved from when I shared it as Crossroads of Luxury, but still needs some work.

“I see what ya’ll are doing!”

The corner of Prince and Broadway is an entryway into SoHo, and a gathering space, but not one to stay long in. Except for the guy who stands there and yells when he sees the camera, even though I always smile.

This man is there a decent amount, and just like everyone else here, he seems to be searching for something.

On this corner, everyone looks up, glancing at what others are wearing or at the shimmering windows that seem to change monthly.

Each season, fashions spread here at the speed of a virus. At first, it’s a few, until everyone is suddenly in a new uniform. There was the summer when everyone wore t-shirts with animals that looked like them. There was the great Beats headphone takeover, where everyone flaunted chunky headphones instead of the small white Apple earbuds, and soon after Apple bought Beats.

Recently, chunky cardigans gave way to denim, which gave way to military olive green cargo pants and attire. It’s surreal watching viral videos from the war in Ukraine and then seeing skinny people in military-inspired outfits with sunglasses and sometimes unforgiving stares.

For the last ten years, about three times a week, I’ve taken photographers and tourists from around the world down a specific stretch of SoHo and Tribeca, a ten-block walk, the same exact ten blocks each time.

Greene Street and Canal Street, the two intersecting streets that primarily make up this story, connect in a symbiotic struggle.

Near the northern end of Greene Street and Prince, is the Louis Vuitton store, a prime destination in itself, a museum of Bernard Arnault’s luxury-inspired ascent to becoming the wealthiest person in the world.

On the southernmost end of Greene, four blocks down at Canal Street, fake Louis Vuitton bags line the streets, almost like a gateway to the brand. A first hit.

The buildings themselves are the finest collection of cast-iron buildings in the world, once premiere factory showroom buildings built in the mid-to-late 1800s.

Above the storefronts, immigrants originally worked in sweatshop conditions, then the factories left and artists moved into the massive but derelict spaces beginning in the ’50s and into the heyday of the ‘70s. Then the galleries moved in.

In the mid-90s, the real estate values skyrocketed, and now a majority of the above floors have been converted into million-dollar gilded spaces.

Yet despite its varied history, fashion and hype have always been at the heart of the neighborhood.

While the ideas of hype and exclusivity aren’t new, these photographs were taken during the rise of virality and influencer culture, as the idea of luxury and streetwear intertwined, a cultural shift that has been placed on steroids with the speed of social media.

The neighborhood has become a physical manifestation of the consumption and hype culture spreading throughout the web. SoHo became Disney clean, with people often recording themselves strutting diagonally across the street. Haring and Basquiat collaborations dominate, and a massive gallery called Eden sells equally massive $30,000 tacky Warhol-inspired sculptures. Recently, I saw a pair of Purple Air Jordan 1’s encased in glass on a marble pedestal over a marble warehouse crate.

Last week, at 11am on a random Friday morning, in the rain, were more than 10 people waiting outside the Bathing Ape store for $95 limited-edition shorts. The store has lines out front the most often, and sometimes they stretch around the block.

BAPE was sued by Nike for copying their designs, and even sell Rolex copies called Bapex, which I wonder if they are made in the same factories as the fake Rolexes on Canal.

Similar to the second row, 5th fake Rolex in the case.

Many other stores attract lines as well. The Amiri store a block away sells $350 black t-shirts, and the clothing is often worn by celebrities in the front row of Knicks games. People around Canal wear the knockoffs.

Lines are central to this story. While some of the branding may be abusive and predatory, the lines themselves can be full of inspiration. While one can think of this part of the city as being about consumption and competition, it is also necessary to think about it in terms of community.

Like a tailgate, these lines collect people and give them a place to interact. With the breakdown of communities and culture and the rise in disconnection due to social media, gatherings like this become even more important.

The people here often err on the side of the creative class, using clothing as a form of art and self-expression, and they often end up working to spread and share community in creative ways. And they’re the ones with the energy to stand in the rain on a Friday morning.

Over the years, I began paying attention to the types of sneakers people wear, as the lines are often for limited-edition shoes. Recently, dad-wear has come in style (coinciding with the rise of the cardigans), and the brand New Balance is being suddenly repurposed. For my entire 41-year-old life, it was a sneaker only worn by the 40-and-up crowd. And now, in a year, the same exact sneaker in exponential varieties make up nearly a third of the sneakers in the lines.

So I guess that means I will never be wearing New Balances. Recently, a store called Stone Island had a New Balance collaboration, and there was a line of about 30 people outside.

The deeper you look here, the more you search, the more surreal it feels, remnants of rich lives or people trying to feel rich for a moment, or just to feel something.

Once you turn onto the bustling Canal Street, this veneer quickly peels into reality. But the spirit doesn’t.

A red neon sign that says Silence greets you high up in an apartment window, although the building has just started renovations, so I’m not hopeful for its return. I once saw a bare male ass pressed up next to the sign, but was too far away for a photo.

Under the building and scaffolding, you can buy handbags, watches, sneakers, and from jars of weed. A few months ago, the police raided the street and filled three truckloads of goods. They said they netted $10 million worth of product, but that ridiculous number would only be true at luxury prices.

Here there is an Origin sneaker store with red ropes creating the feeling of exclusivity. Inside are sneakers wrapped in plastic and selling for multi-hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. Directly outside, fake Jordans which would clearly destroy your feet with any relative basketball activity, are spread out on blankets.

On this stretch of Canal sits a Drake’s store, a very hip and popular high-end East London clothing brand that sells $400 scarves and lots of corduroy by a well-dressed young mustached man. Next to it is an old rubber store, an empty storefront that sold expensive streetwear for six months and just went out of business, a few galleries that clearly have short leases, old lighting supply stores, tourist and trinket shops, a few more empty storefronts, a few weed stores, and the sneaker museum.

There is also a sneaker purchaser called Champion Goods, often with lines of people and garbage bags of boxes from their collections. It seems to be a reliable predictor of the economy, as the lines of people selling their pandemic collections reached down the block this past winter.

In the old Pearl Paint building, now renovated, is a high-end furniture store with apartments above renting between $8,000-$12,000 a month (2023 prices). Below are fake handbags and one of the weed shops.

Broadway and Canal, just four blocks south of where we began and much more diverse, is another people-watching Mecca, with a wider variety of just as stylish fashion. Everyone moves even faster, except for those buying bags.

On warm evenings and weekends, spread out on the corner are hundreds of pieces of fake goods with many excited people exploring. In the background, the Woolworth Building overlooks like a familiar friend. Once the tallest building in the world from 1913 until 1930, it now hosts a $79 million 5-story, nearly 10,000-square-foot penthouse apartment in the spire, which has sat on the market for around seven years since its conversion.

Ironically, the only thing that may be worth its price in this neighborhood sits unsold.

A final right turn down Cortlandt Alley and we come full circle to an old world. At 72 Walker Street, a block away from million-dollar apartments, is one of the last remaining sweatshop buildings. The entrance teems with activity as they unload fabric or load up dresses heading uptown to be sold. A fascinating mix of dress and dressmakers walk by.

For 10 years, I’ve watched this walk change. Buildings were renovated, luxury stores jumped from storefront to storefront, fast fashion and social media beating our emotions down and our consumption habits into an unsustainable mess.

Nearly every week, I wonder, how long can this last? And yet it keeps pulsating, day after day, drop after drop. Just with new shoes on.

You can view more of the project here, HYPE.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top

Download The New York Photographer's Travel Guide

The New York Photographer's Travel Guide

Sign up and you will also receive the twice-a-month Glass City Photo Column, which includes:

  • Commentary on Photography, Creativity, and Urbanism
  • Photographer and History Features
  • Photo Book and Project Write-ups
  • Fun photo insights and inspirations