MOONACHIE, N.J. – Amid the hum and squeak of conveyor belts inside a warehouse outside New York, Keith Harris picks up a pair of light blue Yeezy 350 V2 sneakers and inhales deeply.
Harris is an authenticator at StockX, and it’s his job to sort grails that might sell for hundreds – if not thousands – of dollars on the resale platform from nearly identical, but worthless counterfeits. One of the secrets, he says, is in a shoe’s odor.
“Every shoe has a distinct smell that will make me say yes or no instantly,” Harris explained. “Of course, we go through the other stuff, just to verify that assumption of what we think is wrong with the shoe, but if the smell is off, and the box seems off too, you have more reason.”
The V2s pass the smell test, and will eventually be listed on StockX for $259. The stakes are higher with the next pair he examines: black Yeezy Boost 350 V2s, a holy grail in sneaker culture that can easily fetch $1,000 or more. Harris, wearing an Allen Iverson T-shirt and his dreadlocks tied neatly underneath a green Detroit Tigers baseball cap, takes a whiff and grins.
“This shoe has no odor,” he said. “I’ve seen this shoe a thousand times, so I’m already noticing the thread is different from the standard materials, but I’m also looking for the 350 smell and there’s nothing there.”
Harris has been authenticating sneakers and streetwear at StockX for almost three years. A sneakerhead who’s been collecting since fifth grade and now owns hundreds of pairs, Harris was working in the floral industry before a friend told him about the job.
A decade ago, someone like Harris might have worked in a shoe store or applied to jobs at Nike or Reebok. Today, a growing number of sneakerheads, bag snobs and couture addicts too are employed by resale sites, sifting finds from fakes.
Though not a new job – vintage shops and auction houses have employed fashion authenticators for decades – competition for expert eyes and noses is heating up as online resale start-ups race to scale their operations. During the first six months of 2021, sneaker authenticator job postings increased 40 percent, according to data from Monster, while listings for streetwear authenticators increased 83 percent.
Vestiaire Collective, Rebag, Goat, Grailed, Fashionphile and eBay are just some of the resale companies currently hiring authenticators. The RealReal offers a $2,500 hiring bonus for its positions, and isn’t the only one dangling incentives to lure applicants.
The promise that the used luxury handbag or rare streetwear item on sale is the real thing is at the heart of the resale boom. Ensuring that is actually the case is a growing expense for resale services, where sales are expected to hit $15 billion this year in sales, up from $9 billion in 2020, according to a report from GlobalData and ThredUp. As thousands more items head to warehouses daily, companies must train an army of new authenticators to separate the counterfeits from legitimate goods.
It’s a race to build the strongest team.
“The resale companies that grew the fastest were the ones that had the authentication promise, and now everyone wants that same level of consumer trust,” said Graham Wetzbarger, the former chief authenticator at The RealReal who now runs his own authentication business. “It’s a race to build the strongest team.”
From Amateurs to Authenticators
In practice, resale sites often rely on amateur enthusiasts like Harris – as well as employees who’ve had experience working in customer service or retail.
“We would love to hire more people with full knowledge [of authentication] but there aren’t so many out there,” said Guilherme Faria, co-founder and chief operating officer of Luxclusif, an authentication company that sells pre-owned luxury handbags and accessories to companies like Vestiaire Collective. “So we look for people who have super attention to detail and a love for fashion.”
At the same time, counterfeiters are getting more sophisticated, drawn by the explosion in resale in recent years. Some £500 billion worth of counterfeit products are sold annually around the globe, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Footwear, leather goods and clothing are the three most common counterfeit categories to be seized by customs agencies worldwide.
“We are seeing counterfeits come with fake receipts, tissue paper, brand stickers, boxes and shopping bags,” said Caroline Di Russo, who runs a luxury authentication company in Perth, Australia.
The RealReal looks for candidates with backgrounds in niche categories; someone who worked in design might be familiar with fabrication and stitching, for instance, said Rachel Vaisman, vice president of merchandising operations.
We look for people who have super attention to detail and a love for fashion.
Authenticators who are knowledgeable about specific luxury brands, or even specific products, are highly coveted.
“Someone who knows everything about Bulgari jewellery or Nike Airforce 1s or Supreme T-shirts stands apart,” Wetzbarger said.
Amateur authenticators – even when they might have a genuine love of the products they’re evaluating, and are working under more seasoned authenticators – won’t be enough to weed out fakes, some secondhand fashion veterans say. The RealReal came under fire in 2019 after media outlets reported the company had tasked copywriters with authenticating luxury products, and some employees told CNBC they received little training before being put to work examining merchandise. (In a statement, The RealReal said CNBC’s report does “not accurately represent the depth of our team’s expertise and the thoroughness of our authentication process” and that “every member of our authentication team receives ongoing authentication training, including daily training updates”). In 2018, Chanel sued The RealReal for allegedly selling fake versions of its handbags (both sides entered mediation in April).
“Can you imagine Sotheby’s giving an employee a brief training and then letting them authenticate art?” said Cameron Silver, owner of the Los Angeles-based consignment shop Decades.
The Battle For Talent
Wetzbarger said resale companies are hungry for authenticators in high-growth categories like sneakers and streetwear, as well as watches, where experts are older and retiring. They’re also starting to look beyond major cities; many authentication centres today are based near New York, where streetwear culture runs deep. As sales grow more geographically diverse, so will the fight for talent. The RealReal, for one, just opened a new centre in Phoenix.
Someone who knows everything about Bulgari jewellery or Nike Airforce 1s or Supreme t-shirts stands apart.
“It’s going to be harder to get the people with that passion and interest for fashion who either live in Middle America or don’t mind relocating,” said Wetzbarger.
Signing bonuses aside, entry-level authentication jobs can pay just over the minimum wage. StockX authenticators examine about 45 sneakers an hour and can work 10-hour days during the holiday season.
The job does have opportunities to advance. Most resale sites have multiple levels of authenticators, allowing employees to climb the ranks once they do extended training and pass tests. Faria of Luxclusif said resale companies regard their training programs as their secret sauce.
“As you learn with us internally, that is where the rich career path comes in,” Vaisman said.
Jagruti Garg, a junior authenticator at The RealReal said she’s gained “encyclopedic knowledge” of Versace and Hermes prints and patterns after authenticating so many scarves. She’s also seen rare pieces from Alexander McQueen’s early collection, with the late designer’s hair sewed into the garment.
“I’ve learned weirdly specific details,” said Garg. It’s not all so glamorous: the job also involves “a lot of data entry,” she added.
“There’s a lot of spreadsheet work, which can be tedious,” she said.
Jeter Hernandez, a StockX authenticator who is starting his own streetwear label, said the quotas are tough, but authentication is a good start for aspiring designers.
“I see a little bit of everything, from Gucci to Alexander McQueen to Dior and Off-White,” he said. “It feels like a good way to learn.”