October 9, 2018
By Noelani Piters
REAL CAREERS: HOW OUR CHIEF AUTHENTICATOR LANDED A TOP GIG IN LUXURY
How does one become a luxury goods authenticator, stylist or creative director? Where do you begin when there’s no clear-cut path for your desired profession? In our new Real Careers series, we ask members of The RealReal about how they got started in the industry, their day-to-day routines & advice for navigating the world of fashion and its infinite possibilities.
Meet Graham Wetzbarger, our Chief Authenticator here at The RealReal. If you’re a regular RealStyle reader, you’ve likely soaked up some of his vast knowledge of luxury by reading our authentication posts. Graham sets the standard for spotting the real deal when we receive the latest Gucci bags, Phoebe Philo-era Celine ready-to-wear and vintage Chanel. And he’s well-versed in fine jewelry, watches, art and home decor — he’s kept up with the expansion of our company, after all.
Our Chief Authenticator is as warm and effervescent as he is knowledgeable, and speaks with an authority that comes from years of parsing real from faux. We sat down with Graham to learn about how he got his start, his role at The RealReal and what it really takes to be a luxury authenticator.
When did you first become interested in fashion?
I’ve always been interested in fashion, textiles, color, silhouette. I grew up in Seattle where there was very little fashion, but I would read my Vogues, Ws and Harpers. I was just curious. I read everything I could, I saw every documentary that existed, checked out every book in the library. This was pre-internet. I would go into Louis Vuitton, and to the couture section of Nordstrom all the time, and touch everything. They probably hated me.
The celebrities of the fashion world at that time were designers, and I decided that’s what I would be, a fashion designer. But boy was I wrong. I never worked a day in fashion design after college. It took me a while to get my bearings, but eventually I discovered that it was luxury that I really loved. And it would be luxury that would turn into a career.
“One of the key differences to spotting the new Dior Saddle bag is that the D on the hardware is slightly more bold, and the serifs have rounded edges,” explains Graham.
How did your formal education and early work experience help guide your career path?
I attended Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and earned a BFA in Fashion Design with a minor in Art History. A fashion design program should teach you about construction, textiles, and fabrications, and thankfully that’s what I took away from it. Those are very important components for authentication — understanding how something is made, how thoughtfully it’s designed and what it’s composed of. My art history background has helped me mentally and physically catalog pieces, find reference points and use context clues to understand an item in the larger scheme of a brand’s history … to identify, date and authenticate.
During college, I’d go down to Canal Street — known for its knockoffs — and learn, observe, see how counterfeiters glued the labels on or attached the hardware. And then I’d go uptown and check out the real thing. Since I was fifteen, I’d always worked in retail. I made garbage money but I wanted to be with the clothing. I was also lucky to intern with several companies that designed with a lot of leather, so I became familiar with hides, dye techniques, leather types and how constructing pieces with leather differs from constructing with fabric.
What was your “big break” into luxury?
No one in luxury design was hiring creatives when I got out of college. The recession put my career on hold. So I took a job at a company called Bag Borrow Or Steal because it was working with luxury — specifically, rental handbags. It evolved into a buy-sell-trade business, so we started to sell our inventory that was no longer renting, and our customers wanted to sell their own possessions. But we had to make sure the product was authentic.
I’d always played “spot the fake” at the airport growing up and had been successful in finding authentic treasures thrifting and online, so I started going down a research rabbit hole, learning all I could learn. Louis Vuitton, then Chanel, then Louboutin shoes, Fendi Zucca, Dior Saddle bags, it was this brand and that brand, building one at a time. We were lucky enough to have a warehouse full of authentic product that I could pull from and compare to customers’ pieces, so that was extremely helpful. I can’t tell you how many times I’d go into a Louis Vuitton store and turn out a lining or look for a date code. You have to teach yourself because there’s no one to teach you.
“The heat stamp on an Hermès Kelly will be located beneath the front sangle, or strap, and will be either silver or gold to match the hardware,” notes Graham. “Some will have a colorless debossed stamp.”
After five years at Bag Borrow Or Steal, I was lucky enough to come to The RealReal. That’s when I was reacquainted with ready-to-wear, my long lost love. I’d been focused on leather goods because the vast majority of what was counterfeited at the time were handbags, belts and wallets. They’re very recognizable (logo-rific), they’re one-size-fits-all, and their cost-per-wear is lower. A Gucci logo all over a dress? You never saw that, once upon a time.
At The RealReal, I started educating myself on fine jewelry and watches as well. I got the learning bug again. It reminded me how much I loved knowledge. I took classes at Christie’s and GIA. We kept launching more categories so I had to keep learning, and learning so that I could teach our teams of authenticators and recruit experts. If you don’t know anything about jewelry, how are you supposed to recruit a gemologist? You have to be able to speak that language fluently and start to establish standard operating procedures and best practices. Without order, there’s chaos, and you can’t grow with chaos.
What’s a day in the life like for you at The RealReal?
My day to day has changed a lot over five years. I used to spend my time physically authenticating items and training employees, but now we’ve built a team of more than a hundred experts who inspect thousands of items every day. I’m now fortunate enough to be able to spend most of my time advocating the values of authenticity internally and externally, as well as conducting ongoing research and developing new authentication techniques.
Speaking of new techniques, when a new product hits the retail market, how do you create guidelines for authenticating it?
When a new sneaker like the Balenciaga Triple S comes out that I know is going to be hot — and if it’s hot, knocked off — I’ll look at the real thing and note key components that counterfeiters will likely miss. I’ll take out the sock liner and look underneath. How is the insole supposed to look? Does it have a brand or marking on it? I’ll look at the inside of a piece: the brand tag, country of origin labels, finishing of seams, little things that they’re probably going to skimp on, small details.
The more items you inspect, the faster the learning curve. If you’re only seeing a couple items a day, it’s going to take you forever to learn anything. If you’re only looking at items in pictures, you’re going to miss so much. You have to get the product in your hands. You might be able to tell something’s counterfeit from a photo but you’d be hard pressed to confirm it’s genuine. Photos don’t tell the whole story.
“The Balenciaga Triple S’s sockliner may or may not have the brand’s logo and size stamp, but it will always have a pattern of four lines at the heel of the foot on the bottom of the sockliner,” says Graham.