Russian crime gangs took me from designer bags to dirty loos
Exclusive: He was making 'perfect' counterfeit Hermes handbags for $50,000 a pop in Paris - now he's cleaning toilets in Tasmania.
Former Hermes leatherworker Romain Chollet-Ricard, who moved to Australia after he was involved in a $35 million fake bag scheme, has vowed to fight a six-year jail sentence and $2.3 million fine handed down in France.
The 41-year-old "working class gentleman" claimed he was "manipulated" by Russian organised crime figures who exploited him because of the poor wages paid by Hermes.
Hermes, which was started in 1837, is one of the world's most famous luxury brands, with an annual revenue of $10 billion.
The company also makes the Birkin bag, and the Kelly bag, named after the late actor Grace Kelly, who was the Princess of Monaco.
Chollet-Ricard insisted he was not a fugitive, despite living in secluded Swansea, about two hours drive from Hobart, where he runs a backpacker hostel.
And his lawyer claimed COVID-19 travel restrictions, not a desire to run from the law, was behind his video link appearance in the Paris criminal court last month.
Chollet-Ricard did say the money went to his head and he became an "a**hole" who demanded first class treatment at five-star hotels at the height of the scheme.
"I'm still in lots of shock today," he said, when asked about his sentence in an exclusive interview with The Hobart Mercury.
"In France, paedophiles get out in two years and walk down the streets with the people they (abused).
"Will (politicians) go (to) jail for that long? I don't think so, I think this is just an exception and it's just for me."
Chollet-Ricard said he had given into temptation when offered a way to make more money on the side of his Hermes wage.
"It's hard to say no," he said.
"I think they think I have a lot of money hiding somewhere, but if I had I would not be here to manage a hostel - it's a hard job, I can (barely) afford to live in Tasmania."
Chollet-Ricard was accused of being the ring leader in the scheme that used genuine leather and materials to make Hermes bags, which are popular with celebrities including Kim Kardashian and Victoria Beckham.
They were sold through a network connected to Chollet-Ricard on the black market for up to four times the retail price, with a long waiting list for the legitimate exclusive bags making desperate customers pay almost anything to secure the status symbol.
The company only makes 8,500 Birkin bags a year.
The Paris criminal court handed down its ruling in February, following a lengthy investigation, over the alleged scam that ran between 2008 and 2012.
Chollet-Ricard and the group of 23 others were charged with offences including intellectual property infringement, criminal breach of trust and the forgery of the handbags, over the making and selling of hundreds of bags, according to reports.
One customer, a Russian arms dealer named as Dmitry C, was given a 12-month suspended jail sentence for knowingly buying a fake bag.
Alexandre Lazaregue, Chollet-Ricard's Paris-based lawyer, said: "Romain is a gentleman who comes from the working class. If he was involved in this case, it is because Russian Mafiosi approach the workers of Hermes to encourage them to contribute to counterfeiting," Chollet-Ricard's lawyer Alexndre Lazaregue told News Corp Australia.
"Hermes pays its workers poorly because they monopolise this leather bags market. Hermes is pursuing a policy of scarcity of bags by imposing quotas on customers to acquire the bags. Organised crime manipulates workers to entice them. This is how Romain got to know this person. He has been a pawn in this business and has been manipulated. We did appeal so the decision is cancelled now. Romain is innocent for now, we wait (for the) appeal in two years."
Some of their customers paid $50,000 for each bag - more than four times the $12,000 retail price.
The scheme netted tens of millions of dollars, with queue-jumping buyers getting their hands on bags years before legitimate buyers on waiting lists.
Chollet-Ricard moved to Tasmania five years ago, and according to company documents bought the Swansea Budget Lodge, which trades as the local backpackers.
He was also previously a director of OB Tas, between November 2016 and October 2017, with an address listed at Dolphin Sands.
Chollet-Ricard said he was tempted by the money on offer in the scheme.
"When you have a lot of money like that, you become a little bit (of) an a**hole," he said.
"I was the kind of customer that I don't like today. I was thinking like 'I am a king'.
"Today, I have to clean the toilet, I have to deal with very annoying customers sometimes. So it's a good test to have in life that made me become someone better."
The father of two said he hoped he would be able to see and "hug" his two children aged 13 and 8 who currently live in Thailand with his ex-wife.
"Even a sentence half that time would be bad for me," he said.
"I did everything for my kids. I am not dangerous."
Chollet-Ricard said he would do "anything I can" to appeal the sentence, starting with challenging whether the bags had fit the definition of "counterfeit" items.
"The customers knew what the bags were and they were fine with it - they were good quality," he said.
"You can see on the market everywhere in Asia a lot of fake Gucci and fake Vuitton.
"I will appeal and do anything I can because I need to be there for my kids."
Chollet-Ricard attended the Paris court hearing via video link, which was organised through Tasmanian police.
However, Mr Lazaregue claimed that his sentence was harsher because he did not attend in person, which he said was because of coronavirus travel restrictions.
"My client lives in Australia, he has a business there. This case was a long time ago, it's a very old case, 10/12 years ago," Mr Lazaregue said.
"The court was excessive and disconnected from reality - we will be appealing now.
"The new sentence will be two to three years away, the time of appeal is very long."
The case was uncovered during a wiretap of a suspect accused of being involved in the theft of bags, which inadvertently revealed the clandestine network.
The appeal will take several years, and Mr Lazaregue said during that time under French law the conviction was not enforceable.
"He's not a fugitive, he lives in Tasmania. My client would like to appeal the sentence," Mr Lazaregue said.
"It's a question of copyright and it's not absolutely clear in France - the big (luxury) industry wants to protect the market from competition.
"Hermes and the big companies do not accept the competition, and that's why this is not finished."
Hermes and the Australian Federal Police declined to comment.
Originally published as Russian crime gangs took me from designer bags to dirty loos