India has always been a complicated retail market for fashion. There are high street stores and fashion streets, couturiers and neighbourhood tailors who will replicate their designs, and a mass of customers who practice price consciousness as a fine art. In this rumpus an Instagram handle is forcing a conversation about plagiarism by designers and brands, what inspiration actually is, and the fine line that separates trends from trendsetters.
The handlers of the Insta-account, @dietsabya, accused designer Nikhil Thampi of plagiarising a dress from the autumn/winter 2018 runway collection of New York-based designer, Brandon Maxwell. Thampi, who works out of Mumbai, was quick to reply on Instagram but chose to take a shot at the messenger rather than defend his design. “One must be original to point fakes out,” he said, referring to the fact that @dietsabya is, in turn, inspired by the New York-based fashion watchdog, @diet_prada.
Maxwell, one of the most coveted American designers of the moment, counts Lady Gaga, Gwyneth Paltrow and Karlie Kloss as his clients. While it could well be that Thampi was inspired by his designs, the popularity and wide-ranging reactions to what @dietsabya posted beg the question – where does one draw the line between inspiration and imitation?
“If that dress were something completely against our label, I would understand the accusation, but this was something I would not personally think was justified,” said Thampi, when contacted by Scroll.in. “If you went back and saw our body of work, it’s clear we have produced similar designs in the past for our label.”
Besides Thampi, @dietsabya accused Manish Malhotra of displaying a white caped bridal gown in his Pune 2018 show that was very similar to one created by Zuhair Murad, which was featured in Vogue in October 2017. It also alleged that one of Amit Aggarwal’s designs in 2017 bore more than a passing resemblance to a piece by Versace in 2016.
The flipside of this issue is that prominent Indian designers have, for years, been complaining about knockoffs of their creations being sold in markets like Delhi’s Chandni Chowk. “It is very disheartening,” Rohit Bal said in 2015. “Plagiarism is harmful to the fashion industry.”
What the law says
The law surrounding fashion is quite strict. Fashion products are not covered under copyrights because they are utilitarian, that is, they are meant to be worn. The Copyright Act protects sketches made by designers as artistic works. However, a provision in the same Act stipulates that if such work is reproduced over 50 times, it loses artistic merit and thus copyright no longer applies.
The Design Act 2000 protects fashion products such as dresses and jewellery. It also protects silhouettes if the designer registers them with the Controller of Designs, whose Patent Office is in Kolkata, with branches in New Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai. The Design Act has two conditions for registration – that the design is novel, and registration precedes the fashion product’s introduction to the market.
Last month, in a first, the designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee won the National Intellectual Property Award 2018 as the “top Indian company, or organisation, for designs and commercialization”. In a statement released on his social media, Mukherjee said, “The fashion industry has been victim to piracy for quite some time…However, we have chosen to take the path less travelled and started investing our efforts heavily in getting our designs registered…We are grateful for the IPR laws, because of which we have been able to protect our creative contributions and retain exclusivity in artistry.”
Despite this small success taking the legal route, the fashion industry, by and large, has yet to place their faith in the legal system. “The laws don’t work in the business like fashion – even if you’ve registered your design, once the copy is made there’s no taking it back,” said Deepthi Sasidharan, Director of EKA Archiving, a resource for cultural research. “You can only call out and sue. And to do that, you need to be very well-established designers.”
In 2008, Shwetasree Majumder, an expert on intellectual property, was the lead advocate for designer Tarun Tahiliani’s case for pattern infringement against Renu Tandon in the Delhi High Court. Tahiliani alleged that designer Tandon was selling kaftans in Pakistan that were printed with his original patterns. Eventually, the matter was settled out of court through a mediator, whose report said that, according to Tandon, the offending printed fabric was “not created but merely sourced by her from a third party”.
Veteran designers such as Tahiliani say the judicial process can be too long to accommodate a fashion cycle. Tahiliani, who has been the victim of plagiarism many times, lamented that one of his cases dragged on in court for years – “I mean even the printer who printed it had died in between.”
To counteract such issues, Majumder recommends registering designs before they enter the market, and to treat their work more like a business – “My advice for designers is always you don’t have to get registration for every single garment, but [you should] if you have a unique silhouette, if you have a pattern. I mean it’s all very well to say, ‘I’m in a creative industry. I don’t think of these things’, but designers are also businesspeople. They’re in a business like everyone, so one has to be sensible about it and get your registrations.”
It has become a trend for high-value brand designers such as Anju Modi or Tahiliani to get design registrations, but people in the industry say that lesser-known designers can’t afford that kind of protection. “Not even designers who are a few rungs below someone like Tahiliani,” said Sasidharan. According to her, the protection of fashion lies in archiving the work for future reference. She hopes to see institutions and museums dedicated to Indian fashion over the next decade or two.
For instance, EKA helped set up the Anokhi Museum of Hand Printing in Jaipur, which curates and displays the oldest and best of Rajasthani hand and block printing works. Sasidharan is also currently helping veteran designer Wendell Rodricks archive his collections.
She believes that calling out plagiarism and the role that social media plays in today’s world can really help the wronged. As it happened earlier this year, when @diet_prada pointed out that a print very similar to one custom-created by Orijit Sen for his Delhi-based brand, The People Tree depicting India was on a Dior dress featured on the January cover of Elle India.
On January 23, @diet_prada featured the post with the caption, “Another day, another luxury company bypassing an opportunity to work with actual artisans.” Neither People Tree nor Dior released a statement on this matter but when contacted by Scroll.in, Sen appeared determined to end this alleged infringement – “We have repeatedly asserted that the pattern in question is our property, and we are willing to fight for it.”
“Typically with bigger brands, the smaller brand is at a loss – they don’t have the money to hire lawyers or put out newspaper ads to claim ownership,” said Sasidharan. “It happens very frequently.”
As it did in summer 2017 when Ragini Ahuja’s signature leather appliqué-work from her spring/summer 2017 line for her label, Ikai, popped up in the spring/summer 2018 collection of French design house, Antik Batik. Despite getting in touch with the label, Ahuja was not able to resolve the issue and so she had to turn to social media.
“We started a social media movement which forced them to pull the styles off their e-shop and social media, but they’re shamelessly selling from the stores,” Ahuja said. “Antik Batik is making profits from one of our designs and maligning our image. More than any monetary gain we intend to make Antik Batik’s design head Gabriella Cortese realise that young Indian labels are global. We are no longer a part of a third world country with no access to technology or means to travel.”
Majumder agreed with her – “Copying isn’t just about loss. It’s about the dilution of the brand. Like today, many people might avoid Michael Kors or Guess because we don’t know if it’s a copy or not and thus has become diluted as brands. That, in itself, could cost loss from their intended customers.”
Social media’s roles
“With so much of access via social media and the internet, digitation of fashion and brands, the minute something is even inspired or copied from somewhere else, it’s out in the open,” said Sukanya Rangaraj Seth, who heads luxury projects for the publishing giant Condé Nast in India. “So I think designers need to be more careful about how they take inspiration and we [the customers] have access to everything and are not so easily fooled. People want originality now. No one wants to get caught on camera wearing a knock-off.”
The popularity of self-appointed fashion watchdogs such as @diet_prada and @dietsabya is testament to this. Both accounts grew over 10k followers within months of creating their handle. The original watchdog now has a thriving merchandising business that calls out Kim Kardashian for copying French brand Vetements and Comme de Garçons. Their most famous product is a T-shirt called Kim des Garçons.
Veteran designer Wendell Rodricks believes much of the copying comes from a get-rich attitude. “Someone like Tarun [Tahliani] and Sabya and I, we do research into our work and invest a lot of time and money into creating a piece of fashion. But, with newer designers – so many come and go – I feel like they don’t want to put in the investment but they do want to get rich quickly, and that’s the mentality now.”