Copycat, copycat, where have you been?

Christian Louboutin

Christian Louboutin with his trademark red sole shoes

One brilliant designer – and there are only a few on that mantel in Pakistan – will create a pattern that has the potential to stir up a nationwide trend. Consider the multi-panel ankle length shirt reintroduced by the design-duo Sana Safinaz two years ago as an example. Within months, most designers in Pakistan had reinterpreted the paneled shirt in their own collections. High-street brands then created inexpensive versions of the high-end design.

Soon enough, every garage designer was mastering the trend and, ultimately, it filtered down to tailors who could copy each design in the coveted Sana Safinaz brochure to perfection. A pattern, which retailed in Sana Safinaz’s export collection for over 30,000 rupees, could be enjoyed for a fraction of the price at a high-street store like Unbeatables or Maria B. The artisans at Kehkashan Market or Ghousia Market, Karachi, would be willing to replicate it for even less. Completing the circle, Sana and Safinaz created their own version of the design in lawn. Retailing at an average of 3,500 rupees, the Sana Safinaz lawn following could be described as nothing short of mass hysteria, providing the perfect feeding frenzy for plagiarising sharks.

As far as being inspirational is concerned, Sana and Safinaz concede that concept piracy is raging across the fashion smorgasbord and they were flattered as opposed to appalled that they had started a trend. At the other end of the table, however, replicating and black marketing of their lawn prints was just as unacceptable.

Shamaeel was equally flattered when her highly appreciated miniature collection diffused along the same path. Soon enough, designers like Neelo Allawala were depicting Mughal miniatures in their collections and embroidered fabric retailers like Threads and Motifs were happily making and selling panels of miniature prints too. “I feel the success of a design is in its proliferation,” Shamaeel quotes Issey Miyake when questioned on whether she was threatened or flattered by conceptual pirates. “I do not only design for a dinner of two,” she adds. “That is what I feel as far as the miniature collection is concerned. Beyond concept piracy, plagiarism needs to be combated in fashion. Taking original work – there is a limit to what you can call inspirational – and plagiarising it, whether it is a designer or a website doing it, is nothing short of highway robbery.”

The utility of a concept and the pattern a designer has created, is his/her property, and the replication of that enters illegal territory. Conceptual piracy, which is imperative to the making of a trend (and is proudly practised worldwide, for example when a high-street brand like the Spanish clothing store Zara feeds off Prada), becomes ugly when it turns into the road marked plagiarism. And plagiarism is all too rampant in fashion, more so in Pakistan in the absence and non-implementation of copyright laws.

To clarify, it is extremely difficult to copyright or patent a design in fashion to begin with. The Schumer Bill, was passed in America by Senator Charles E Schumer in collaboration with the Council of Fashion Designers of America last year “to provide the protection for unique designs.” But while it protected designers it also made it almost impossible for them to prove the uniqueness of their designs.

“The proposed legislation provides very limited intellectual property protection to the most original design,” Cathy Horyn wrote in the New York Times in 2010 before the bill was passed into a law. “A designer who claims that his work has been copied must show that his design provides ‘a unique, distinguishable, non-trivial and non-utilitarian variation over prior designs.’ And it must be proven by the designer that the copy is ‘substantially identical’ to the original so as to be mistaken for it. Factors than cannot be used in determining the uniqueness of a design are color, patterns and a graphic element,” she explained.

To drive that point home, an American court recently ruled against Christian Louboutin who had claimed rights on red soles and sued Yves Saint Laurent for including four red-soled shoes in his latest resort-wear collection. The red soles – heart, soul and signature of every Louboutin shoe – were apparently not unique enough to be claimed by Louboutin. By these standards, not a single designer in Pakistan would be able to lay claim to inventing the heel. In the absence of active copyright laws and documentation of original designs, it is impossible to identify the origin of anyone’s design.

The cost of copyrighting a design is another problem. At approximately half a million rupees required to patent a print or outfit, not every print can be legally protected. Sana and Safinaz patent their best prints every year but even that is inconsequential as by tweaking or changing several insignificant elements in the print, plagiarists can argue it is not an imitation.

The kind of plagiarism we see in Pakistan borders on criminal activity and not just conceptual piracy or inspiration. For starters, there are designers (big names at that) who send their ‘agents’ out in the market to purchase avant-garde designs that can be replicated in their own studios. Sonya Battla, who has installed several CCTV cameras to protect designs at her flagship store in Karachi, faces this problem ever too often when ‘friends’ of certain top designers come in and buy several pieces from her latest collection at the same time. She can tell these women won’t be wearing the clothes simply by the fact that they pick up whatever size is available. But Battla says she has learnt to live with the problem, “because one cannot combat or stop them. The best way is to take it as a compliment…One tries to ignore the plagiarists as far as possible.” What about the financial implications? “Yes, it does effect your business to a certain degree as exclusivity of a design and the freshness of a concept are both highly valued in the world of fashion. Plagiarism makes it common but it is an aspect of the business globally. One learns to deal with it.”

The internet has made fashion plagiarism much simpler. There are numerous websites that display album after album of “popular fashions from Pakistan,” flaunt pictures of designer collections and offer to make the garment for as much (or as little) as 500 pounds, delivery included. Websites like HinaB.com, Bargello.com, Deemasfashion.com are just three out of thousands of similar websites flooding the internet boasting of quality that they cannot always deliver. The Deemas website, for example, claims that it “offers replica dress designs from famous dress designers from Asia on affordable prices.” But when clients receive imperfect imitations of a Nomi Ansari outfit, for example, they undoubtedly feel disappointed and let down. Their lack of awareness misguides them into taking this counterfeit operation seriously. “These websites are criminal and uncontrollable,” says Ansari.

“In many cases clients know they are ordering fakes but they are all too willing to pay less for an outfit that looks like an original,” Ansari resigns to the disturbing fate of his collections. “I’ve had young brides go abroad after getting married and then taking orders on their bridal and trousseaux clothes. How does one control that?” He explains: “We tried to track down HinaB but it was impossible. She apparently has a huge operation on Tariq Road in Karachi and her workers only know her as ‘madam’. No one has met her and she retails via the internet.”

Ansari says he is accepting of “Ghousia Market artisans who replicate us as they are poor and their customers don’t overlap our clientele”. But, he adds that, “these websites are disgusting as they feed off us and limit our creativity. I avoid updating my website and doing creative shoots because they immediately end up on these websites”.

Taking the crime a step further are websites that promise to source the original outfit, charging (usually expatriate and South-Asian clients) a hefty sum that never reaches the pocket of the designer. “Even if they are not sold as originals,” says Ansari, “buyers know whose copies they are purchasing. They are as much to blame as the plagiarists. This is an uncontrollable web of crime.”

Sana Safinaz have realised that the plagiarism of lawn prints is the most damaging in the copycat book. They print around 80,000 lawn suits a season and the demand, which is much higher, is thus met by the black market that goes to great lengths to replicate the copies as authentic. “A certain small mill owner in Lahore copied our prints and took our catalogue, and went to the extent of hiring our muse (Neha) to make the copies look authentic,” Safinaz says.

“There’s a difference between inspired and copied,” she explains. “Our ready-to-wear may have inspired a trend but our lawn fabric is copied.” She also recounts how a “leading fabric company [the brand they had been working with] copied borders from our export line. They were featured in our catalogue and were replicated by that fabric company as it had access to our studio. We actually caught them with cameras and video cameras. We have also identified seven shopkeepers caught selling fake Sana Safinaz prints. You can’t tell the difference; only the quality is inferior and our clients bring the complaints to us.”

Even when she says that plagiarism is “very damaging” she regrets that there is no accountability in Pakistan. “We’ve had the shopkeepers arrested but they spend a few hours in jail and then continue copying.”