Whose design is it anyway? Fashion designers deal with plagiarism

  • Ruchika Kher, Hindustan Times, Mumbai
  • Updated: Jul 09, 2015 15:59 IST
A model in a Masaba Gupta creation; fake Masaba prints at a local shop. (Photo: Vijayeta Kumar)

Famous American novelist Herman Melville once said, “It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.” Perhaps, the Renaissance writer’s words do not resonate with all, as is evident from the growing cases of knockoffs that have been plaguing the fashion industry for a while now.

The most recent case that brought the debate to the fore yet again included Taylor Swift’s white cut-out jumpsuit, which she wore at an awards show in the US in May this year. While the singer was sporting the creation of fashion house Balmain, e-commerce fashion brand Nasty Gal was quick to call the outfit one of their own, raising the important question — whose design is it anyway?


Taylor Swift in the controversialwhite cut-out jumpsuit by Balmain.

“While everyone looks for inspiration in their surroundings, and, now, even on the Internet, an actual imitation or copy isn’t what someone can call an ‘inspiration’. Using another person’s work and claiming direct ownership of it is unethical, and usually illegal,” says designer Varun Bahl.

Copy cat

Knockoffs have been a pervasive part of the industry, and the issue crops up quite frequently. Designer Masaba Gupta has been a victim of plagiarism for years. Several markets across the city nonchalantly sell rip-offs of her designs.

"I know a lot of mills that churn out thousands of metres of these fake prints. I also know a lot of fabric retailers that do the same," says Masaba, adding, "But the fake market hardly bothers me. In fact, the Masaba print has become a trademark in all the fabric shops. As for the designers who copy me, they’ll be around only for a season or two. They don’t even have business plans. So, I ignore them. The audience knows what is original."


A creation by designers Hemant and Nandita (left); a rip-off of the same design available at a local store (right)

To deal with the problem of knockoffs, the designer had even launched a special, competitively-priced range sometime back. “It did work, but not as well as the fakes. For that, I need mass support. I’ll get there in two-three years,” she says.

How real is real?

Several established designers have faced similar situations, where their creations have been copied without their knowledge. "Unfortunately, in India, intellectual property rights have no value," says designer Tarun Tahiliani.


Models in a Tarun Tahiliani collection.

The couturier makes an interesting point. He reveals that there are, of course, financial consequences, but the greater danger of fashion plagiarism is when people fail to differentiate between a copy and the real thing. This illusion often leads consumers to think that a bad quality copy is actually the original.

“That affects the reputation that the brand might have, and that, to me, is a much more dangerous consequence in the long run. Obviously, we do different things to counter such situations. One is our fit, which is very difficult to copy. We also do a lot of layering in the outfits, which most copiers would not even understand,” says Tahiliani.

Some designers fight to expose the culprits, while others do not take any action against the concerned party. Hemant, of designer duo Hemant and Nandita, usually opts for the latter.

“We haven’t ever taken any strict action against anyone for plagiarism. But every time we witness any such act, we definitely feel bad. Also, since it appears that there is no way to curb it completely, we have adopted a different approach to deal with it. We pacify ourselves by looking at the entire plagiarism scenario as an opportunity to get our designs noticed. People are so moved by our designs that they draw inspiration from them, and create newer designs, while some also stoop down to the level of copying them,” he says.

Call for justice

But for some, it usually becomes a battle at court, comprising hearings and long-drawn legal processes.

Tahiliani recalls a case for which he had to go the extra mile to get justice. “I once tried to sue a designer, who had an identical copy of my outfit with her name on it at a store abroad. The case dragged on and on. Unfortunately, with our judicial system, going to court is not really an option most of the time. The case continued until recently, long after the printer, who had copied the prints for the designer, was dead. So, I have learnt to be more stoic about it. I think designers can embarrass people as I did with two sisters in Chandigarh, who made copies of my clothes. I showed people the original and the tacky copies,” he says.

So, does plagiarism affect the business of fashion?

Bahl replies in the affirmative, and says,“It definitely affects the fashion world.” However, he suggests that steps to catalogue and register one’s work, for example, or constant innovation in terms of signature styles are some means that can be employed to counter issues related to fashion plagiarism.

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