On 7 February, designer Payal Singhal took to social media to call out Ritu Sekksaria's Vyoum label for using her embroidery pattern. Singhal also named other brands, which she believed were copying her original designs.
When Mint asked Singhal about the incident, she said, “We did reach out to Vyoum before resorting to social media, but they abruptly hung up on me. It just came to a point where I felt I was being taken for granted. I had to take matters into my own hands. All the brands I called out have been brought to my notice by my followers.” Singhal added that the counterfeit culture is rampant in the fashion industry, and "as designers, we are all facing this problem”.
Sekksaria did not respond to Mint's request for a comment. The Anuja Banthia Label, the other brand Singhal called out, has since taken down pictures of the alleged plagiarised prints. House of Saesah, which used a picture from Singhal’s campaign to promote a print, said the pattern was provided by wholesalers and "as designers they will buy what’s available to them".
Nupur Harwani of EnEch, another label called out by Singhal, said: “A lot of designers are making dhoti saris now. For instance, when Anamika Khanna made draped skirts, several brands then made their versions of it. These elements always trickle down. I ensure my pieces are original.”
A copy or an inspiration?
There are copies, and then are designs which are "inspired". The latter can be ambiguous and arbitrary. “We launched sari gowns 12 years ago, and everyone does them now. There are several designers who are ‘inspired’ by our sculpting and ruffle techniques too. But there is a difference between counterfeits and influenced pieces. It’s the former we are more concerned with,” says Delhi-based couturier Gaurav Gupta, who's currently fighting cases in the high court over the infringement of his original designs.
“There are different levels of copies. I am not concerned with mass manufacturers who sell my designs at a fraction of the cost. That’s not my market. It’s when brands and smaller designers who make up the ‘boutique culture’ persistently lift our pieces and do so at a large scale, that we need to take legal action,” he adds.
Singhal, too, has been a victim of her styles being recreated into prints by wholesale manufacturers in Surat, which are then sold at fabric stores across the country. “But if you are going to call yourself a ‘designer’ and have an event to promote something that is a duplication of my work, I need to call it out.”
What's the solution?
Lawyer Safir Anand, who sits on the Fashion Design Council of India board and works with brands like Payal Singhal, Anita Dongre, Anju Modi, Manish Malhotra and Sabyasachi Mukherjee, believes designers need to learn what and when to protect. “Many designers overlook the need to protect themselves under the design law, and think they can file once a collection gets popular. But the law necessitates doing so before the launch. Moreover, they can’t get VC (venture capital) funding without intellectual property (IP) that's protected.”
Anand admits awareness is picking up, but so is damage culture. “The courts are now awarding high damages in cases of IP where there is gross violation. Not necessarily in fashion, but in many others cases. Once designers have protection and enforce it, there is no doubt that damage culture will build up in this industry too.” Anand illustrates with the example of designers who are cracking down on fakes and misuse of images. “Anita Dongre protects and enforces religiously; and Anju Modi has even started indicating this on her Instagram,” he adds.
In 2018, Sabyasachi became India's first design house to win the National Intellectual Property Award by the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, that is typically awarded to organisations in the field of patents, designs and geographical indications.
Dongre, too, has managed to successfully move the court to restrain the manufacturing of her registered designs.
Gupta, who is in favour of stronger IP laws, says his brand has a team dedicated to registering and copyrighting his designs. “The laws are so tight in France and Italy, where fashion is such an important part of the culture. It needs to be enforced as seriously in India as well.”
Singhal believes there is a need for an organised federation to protect designers. “It’s not just about money. A lot of hard work goes behind creating original collections. It is a very personal process. A rip-off is a complete breach of a designer’s body, mind and soul.”