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(Instep Today, August 17, 2010)

The copycat conundrum has always grabbed headlines; people love reading about who’s copying who and magazines in Pakistan have lately begun splashing pictures of designs that look like déjà vus, whether it’s a Maheen Karim dress imitating Etro (pointed out on the Style Stripped website), a Nomi Ansari collection doing a double take on Manish Arora or a Body Focus tunic looking a bit too much like a Dolce Gabbana gown (both noted by Expoze). The visuals are all there and yes, there’s no denying the fact that at times things do look a bit too similar to be passed off as an inspiration.

Mughal miniatures have been an inspiration for designers through the ages. Kudos to Shamaeel for reviving them and starting an entire new trend.

Visual references of garments that look similar are always helpful in giving fashion followers some educational insight. Everyone wants to know where a certain trend originated, how many designers have lent it their own vision and how many different price brackets it is available in. But the copycat trail is a complicated one because it’s almost impossible to claim copyright to a design. Not many clothes can be patented to a single designer and with the amount of information passing around – in books and on the internet – the likelihood of more people being inspired by the same thing is higher than it was a hundred years ago. Coco Chanel created the Little Black dress in the 1920s and she is documented in history as the first designer to do so. She’d have quite a job on her hands if she started pressing charges against every inspired version.

Design and move on. The trick is in change.

Fashion, in most cases, can be traced back to history and almost nothing is ‘original’ anymore. There are no reinventions of the wheel. With a little research – a page from Collezioni or a link to – it wouldn’t be difficult to relate everything to everything else. Why do you think designers have research books in their fashionable libraries? A silhouette from here and a motif from there. What we have to look for is the fluidity of change and a designer’s capacity to give a time-tested trend a new dimension.

Adnan Pardesy put out a fabulous collection at Fashion Pakistan Week 2; its USP was quilting. Last year Armani and Dolce Gabbana were embroiled in a bitter fight; Armani accused the latter of copying his quilted silk trouser design. Chanel was known for her quilted fabric fifty years ago and the ancient Japanese were making quilted kimonos much before any of the above. Who is to be given credit and who is to be cautioned for toeing the copycat line?

After four years of contemplating this very situation in America, the Innovative Design Protection and Piracy Prevention Act in support of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) recently passed the Schumer bill, which provides protection for unique design.  But in order for a designer to qualify he must prove that his own design has “a unique, distinguishable, non-trivial and non-utilitarian variation over prior designs.” And he must also be able to prove that the copy is “substantially identical” to the original so as to be mistaken for it. The bill would cover all fashion designs even for products like handbags, belts and sunglasses, for a three-year period from the time the item is seen in public, on a runway for instance. Factors that can’t be used in determining the uniqueness of a design are color, patterns and a graphic element. (New York Times)

The general rule of thumb is that by making six modifications in an outfit a designer can call it his own. A Gaultier conical bra will be remembered as ground breaking, as might Chanel’s gun-heels that Madonna was seen wearing. But something as general as quilting or digital printing will not.

There are so many look-alikes that it would be almost impossible to put a law on creative copyright in Pakistan. People are speaking of Neelo Allawala’s latest mughal collection (available as we speak) being heavily inspired by Shamaeel’s FPW2 collection. It does pick up where Shamaeel left but even Shamaeel will not claim copyright on the mughal print. So if Allawala or mass fabric retailer Threads and Motifs (who launched a mughal printed satin patti) suddenly decides to launch their own versions of mughal art then so be it. What we need to acknowledge is that Shamaeel jumpstarted the trend and that she be given credit for it.

And Shamaeel’s too smart to complain anyway. She has designed and moved on. She knows that the trick is in change.


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