Maliha Rehman, Naveen Qazi and Umair Tabani talk about the issue of intellectual property theft in Pakistan
Maliha Rehman, Naveen Qazi and Umair Tabani talk about the issue of intellectual property theft in Pakistan

This weekend’s Youth Art and Literary Exhibition in Karachi included some fascinating discussions on intellectual property, an increasing problem for those in creative fields — whether they are writers, artists or designers.

Blogger Naveen Qazi moderated a discussion on the impact that replicas have on the fashion industry, and the panel consisted of fashion journalist Maliha Rehman and Umair Tabani, the Chief Financial Officer of designer label Sania Maskatiya. The discussion focused on pirated designer wear and lawn prints and the panel was asked whether making fashion more affordable was a solution.

Both panelists agreed that replicas were a major problem for the fashion industry and that there is a whole spectrum for copying – ranging from cheap knock offs to accurate reproductions. For lawn, the first copies of designer originals are out within a week.

This year, some in Lahore claimed that Faraz Mannan’s replicas hit the market before the originals, after digital images of his line were stolen. Maliha Rehman clarified that the designer himself said that, although there was a theft, the replicas arrived in the market three days after the original.

Whether it was a few days before or a few days after, the fact that copies are in the market so soon is a problem. While most lawn replicas are poor copies, replacing embroidery with print and using inferior fabric, there are also some replicas that mimic the originals well.

Moreover, the customers buying designer originals do not want to be wearing an outfit that is being copied before they’ve even had time to get it stitched.

Many online pages on Facebook also sell lawn replicas
Many online pages on Facebook also sell lawn replicas

Umair Tabani outlined the difficulties designers face: “You can’t copyright every design – it’s a lengthy and expensive process. Design registration makes sense for prints if you are selling tens of thousands of prints but for limited edition designer collections, it’s not worth the trouble. Copyright has its own issues in any case — if a design is changed by 20 percent it is no longer called a copy.”

Maliha Rehman concurred, saying: “It’s a murky area. It is very difficult for the designers to bring any sort of legal pressure on the copycats.”

She said Faraz Mannan claimed the copying incident had not hurt this year’s sales but that knock offs could well harm the long term viability of the designer lawn business.

Faraz Manan collaborated with textile giant Crescent Lawn for his 2015-2016 line, modeled by Kareena Kapoor. —Photo courtesy: pakistanigalaxy.net
Faraz Manan collaborated with textile giant Crescent Lawn for his 2015-2016 line, modeled by Kareena Kapoor. —Photo courtesy: pakistanigalaxy.net

Piracy is also a problem where formals are concerned. Piracy runs the gamut from kaarighars in Karachi's Kehkashan market who copy embroidery to women who work from home, buying designer originals and then selling copies.

Tabani explained how replica merchants are able to undercut designers: “As a design house, we have huge overheads. Sania designs a massive range of clothing through the year, ranging from lawns all the way up to bridals. We have design teams who work under her, sampling teams, marketing costs as well as the costs of maintaining multiple retail outlets.

The Sania Maskatiya team headed to Thailand to shoot for their upcoming lawn line.
The Sania Maskatiya team headed to Thailand to shoot for their upcoming lawn line.

This is apart from the creative premium that she should be able to charge for her designs, having invested her originality and creative energy into the designs. A copycat has none of these costs and can copy a dozen designers with only the direct costs of material, embroidery and tailoring.”"

There’s also the issue of quality, although it’s easier for people to copy fashion here than it is abroad.

A Sania Maskatiya formal doesn't come cheap but the design house prides itself on quality. -Photo courtesy: Sania Maskatiya official Facebook page
A Sania Maskatiya formal doesn't come cheap but the design house prides itself on quality. -Photo courtesy: Sania Maskatiya official Facebook page

With cheap kaarighars and most materials available readily, designers have to work that much harder to outwit copycats. Even so, Tabani said: “Most replicas are inferior. We use only the best materials and we’ve introduced a lot of techniques that deter copycats. Our digitally printed and textured fabrics are difficult to copy on a small scale and we add a lot of customized detailing.”

It’s this approach that propelled the young Sania Maskatiya to embrace retail when many senior designers held off from having stores because of the issue of copying. Maskatiya arguably changed the face of retail fashion with her approach and most top designers now have retail outlets.

Sania Masktiya's flagship store in Karachi. -Photo courtesy: Siddy Says
Sania Masktiya's flagship store in Karachi. -Photo courtesy: Siddy Says

For Maliha, a bigger issue is the designers who copy other designers – whether local or international.

“I find it unforgivable when a designer passes off someone else’s work as their own. There are shops and labels that actively copy other designers and it is simply unethical. It’s one thing to be inspired by a trend and quite another just to make your versions of something another designer came up with.”

Again this is a hazy area. Where does inspiration spill over into copying? Designers are inspired by each other all the time — that’s how trends are born. The 20 percent rule is a standard that is hard to apply when it comes to something creative — what matters is the impact of a design. If a designer is able to take something and make it their own, that is one thing, but their work should not obviously be just a version of someone else’s ideas.

Tabassum Moghul's crowns look very D&G    pic: aamiriat.wordpress.com
Tabassum Moghul's crowns look very D&G pic: aamiriat.wordpress.com

The audience was interested in the aspirational aspect of fashion and how designers could cater to that, and both panelists felt that designer collaborations with high street brands – such as designer lawn and pret collections – should cater to that segment.

There was also some discussion about the role of Pakistan’s Fashion Councils in countering design piracy but with so little legal recourse it was agreed that there is not much the councils can do. From an e-commerce point of view, they could publish a list of reliable sites to help customers avoid impostors but beyond that their role is limited.

At the end of the day, Tabani was sanguine about replicas.

“Obviously it is unfair to our clients who are paying for an original product and superior quality. It is particularly harsh for Sania, whose designs have a timeless charm that means you can pull them out years later. However, at the end of the day there is only so much you can do to counter piracy. We subscribe to the idea that every design has a lifecycle. Our PFDC Bridal collection was phenomenally successful but three months down the line we need to have new designs because those ones have been worn so much this season. Ultimately you cannot put your energy into chasing replicators. It’s better to put your energy into creating something fresh and groundbreaking.”

Rehman concurred, saying: “The knock offs actually keep design houses on their toes. They force designers to evolve and innovate more.”

This was an intriguing and vibrant panel discussion and kudos to Naveen Qazi for organizing it. Like all intellectual piracy, the theft of fashion designs is difficult to counter and ultimately does affect the industry. However, the clients who buy replicas are arguably different from those who invest in designer wear. As long as designers are willing to innovate and invest in quality, there is a limit to the damage that piracy can do to the industry.

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