When actress Sonam Kapoor appeared on the cover of Elle India wearing a piece from Dior’s latest collection, this is why I was angry.
In 2006, spurred on by requests for work from the women in the village where I live – Mandi Gaon – I started a tiny non-profit called The Knitwits. We created knitwear which I helped design, delivering materials to the houses of women who often weren’t able or allowed to leave, and later collecting finished pieces. But I had made a crucial mistake – I had no buyer.
These were the pre-Instagram, Facebook Store days and I began to wonder if I would have to go stand around at local crafts markets, when someone suggested People Tree. I’d long been a fan of their t-shirts so made my way to the store to check if they were interested.
I was led up a red ladder to an office crammed with books, baubles and crafts tools where Gurpreet Sidhu gave me my first business lesson. She took a good look at the knitwear I had carried, suggested what changes I could make in the next round, asked me how much I planned to pay the women, priced it fairly and asked one of her girls to put the scarves and hats in store.
Nothing about the way People Tree works has changed. Not since 1990, when Sidhu and her husband Orijit Sen opened with a simple line of t-shirts. The philosophy’s always been the same: create original, beautiful, earth-friendly goods that tell a story, and help as many as you can in the process.
Sidhu and Sen gave jobs to those in need, let their house be used as a centre of the arts, for blockprinting sessions, for refugees. They managed somehow to balance doing what businesses never do – making a profit and making a difference. With a store a stone’s throw away from Jantar Mantar, they’ve always been witness to and actively involved in calls for justice over the years, becoming over time a haven for those straying from the mainstream, in fashion, politics or society.
Which is why we were shocked to see Sonam Kapoor on cover of the magazine in a dress from Dior’s Spring/Summer 2018 Ready To Wear Cruise Line, which looked exactly like it had been crafted by People Tree.
The two garments, posted in the format below onto social media by Sen and Sidhu’s daughter Pakhi Sen, created a stir I doubt Dior quite thought was possible.
In the initial backlash Pakhi Sen received from Dior fans, people went as far as to say the two fabrics looked nothing alike. This was when many like myself felt compelled to speak up. The similarities between the prints Dior print and the People Tree one are by no means minor:
The colour – the exact same rust red.
Yoga pose 1 – Padmasana.
Yoga pose 2 – Natarajasana.
The flower – while People Tree alternated the yoga poses with a lotus, Dior chose to use a tulip.
The style of art.
Sen, the original designer of the print, has since shared images of the first drawings and blocks made for it, dug up 15 years after he first created them.
By no stretch of the imagination could this be a mere coincidence, as many on the internet insisted.
More than Dior, it was celebrities who had posted wearing the dress, such as supermodel and TV host Alexa Chung, who came under fire. (Chung has since deleted the image off her Instagram, but here are images of her wearing the dress to the Dior Ball and show, where she had a front row seat.)
Elle India and their January cover model Sonam Kapoor received flak as well. This is where it gets complicated.
Neither Chung, Kapoor nor Elle Magazine are at fault here. As an actress who is most likely advised by a team of sponsors and stylists (including her sister Rhea Kapoor) Kapoor may not have had much say in her outfit. Even if she had, let’s say she simply chose the one that looked good on her. Simple. What’s not so simple has been her silence on the issue since then. In an attempt to keep the big design house happy, Kapoor has kept mum about it.
This, to many who follow and love her, is a real shame. Kapoor is better known for her impeccable dress choices and for promoting new indigenous designers than she is for her films. She’s frequently given unknown designers a foothold to reach out and touch the stars. For her not to say something, not to apologise for not knowing, or acknowledge the existence of People Tree, was heartbreaking.
Some said that People Tree had jumped the gun by using the Elle cover image, and they should have used a runway or stock image of the dress rather than drag the magazine into the mess. Here is how the two garments bearing the print appeared on the runway and on the Dior website now.
You can also view the dress here.
It would have been impossible to make a point using these images. As a result, Elle India took the heat. I repeat, Elle isn’t at fault. It’s disappointing that its fashion team did not know of People Tree’s design (both companies function out of Delhi), but it isn’t a crime.
It does though beg the question – how many times has Elle India featured garments from People Tree, an almost 30-year-old Indian design store making an impact, in the pages of their magazine? Is all fashion representation in magazines sponsored by design houses with astronomically priced wares? Where does Elle draw the line between what is truly fashionable, original and making an impact, and what they are paid to feature?
Those are questions for another day. The question today is – how on Earth did this happen?
Christian Dior’s current creative director, Maria Grazia Chiuri is best known for launching her role at the design house by sending models down the ramp in t-shirts bearing the title of an essay by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: ‘We Should All be Feminists’.
While the T-shirts still shine bright in our memories, what has been quietly brushed under the carpet is that many of the pieces from the collection came under the radar for being exact replicas of traditional Romanian folk costumes.
Is Chiuri to blame? The answer is complicated. Fashion houses like Dior don’t often have one single designer at the helm. Creative Director she may be, but the actual designing, print sourcing, and ideating is done by a team, sometimes made up of young designers under pressure to churn out original work that has the potential to become the next craze.
Imagine for a moment one of these young designers. She has her dream job working under Chiuri at Dior, but the team is ideating for the Spring-Summer 2018 Collection and she’s tired and frankly has nothing to offer at the next day’s meeting. That evening she goes to a party in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. A girl walks in wearing a smashing dress in autumnal red, printed with what looks like poses from her yoga class.
The designer walks up to her and compliments the dress. ‘Oh thank you! Believe it or not, I bought it years ago at this cute little store in India!’
Dior girl asks to take a photograph of it. The next day at the meeting she hands it in. It’s approved. It could have been that simple. Chiuri may not have been the one to find the print or copy it – I’d hope the person occupying the position once held by Yves Saint Laurent, Gianfranco Ferre and John Galliano knows better. But she should have better checks in place.
Legally are they in the wrong? This depends on two things – whether People Tree registered the design/print as their own (they didn’t), and whether they printed/sold it over a certain number of times (they probably did). In a country like India, designers working with handicrafts and craftspeople do not even think about the legality of their designs. Craftspeople often live a hand-to-mouth existence where their family’s sustenance depends on how many sheets of fabric they print a day.
What Sen, Singh and People Tree try to do is create a safe and comfortable work environment for craftspeople like this, where they are respected as artists, paid fairly and allowed to preserve and explore their craft simultaneously. Their concerns are far more immediate (think food, electricity, medical bills) than “What if the biggest fashion house in the world copies our work?”
Sen was quick to point out that he has some means to protect his art, but a craftsman doesn’t: “Craftspeople hold the most amazing intellectual property, but their knowledge is not considered true knowledge. There has to be more recognition of work, designs and technique that are communally owned.” His designs have been copied by other smaller designers in India, but this case is a little different. Dior made a profit of over a billion dollars last year.
This is what it comes down to. Not whether the print was registered. Not whether that patent had lapsed. Not whether by removing one flower and choosing another you have forever altered the design and made it your own.
No, what it comes down to is this. Maybe you thought a small independent store run by an Indian family cannot sue you because they don’t have a patent in hand, and lord knows not the money. But as a fashion house on which people have pinned their dreams for seven decades, do you want to be known for getting away with plagiarising a design from ethical, dedicated designers because of a legal loophole?
Ironically, according to Chiuri, the 2018 Dior collection was inspired by late French-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle. Chiuri uses her art on many of the dresses in the collection, calling it an homage, and even sent one model out onto the ramp in a t-shirt saying, “Why have there been no great women artists?” Be careful what you ask, Maria. I would rephrase the question– why have there been no great Indian fabric print designers?
A better checking system, and stronger code of ethics, would help avoid situations like this in the future. As for what’s already taken place: Since Dior didn’t send over a designer to legitimately collaborate with People Tree, nor pay either a royalty or a commission – which would have helped block-makers and printers in Rajasthan – the least they could do is admit their mistake and pull the two garments from the line.
If they were as smart as they’d have us believe, Dior might have commissioned Sen to create an original print and impressed the Indian market – one of their youngest and more exciting ones. Imagine having blogger Aimee Song, who paraded around in the dress before the Dior launch, mention that the print was created by People Tree in New Delhi.
Instead Dior has antagonised many Indians and may have landed themselves in a legal battle. Winning a case like that isn’t unheard of – recall Navajo Nation vs Urban Outfitters, which ended with the US brand paying an undisclosed amount to the native American tribe for using their name on undergarments and a hip flask .
That was called a case of cultural appropriation and frankly, this is too. Remember how the lotus in the original print was changed to a tulip? The lotus is a deeply symbolic flower in India, which goes hand in hand with yogic philosophy and practice. Changing it to the Dutch national flower isn’t just culturally ignorant, it’s disrespectful.
Last year, When Marc Jacobs sent predominantly white models onto the ramp in dreadlocks, he had the grace to later admit it was ‘insensitive’ and say of cultural appropriation – ‘Maybe I don’t have the language for it… maybe this is a step in the right direction.’ The lack of dialogue from Dior is also a problem. Dior India manager Anurag Tyagi was contacted for this piece but at the time of writing, had still not responded.
Underlying all this is the belief that nobody outside (white) America and certain European countries is worthy of recognition or of being treated with a code of ethics. As Pakhi Sen of People Tree put it when we spoke, referencing Chiuri’s stance on feminism, “If you claim to have a certain code of ethics, that code doesn’t extend simply to where suits you.” What Chuiri fails to realise that many of the Indian families wronged here are run by women. Women who deserve recognition, respect and payment.
I’ll leave you with an image of what happy, healthy creativity looks like, and a quote. Below is a photograph sent to me by Pakhi Sen. In the centre are her parents, Orijit Sen and Gurpreet Sidhu. On Sen’s left is Meeta, head of printing and fabric supply. At either end are two brothers, Krishan Kumar Nama and Damodar Nama, who have the team of printers and studio at their home in Kaladera, Rajasthan. (Their father Raghunath introduced Sidhu and Sen to block-printing in 1992.) Next to Sidhu is Damodar’s wife, Saroj, who feeds the team.
Oh and the quote:
“In a machine age, dressmaking is one of the last refuges of the human, the personal, the inimitable.” That’s Christian Dior.
Karuna Ezara Parikh is a writer and poet living in Kolkata. You can view more of her work and poetry at the following: instagram.com/ezarawrites; thecalcuttachromosome.com; and inkimageideology.blogspot.com