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People Tree vs Unchristian Dior: The Unraveling Controversy

Design Log 31 Jan

New Delhi-based design studio People Tree recently accused Christian Dior of plagiarising its block prints. We investigate the issue.

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(L) People Tree design that’s still in production in Rajasthan (R) Dior dress in Elle

The unfortunate copycat trend has been a reality in the world of fashion from time immemorial. Chains such as Zara have been called out routinely for plagiarising designs. In fact, there is even a website Stop Zara's Art Theft set up for artists like Adam J. Kurtz, Tuesday Bassen, and Maria Ines Gul whose original artworks have been stolen by the conglomerate. Closer to home, designers like Rohit Bal, Tarun Tahiliani, and Aarohi have also faced this issue, and gone on to copyright entire collections in lieu of Intellectual Property Rights (IPR), which not enough designers seem to be aware of.

Still, in the digital age, the plagiarism is much more rampant, with big brands feeding off small, independent designers and studios without so much as a credit or mention. What makes matters worse is that these bigger players can actually afford to pay to commission said designers and make it into a meaningful collaboration or partnership.

Instead, we have a reputed name like Christian Dior, being sneaky and blatantly copying the designs of New Delhi-based artist collective People Tree that is run by artist Orijit Sen and his wife Gurpreet Sidhu, and has specialised in unique lifestyle products and block-dyed prints on textile since 1990. This recent controversy stirred up on January 23rd, when Orijit’s daughter Pakhi posted a photograph of Sonam Kapoor on the cover of Elle magazine wearing a boho-chic dress from Dior’s Cruise 2018 collection, designed by Maria Grazia Chiuri, with the controversial print. A print that People Tree has been using on different outfits for over two decades! The Dior rip-off has the same elements and motifs placed in a slightly different pattern, and even the rust red background colour is similar.

Understandably, all hell broke loose, #shameonyoudior became the topic of discussion, and the online community at large came forward to stop this creative exploitation by sharing the post and asked Dior for an explanation, which has still not happened

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(L)People Tree Design (R) Dior dress their Cruise 2018 Collection

People Tree co-founder Orijit Sen, who originally crafted the design and made it into a block and textile for garments, is utterly surprised by Dior’s action and their lack of response to the allegations. “We have been working with a few families of block printers in Kaladera, Rajasthan and keeping alive those knowledge-based traditions that have been passed down but haven't been documented. We started working on printed hand dyed textiles in the mid 1990s to reach out to newer contemporary markets. At that time, Indian block printing from Rajasthan had become something only a few boutiques were doing for home decor and an older audience. We realized that if we didn’t make something cool and relevant with a younger appeal, it would disappear. That’s why we started redesigning motifs from what we saw around us and creating a new language of modern india,” shares Orijit, recalling how he was trying out yoga as a cure for his back problems when he came up with the design.

His disappointment in Dior is not merely the plagiarism aspect but the fact that a company like theirs has such unethical design practices. “Ever since we began, other block printers have always been excited by our designs, and many of them would just copy them. But we never had a big issue with that as we always felt that our business was all about opening up pathways and making the craft more contemporary. We have a very collaborative team with our craftsmen and we learn from each other. We go there and work hands-on with designs and colour samples; we do the printing and dyeing with them. But what’s shocking is that Dior, a multi billion dollar company, is the one ripping off the hard work of small studios and artisans,” he notes.

While the financial resources are not available to People Tree, they are presently consulting lawyers regarding the course of action. “We’re interested in pursuing this further. We’ve written a letter to Dior’s head office in France and India strongly condemning their act and asking them to give us a reason. If they don’t respond, we might take it to court. What makes it difficult is that copyright laws are open to interpretation based on how a specific clause is read in a certain situation,” states Orijit, whose personal work as a visual artist is copyright-protected in the gallery context.

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Images shared by Orijit Sen of the original design and wood block which were used for printing years ago.

"But it’s not fair to copyright each design in the area of crafts because it doesn’t belong to an individual but a community. It’s shared knowledge and I feel that designers in India benefit from it but rarely ever give back. The condition of artisans in India is dire with the new taxation policies, demonetisation and removal of subsidies, so much so that many of them are dying of starvation! We have to give them rights and truly collaborate with the artisans because the wealth of our nations is in the crafts. It’s the richest thing we have and we’re losing it fast. It’s an expression of our casteist society that people who work with hands are lower and those working with the mind are higher. We make things on paper, go to craftsmen, get them to make our products and reap all the benefits. We think our learning comes from design institutes but it’s far deeper than that. Dior is an extreme example of what’s happening in India at a larger scale. As designers, let there be a real collaboration, an equal give and take. My biggest learning from this experience is to work with them even more and protect their rights as well as ours. We need to address it in a much stronger way than we have been,” he says.

Gurpreet Sidhu, co-founder of People Tree, too wishes that there was a greater discussion on the issue. “It’s such a complex issue. I want to reach out to independent entrepreneurs, designers, craftspeople who feel wronged and are a part of a bigger story that they don’t understand. Sure, there are disproportionate economic situations all over the world yet I wish there was more transparency in money spending and earnings. Instead it’s all closed in secrecy. For instance, I don't know how the fashion industry works beyond a point. But in situations like this, there’s no guidelines to refer to!” she says.

She recalls how People Tree’s logo was inspired by a Dhokra Tree of Life art piece, and how they acknowledged the designer and tribal artist on their website. “We did that 25 years ago, when there was no social media or no knowledge of financial remuneration for such thing. We always operated within a fair trade attitude and continue to. Yet a Dior can’t even acknowledge where they got the design from! They are not our competitors. What’s sad is that they have the arrogance to take a poor Indian guy’s designs. This is when you fall flat on your face because you forgot the little guy!” she shares, adding that 15 years ago, a fair trade company took the name ‘People Tree’ even though they were aware that the Indian counterpart exists. “This comes from some silly notion that they’re entitled to steal or they matter more in the world. Dior also think that they’re that big and work on a different planet.”

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People Tree’s logo was inspired by a Dhokra Tree of Life art piece and is duly credited on their website

The conversations on social media is extremely empowering, notes Gurpreet. “We’re getting a lawyer to fight this because we have nothing to lose. There’s no one way to tackle this.Craftspeople need advice and a foothold in the market. I’m so proud of Pakhi for spreading this online and sharing our story. It’s been her own initiative and taught her a lot about what People Tree stands for! Social media is good for this case because it makes other people feel stronger and empowered to talk about it. People don’t know that you have the rights over your artwork because it’s your creation, even if it’s not officially copyrighted. Social media has made people make the quantum jump and move from disadvantaged to advantaged and bypass all limitations. It’s now easier to acknowledge and reach out but at the same time, to be caught if you plagiarise! Yet this has to go beyond social media. The world’s getting smaller. People need to watch out,” she asserts.

Artist Pakhi Sen, daughter of Orijit and Gurpreet, has been spearheading the online campaign against Dior with her posts on social media. While she has already shared that “Artistic integrity has been the main thing that People Tree has sustained itself on and this was a knife right into that ethic”, Pakhi believes that this case is a wake-up call for the creative world at large. “I think this impacts the entire creative community. As an artist who has grown up in a space where people collaborate and share ideas, this is like a huge contradiction that feels dirty and wrong. Seeing what it means to truly be dedicated to your work and actually love the process of making art, this perversion makes me feels very negatively in a way that I almost cannot describe,” she tells Design Fabric.

“Through college, I've been reintroduced to the love and rigour that goes into inculcating craft around you. This business-oriented stealth just doesn't sit right. How can creative human beings sleep well at night knowing they have no authenticity? It's not driven from inspiration, it's theft and it's so sad that they have to stoop down to this level despite the kind of resources they have,” adds Pakhi.

Padmini Govind, owner of Bangalore’s oldest block print studio Tharangini, acknowledges that in their world, copyright is very tricky. “We take design copyrights very seriously, as we mainly work with various design brands in the B2B space, creating exclusive custom fabrics. While there are some laws in place, it really comes down to a trust factor between the producer and client, which is vital. Having said that, we ourselves have suffered because of similar issues. Designs from our original heritage block print collection were copied and mass produced digitally by a garment brand that I won’t name here. It is difficult for artisan studios to seek legal recourse, which is often expensive and lengthy,” she says.

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Screenshot of Diet Prada's post on Instagram

While the legalities might take a while, it is heartening to see the design community come forward to support People Tree and help create a buzz about the issue. From photographers like Dayanita Singh to former employees to Diet Prada, the anonymous Instagram handle that calls out injustices in the fashion industry worldwide, everybody is on the side of originality and authenticity. And whether there ever is a lawsuit filed or damages paid, that’s just something you just can’t put a value to.

Follow this space for more updates case as the case unfolds.