The Myth of Origin

The Myth of Origin

Design ideas build on the rich sediment of traditional crafts have changed slowly, because of the imagination of nameless artists.

“Most designers and weavers in Chanderi do not think about their work in terms of intellectual property or value it as such.”

British designer Paul Smith was recently caught out in Pakistan for an act of cheeky appropriation — for putting a pink neon trim and a £300 price tag on the Peshawari sandal. The Wall Street Journal estimated this as a 9,816 per cent markup.

After much media and Twitter indignation, the Paul Smith website finally acknowledged that the Robert sandal was “inspired” by the Peshawari chappal. That matter may have been settled, but it raised a few recurring questions — how is originality defined in design, given that a shoe is a shoe is a shoe, and to what extent can one claim proprietorship of a traditional design?

A few years back, Christian Louboutin, shoemaker to the stars, tried to sue Yves St Laurent, and then Zara, for stealing its sole — the red sole that was its unique stamp, that pop of colour underfoot that announces that the wearer has spent hundreds, even thousands of dollars on a luxury shoe. Louboutin lost.

“Rip-off” has a brutal sound to it, like someone’s being flayed — but in fact, designers have a more complex relationship with their imitators. Most just accept the flattery, and move on. Or they rationalise that at least some of those who possess the fakes also harbour a desire for the real, which might one day make for a sale. But the Louboutin episode also set off much talk about what kinds of ideas you can own — if you use colour in a distinctive way, can you stake sole claim to it?


Someone closer home who might sympathise with Louboutin is Sanjay Garg, the designer who created the popular Raw Mango label, decisively making over Madhya Pradesh’s Chanderi saris. Raw Mango altered the yarn, changed a billowing cotton or silk into a sexy, subtle drape. If Chanderi was previously a grandmotherly sort of sari with round bootis, Raw Mango chanderi is vivid — charcoal with crimson, grass-green and fuschia, flaming yellow. The motifs are spare and elegant, mogra and cypress and lotus.

And yet, now that Raw Mango has been so successful, knockoffs abound. It’s pretty infuriating, says Garg, putting it down to a general ethics deficit in this country. He is not proprietary about the Chanderi tradition, but he does want to own the novel twists he has brought to it. But then again, while you can register original designs, how do you copyright a combination of colours?

These questions are especially freighted when you are dealing with traditional handlooms and handicrafts. There are geographical indicators for specific crafts, which testify to authenticity and provenance — like champagne or pashmina, chanderi belongs to a particular geography, a particular method. But originality, in terms of a brand worth protecting, is not a real concern yet.

According to Jane Lynch, a cultural anthropologist who studies the social world of Indian handlooms, “Most designers and weavers in Chanderi do not think about their work in terms of intellectual property or value it as such. A typical graph paper design made by hand will be sold by a designer for Rs 20 to Rs 200, depending on its size.”

There are now many successful businesses that revive, market and occasionally redesign textiles and crafts. Anokhi, for instance — the name itself means unusual — makes a careful distinction between historical designs, blocks that have been circulating as long as anyone can remember, and the ones they have fashioned. They protect their name and logo, not the design itself.

Copyright, after all, is not morally self-evident. It’s a government granted monopoly on the use of creative results. It was created to protect and encourage creativity, by making sure that the rewards from the work flowed to the creator for a while, and then to society at large. Design ideas build on the rich sediment of other ideas and images, and traditional crafts have changed slowly, because of the imagination of nameless artists.

Motifs like mangoes and flowers, snaking vines and horses and peacocks, don’t belong to anyone. The idea of putting a serrated border on a temple sari didn’t spring from one person’s brow, and if it did, we don’t know who it was. Weaves change, patterns adapt to preferences. The ambi motif, the distinctive pattern of the jamawar shawl, the manga malai of a Kanjeevaram sari is also the boteh of Iran, but the Scottish town of Paisley is the place that gave it its name and owned it.

But treating a traditional, culturally meaningful item like a floating symbol and grabbing it for mass production also comes with consequences. Global hipster stores have been criticised for their flippant use of traditional Eritrean clothing, for example, and playing to ignorant “Injun” stereotypes with feathered headdresses, dreamcatcher earrings and the like.

In other words, creativity and ownership are particularly difficult to assert in design. It’s a long story of debts and borrowings, and Paul Smith has only drawn attention to these complications.

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