Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 18 March 2018

Whose design is it anyway? How UAE fashion designers have become knock-off victims

Speaking to regional designers about a current issue in fashion: ideas being ripped off via Instagram.

From left: A niqab phone cover from the FMM by Fatma AlMulla range; a bootlegged version of the phone cover. Courtesy FMM by Fatma AlMulla; iStockphoto.com
From left: A niqab phone cover from the FMM by Fatma AlMulla range; a bootlegged version of the phone cover. Courtesy FMM by Fatma AlMulla; iStockphoto.com

Fake Louis Vuitton bags in Karama and Hermès-imitation slippers at Dragon Mart aren’t the only knock-offs available in the Emirates. Up-and-coming regional fashion designers are also victims of theft through social media – their images are stolen, their designs replicated, and the knock-offs are then slapped with cheaper price tags.

Sites such as Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest are perhaps the biggest propagators of the problem. While they’re especially useful to designers and emerging brands that lack large marketing budgets, there’s a darker side to posting photographs online. There are more than 400 million users on Instagram alone, and brands with public accounts have no control over who’s viewing – and saving – their images. Once an image is downloaded, a person can scan it and print it on cheaper apparel, or copy the illustration by hand and mass-produce it however they please. While this concept is far from new, as can be seen with the long-standing black market of Chinese knock-off designer bags, it’s not a problem that local designers anticipate or prepare for when using social media to promote their start-up labels.

In the bustling India Court of Ibn Battuta Mall, a five-minute walk from Novo Cinemas, stands a small kiosk. It’s a typical electronics stall, selling mobile-phone cases, covers, chargers and other accessories. On top of a glass counter is a rotating rack, displaying silicone iPhone covers featuring colourful M&M sweets designs. But between the fuschia and yellow M&Ms are two designs that stand out: the first appears to be a man dressed in a black thobe with prayer beads in his hand; the second is a woman’s face covered in a niqab, her striking eyes with long, full lashes set in a mesmerising stare. The cases retail for Dh50 each, and there’s likely room for bargaining.

While there are plenty of M&M phone covers in stock, these are the last two pieces in these designs – and that’s to be expected, with the Emirati footfall in the mall and immense popularity of these particular covers. But if you’re not in tune with the local design scene in the UAE, you wouldn’t recognise these phone covers for what they are: cheap knock-offs of work by the Emirati artist and designer Fatma AlMulla. Her original phone covers are stocked at local boutiques such as The Fashion Vault, where they retail for Dh250.

AlMulla isn’t the only victim of design theft. The Dubai-based snapback brand Caliente is known for its bold caps with Dubai spelt out in Arabic. Last year, imitations were plentiful at Global Village. Another designer who plays off cultural motifs relevant to the Middle East is Natasha Petafi of T-Shirt Policy London. Now based in London, Petafi previously lived in Kuwait, and illustrates images of turbans, burqas and hamsa hands for her brand. But her popular “turban lady” illustration has been reproduced by many other designers, who use Instagram to promote their replicas. Petafi’s own followers often tag T-shirt Policy London in the comment sections to show her that she is being copied. She says because many designers in the Gulf aren’t registered with licences, it makes it hard to take any real action against them from the United Kingdom. “The most you can do is email them,” she says. “My turban-lady illustration was copied by T-shirt designers and even by some boutiques in the GCC,” she says, adding that copycats would replicate her digital image and blur out her logo, or would just re-illustrate it without her logo. Some even responded to Petafi claiming they were “inspired” by her turban lady. “There’s a very fine line between being inspired by something and copying,” she says.

The Saudi brand Fyunka features the designer Alaa Balkhy’s cartoon-style illustrations of abaya-clad girls. Though Fyunka was one of the original Middle Eastern brands to depict the abaya in a youthful, stylish way on handbags, cushions and accessories, Balkhy’s work has inspired many other Arab artists and designers – many of whom are based in Europe and North America – to create very similar images.

While imitation may be a form of flattery, it can be quite discouraging for a designer to find their work plagiarised. One of AlMulla’s most popular designs, her silicon dihn oud phone cover, caused quite a stir when it was first introduced last Ramadan. “It went viral – you could find copies in Global Village, Satwa and Naif Souq in Dubai,” AlMulla says.

Indeed, mobile-phone kiosks in places such as Global Village have stocked plenty of cheaper replicas, with shop salespeople unaware of the origins of the design. “What was even more disgusting was that they mimicked the shape of my logo on the backs of the covers,” says AlMulla. “But what made me rest assured was that the colours and quality weren’t the same.”

AlMulla’s list of copycat admirers is pages longer than the average regional designer’s. One of her chai-karak-themed illustrations was copied by a Bahraini brand, and even used by a coffee shop for their logo, without AlMulla’s permission. “I contacted the coffee shop, but they said that since they got it from the internet, it was OK for them to use,” she says.

The lawyer Fiona Robertson of Al Tamimi & Co, explains that if someone takes a copyrighted image from the internet, they’re still in the wrong. “The rules are no different from back in the day when we had photocopiers – it is the same concept,” she says.

AlMulla had her worst experience with plagiarism this past summer, when she learnt that a popular fabric store in Mumbai, India, was selling her prints. Her friends came across it while on holiday, and sent her pictures of the fabric, which showed an exact replica of AlMulla’s dihn oud print. “Apparently the salesmen at the store took out the fabric and told them that this is the famous ‘Instagram material’ – they didn’t mention my name – just that the material was from Instagram,” she says.

Designers face quite a conundrum when it comes to social media. On one hand, it’s an invaluable marketing tool, but on the other, it’s a major propagator when it comes to design imitation, especially in fashion. With the click of a button, users can capture, save and copy designs they see. “With my niqab phone cover, people use my images on Instagram, and claim it’s their own design,” says AlMulla.

There are a number of ways in which users can misuse Instagram to promote knock-off products, and the most a designer can do in return is fill out a complaint form on Instagram’s website, initiating a lengthy procedure. Instagram advises designer to directly contact those who are misusing their images before reporting them.

According to Robertson, unless a designer has their work copyrighted, there’s not much they can do to retaliate. But once it’s copyrighted, she explains, the fundamental aspects of the design are protected. “The key elements that make it unique, sellable, creative, interesting and original – that’s what the courts will look for,” she says.

Robertson says that UAE courts generally don’t see a lot of copyright-infringement cases. “In other jurisdictions, you have a specific court that deals with just copyright and intellectual property, but we don’t have that here, and I think that causes a lot of uncertainty, both for those who are having their works infringed on, and those who are trying to work out whether or not they’re infringing,” she says.

Some, however, are not concerned by the legality of copying designs, and justify their actions by blaming the higher prices of the originals – a similar rationalisation used by those who buy knock-off designer handbags and clothing.

When it comes to South Asian bridal wear for example, many brides turn to designer-inspired pieces for their big day, sometimes ordering exact replicas of outfits shown on fashion-week runways. The Karachi-based Sehrish Nadeem runs the Instagram account 7thSquare, offering custom-made bridal and formal wear for clients abroad who don’t have easy access to the latest trends in South Asian shopping. According to Nadeem, nine out of 10 requests are for imitation outfits. “High-end designer pieces are so expensive that normal middle-class people wouldn’t even think of buying them – they prefer to get them replicated from small businesses,” she explains.

To give her clients inspiration, Nadeem often reposts photos from high-end designers. But she says that if a designer asks her to remove the photo from her account, she will. Designer copies are an unavoidable reality of the world we live in, according to Nadeem, who believes that the only thing that can put a stop to it is for designer prices to dramatically drop. “If designer outfits were made more affordable, I can guarantee this replication will end – there would be no need to imitate their stuff, because people would buy directly from them,” she says.

Perhaps Nadeem is right, but it’s the very exclusivity of expensive, designer-made items that make them so covetable – the perfect bait for copiers. If they were to become cheaper, they would lose the very appeal that makes them so desirable. While AlMulla had her popular dihn oud design legally copyrighted, she hasn’t taken legal action against imitators. “Some people are just ignorant and don’t realise what they’re doing – if someone copies my designs exactly, I would want to sue, but at the same time I don’t want trouble for anybody,” she says.

AlMulla encourages people to use her work for inspiration, rather than imitation. “I’ve had chocolate designers ask if they can use my illustrations, and bakers asking if they can use them on cupcakes, and I love that, as long as they mention me and I get credit,” she says. “You have to respect other people’s creativity. It’s wrong if you want to literally take something, but you can merely be inspired by it.”

The biog

After studying visual communication and photography at the American University of Sharjah, Fatma AlMulla launched her brand, FMM by Fatma AlMulla, in 2012. Her first designs were T-shirts, featuring quirky illustrations with witty Arabic captions. Her designs quickly caught the attention of fashion-loving Emiratis and expats alike, and she emerged as a leading Emirati pop-culture designer. As the brand gained popularity, particularly through a fast-growing social media following, she soon started producing dresses, kaftans, phone covers, passport covers, notebooks and her latest addition, Fendi-peekaboo-­inspired handbags.

AlMulla’s aesthetic is bold, quirky and culturally relevant. She plays off the region’s taste for designer labels, illustrating popular icons, but putting her unique touch to them. For example, one of her first T-shirt designs featured a Cartier bracelet, with an Arabic caption reading “I found love from Cartier”.

“I started out by using satirical phrases in Arabic, to not make fun of but to illustrate how people are obsessive and emotionally connected to these things in everyday life,” AlMulla explains. Her early illustrations, which touched on a global fascination with branded bags and high-end jewellery, were a hit – so much so that elements were copied by designers from this region and internationally. “What was funny was that people in Portugal and Brazil were copying them. I got an email from someone in Brazil informing me that my T-shirt designs were being sold there,” AlMulla says.