x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Are design knock-offs ever acceptable?

Following the recent seizure of 700 counterfeit Kohler products in Dubai, we discuss the issue of design knock-off in the UAE.

Illustration by Sarah Lazarovic for The National
Illustration by Sarah Lazarovic for The National

It's not a new problem. Whether it's a knock-off Louis Vuitton handbag or an imitation Eames chair, the issue of cut-price copies has long plagued the fashion and design industries.

Last month, the issue of counterfeit design in the UAE was highlighted when the high-end sanitary ware company Kohler, along with the Dubai Department of Economic Development, seized and destroyed more than 700 counterfeit products that had been branded as "Kohlar".

The Kohler management team first became aware of the existence of these counterfeit products when a member of their staff came across them in one of Dubai's five-star hotels. They then found some more on display in a well-known furniture store in the emirate. They were able to trace the products back to a Dubai-based trading company, which was fined US$13,859 (Dh50,904), although the company refused to disclose the original source of the products.

"As a brand, we invest a lot in design, research and development, and brand awareness. We make sure that when we develop and produce something, it is of the highest quality. We really commit to what we deliver and what we stand for. All of this has a cost," explains Jerome Michel, the Kohler EMEA managing director.

"When you see a product that looks like a Kohler, with the same branding, but it's not a Kohler, you are simply being betrayed. And we cannot accept this. It's not good for us and it's not good for our customers. We are very tough on that. The people that are supplying and distributing these kinds of products know exactly what they are doing. They know that the brand has got a value and they know that a customer will recognise a brand and pay for it, but that they might not notice a slight difference between an 'e' and an 'a'," he adds.

While the issue of counterfeit design is by no means specific to the UAE - it's a global problem affecting all big brands - it is more prevalent in this part of the world than in more developed markets in the west, suggests Colin Beaton, the managing director of the Dubai-based boutique strategy design firm, Limelight Creative Services. "You certainly see it more here than in the west, by a mile."

Michel tends to agree. "It's a problem that we are facing globally and we all know where it comes from. It's not specific to this region or specific to Dubai, but Dubai is a very open market and it's a place where Kohler and many other luxury brands have to face this, perhaps more than in other places in the world. In the US, for example, we don't have these kinds of issues. The market is, maybe, better protected."

On the plus side, once the issue had been flagged to the relevant government agency, they were quick to take action. "It is up to individual companies to have a strong legal and marketing department to combat these issues," Michel points out. "What we expect from the government is, once we have identified an issue, they help us and this is what happened here in Dubai. In many other countries we don't get this kind of support. We've faced this issue in Africa and China and some other parts of the world and sometimes you find less support."

In this instance, there was a clear case of copyright infringement - an attempt to capitalise on an established company's brand equity, either by duping customers into believing they were getting the real thing or by appealing to a segment of the market that wouldn't care either way. In this case, the ethical and legal issues were black and white.

But when it comes to copying in the design industry, there are plenty of grey areas to contend with. When is something a knock-off? When is it an imitation? And when is it merely "inspired by"? If something looks a bit like Arne Jacobsen's famous Egg chair, but is just different enough and is a fifth of the price, can consumers be blamed for opting for the cut-price option?

"A straight-up knock-off of a Louis Vuitton bag? No, there's no way you can justify that," says Beaton. "But what about flattery? If someone is inspired by something and creates something similar but not quite? It's in the public domain. Blue is blue. You can always create a beautiful blue dress. The hard part is in the middle. Where you are taking an idea and actually replicating it and then changing it just enough, because the intent is to fool people. If you are trying to mislead people, that's another thing."

There is the argument that knock-offs are unlikely to cause a cannibalisation of sales, whether they are unbranded imitations or all-out copies. "The person that buys the Dh200 'Louis Vuitton' bag is not going to buy the Dh10,000 Louis Vuitton bag," Beaton says. "The price differential is so great that neither wants to cross the divide. The question is whether that woman who is thinking about buying the Dh10,000 bag will go to Karama and see everybody else carrying a copy and decide not to buy it because she's interested in exclusivity."

The issue, then, is the damage done to a reputable brand by low-quality copies. If everyone you know has an imitation Panton chair, you may think twice about buying an original, as it no longer has the same exclusive appeal.

There is the contrasting argument that good design shouldn't be the stronghold of a select few and that knock-offs just make design more democratic, meaning it can be accessed by a greater number of people. There is also the suggestion that responsible design and furniture companies should create products at varying price points as that will combat unscrupulous third parties from creating replicas.

Truth be told, it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between an original handbag, chair, wallet, belt or chandelier, and a copy. And if consumers struggle to differentiate between two products when it comes to design and quality, they may naturally question how the price differential is justified.

"It is relatively easy to create a knock-off Eames chair of nearly the same quality as an original," Beaton admits. "Any carpenter with a few tools and a saw can do it. But what you are paying for with the Eames chair is the authenticity of the original designer and the authenticity of his idea. It becomes about artistic integrity. You have the privilege of owning something that has been authorised by the Eames family and has been through quality control procedures; you're buying a little piece of this spectacular design inspiration that happened 60 years ago.

"It is about more than just price. Someone who wants to spend $1,000 (Dh3,673) on an Eames chair wants the experience that goes with it. The showroom, the sales person that knows what he is talking about; the history and background of the designer; the delivery; the different options; the services. You actually buy a much bigger experience. And there is a certain delight and pleasure in owning the real thing."

There are moral implications, too, says Beaton. "Who am I? What do I stand for? Wearing a fake says something about who you are, what your values are, what is important to you. Wearing or owning a fake diminishes your personal brand."

There are also safety issues at play. The problem with a knock-off is that it may look similar to a high-end brand but you have no guarantee that your table or chair won't collapse, or bits of your light feature won't fall off - with potentially disastrous consequences.

One toilet bowl may look much like another, but when it comes to a branded product, there is a lot of complicated technology going on behind the scenes that consumers are not always aware of. It may seem like the only difference between a Kohler and a "Kohlar" is the price tag but Michel is adamant that this is not the case. "How do you know the quality is the same? How do you know that it will flush effectively and last for years? How do you know that your glazing will last? We invest heavily in engineering, production processes and testing. So even if it looks the same, it's not. And when you start handling water, you have to be sure about safety and efficiency."

Ultimately, says Mirkku Kullberg, the chief executive of the venerated Finnish furniture brand Artek, it is the responsibility of brands to educate consumers on what they are offering, why it is priced the way it is and why it is worth investing in the real thing. "It is amazing how publicly accepted piracy culture is. If we can't educate the consumer about where the Eames lounge chair comes from, that there was a really talented couple that created that and they were working for years and years to make the right moulds, people just don't know."



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