Massive iron gates open to reveal well-manicured lawns that lead to a sprawling bungalow in Alipore. Once you step into the formal sitting room littered with exquisite decoratives, you're greeted by an unwelcoming, middle-aged lady who wants to know the purpose of your visit. On revealing that you're looking for designer saris or lehngas, the Q&A follows ' who are you; where are you from; why do you want the stuff; who referred you to this studio... The lady is joined by two others, and once you manage to convince all of them that you are a genuine customer of 'affordable' designer clothes, out tumble bundles of clothes that claim to be 'original copies' of city designers Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Anamika Khanna, Shantanu Goenka'
Welcome to the world of fake designer wear, an 'industry' that according to the Calcutta couture corps, far exceeds the size of the real designer wear market in the city.
Plagiarism, the biggest menace plaguing designers in town, started way back in the Seventies, when the only name on the couture block was Ritu Kumar. 'Calcutta has always been a hotbed of fake designer wear. My designs have been copied ever since I started,' complains Kumar, who recently won a case against 10 units in Calcutta and its outskirts churning out copies of her creations.
While rip-offs of big labels are common the world over, in India the copycat menace is the highest in Calcutta, rue designers. And they point fingers at the abundance of cheap, skilled labour in and around town. This, coupled with the easy availability of raw materials, has led to the emergence of a parallel market run by 'garage' designers.
Substantially low price points, possible due to the use of cheap materials, is what copycats cash in on. 'The fakes are usually offered at 1/3 or even 1/4 of the price of an original design,' reveals Kiran Uttam Ghosh.
The modus operandi is smooth as silk with constant innovation to boot. Some common copycat methods are:
Buying creations from reputed designers for imitation. Scouts are hired to visit boutiques and workshops of big designers posing as customers, bringing back the chosen work. A particular design is then mass-produced using cheap material. 'They don't mind making the initial spend as they know the profit they will reap from it will be many times the investment,' says Shantanu.
Alternatively, the designer creation bought by a friend or relative is borrowed. The lending rate is usually 50 per cent of the price of the garment for a week, time enough for replication.
Bribing karigars of senior designers to smuggle out designs. 'Since most designers have units outside their main workshops, the karigars are easily accessible and hence the pilferage happens. The only way to stop this is to have all your units under one roof so that you can keep a watch and nobody can reach your workers,' says Kiran.
Clicking designer wear with camera phones. This tech tool is the hottest thing going, with scouts hired by plagiarists walking into a designer store or workshop posing as clients and not even buying stuff. All they do is aim, shoot, download and copy. They usually carry a particular piece into the trial room and take close-up pictures of the garment from various angles. Not just stores or studios, camera phones even capture designs during ramp shows.
Stealing screens to stitch it right. There have been rare cases when screens of a designer's patterns have been stolen from the workshop. As in the case of Kumar, way back in 1999. 'One of the boys working as a maintenance contractor in my factory in Beleghata smuggled out several of my screens. He had a nexus with the security guards and with their help he loaded hundreds of screens on a truck at night. He not only opened a printing unit of his own in Dum Dum, but also sold the screens to other manufacturers,' says Kumar.
Ritu Kumar fought for her rights for six long years before the final verdict went in her favour. But what strengthened her case was the fact that most of her designs were patented. 'Unless you have your designs registered, your claims to a design won't hold. Patenting is a very lengthy process, but it's the only way to protect your creative rights,' she feels.
The law, however, doesn't make it mandatory to register a pattern created by a designer. 'Copyright accrues to a piece of work by virtue of its creation. It's not compulsory to register it,' says Shwetasree Majumder, lawyer of Anand and Anand, the copyright firm that fought Kumar's case. 'It definitely helps us to fight the case if a design is registered. But it's a very new concept and awareness is still pretty low.'
Patenting of patterns is usually done through copyright firms. Once a pattern (a print, embroidery or colour) is created and its swatches are printed, the design is photographed from all possible angles. The pictures are then produced at the patent office along with the swatches. If the patent office is convinced that the design is unique, it is registered in the designer's name and a number is issued.
'It's not physically possible to register each and every design your are creating in a year,' counters Pali Sachdev.
Adds Shantanu: 'Even if you have patent on a design, it's not possible for everyone to fight a case. By the time you win the case, the design will be dead and gone. So what's the use of patenting'
Designers here instead rely more on their internal security systems to deal with the problem. Installing CCTVs and security guards at the workshops, and screening clients carefully are the popular measures undertaken.
But that does not stop the garage designers from outsripping the established ones in the numbers game, stealing both cuts and clients.