Image credits: H&M
When well-known designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee launched a collection with clothing giant H&M on August 12, 2021, the Internet went into a frenzy.
While one section of people expressed disappointment at the styles, another snapped up the products on offer and most of the collection sold out within minutes. Mukherjee even posted on his Instagram account to say that he would try and ensure better availability in the future.
As memes about the collection flooded feeds, publications like The Print and authors like Shobha De, lamented ‘cancel culture’ and the fact that we were not celebrating the first Indian designer to follow in the footsteps of Lagerfield and Kenzo.
All this would have just been another hot take in a teacup, if it was not for allegations made by the Dastkari Haat Samiti through an open letter to Mukherjee on August 16. Dastkari Haat Samiti is a national association of Indian craft people established in 1986 by Jaya Jaitly.
The letter took exception to the H&M collection on several counts, the most serious of which are as follows:
“The publicity material implies that the range is connected with Indian craft. However, the range is not made by Indian artisans and with no visible benefit to them
Have the artisan communities that have the proprietary rights to these designs been credited or compensated in any way? In the case of some of the designs used in ‘Wanderlust’, the Sanganeri print artisans have a Geographical Indication registration (GI), which means they are legally recognised as the proprietors of this technique and design vocabulary”Open letter to Sabyasachi Mukherjee from Dastakari Haat Samiti
The letter has been signed by individuals and associations with proven credentials in the craft sector.
This is one more in a long list of accusations that concerns the Intellectual Property of artisans and craftspeople – a community that is not equipped to speak out against powerful designers and corporations. From Caroline Herrera’s appropriation of Mexican patterns to Urban Outfitter winning a legal battle against the Navajo tribe, this is an issue in search of a solution.
Ruchita Madhok, Co-founder of studio Kahani Designworks, which works closely with the cultural sector, points to Australia as a system that, after a long struggle, has put in place laws to protect ‘Indigenous Knowledge.’ Beyond that, Madhok says that the only solution is literacy around design ethics. “There is a clear difference between being inspired by a design tradition and replicating a pattern created by someone else. If designers understood this better, the instances of copyright infringement would reduce.”
Will Mukherjee and H&M take note or action? We can only wait and see. Meanwhile let us know what you think in the comments below.
Update August 19, 2021: According to this article, Sabyasachi has responded to the open letter in an Instagram post, where he says that the capsule for H&M was different to his usual repertoire, and cannot be judged by the same standards.
The writers of the open letter have deemed his response ‘disappointing.’