KaramaComa: can design have an owner?
by Ali Khan
In the 1990s, an architect called Tinker Hatfield was highly inspired by the work of another architect, Richard Rogers, who had designed the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The result was the Nike Air Max.
Inspiration is fluid, and artistry acts as a conduit between ideas that exist in the universe and a human ability to translate them. The lines between creativity and copying have always been blurred and, in the greater scheme of things, probably don’t matter.
However, there are instances where they do matter, usually when there’s money involved, and especially in the side streets of one of Dubai’s oldest established neighbourhoods – Karama.
Going through the marketplaces of Karama, once upon a time, was a homage to the modern phenomenon that was the ‘genuine fake’. For those that were never initiated into this lifestyle choice - nay, cult - the ‘genuine fake’ is an item, usually of clothing, that is evidently ‘inspired’ by another design, to so great an extent that the design itself breathes an awe of ‘how the hell did they get away with it’.
The original designer’s reputation becomes highly affected without their consent or their reward, in the same way that any design copied by someone else would either embarrass them through being far worse or, god forbid, far better.
Basically, it’s theft. But until recently, it was the sort of theft that felt more naughty than wrong. Louis Vuitton would never have found out about his estranged sister, Louise Vitton, spending most of the 1990s in old Dubai. Nobody really got hurt. Especially Louise.
This phenomenon has now developed in new and multifarious ways, from architectural designs to furniture, all the way through to golf clubs and refrigerators, thanks in no small part to globalisation, the communication revolution, and China. It isn’t difficult to empathise with a creator’s disgust when receiving news of a ‘genuine fake’ of their design being marketed without their consent.
The sense of injustice is only perpetuated by a total lack of control over the situation. The ownership one feels for their ideas, especially for creatives and artists of all industries, is core to their sense of self-worth. The feeling of knowing that that worth has been so facetiously copied is tantamount to the feeling of first looking at yourself in one of those fat mirrors in a circus tent. Your sense of intelligence usually helps you get over it, but there’s a visceral shock factor involved that can linger subconsciously.
That naughtiness has changed somewhat. According to the International Chamber of Commerce, knock-offs have not only become a ‘legitimate’ part of the economic machine, they’ve practically become an economic sub-culture in their own right. Indeed, they estimate that around 5-7% of the global economy is comprised of such ‘genuine fakes’.
When such a large chunk of the entirety of humanity’s spending habits is dedicated to uncontrollable emulation, one can get pretty angry – that’s a lot of fat mirrors.
Most ‘genuine fakes’, like most instances of any theft in any situation, are the product of desperation over inspiration. When an artist steals, is it not their desperation that causes it? When they create, is it not their inspiration? Which of these two truly lie in the heart of the ‘genuine fakes’ of Karama? At our most honest and, sometimes horribly, revealing, which one would we prefer it to be to make sense of the phenomenon? What does that say about us?
The Nike Air Max may be one of the greatest love affairs of a designer who was so good at their craft that the material mattered not, and the great warmongering power of a team of marketing geniuses looking to flex their shoulders over the world’s wallets.
In the shadow of such awesome collaboration, inspiration over inspiration, is it any wonder that the ‘genuine fake’ world would give us the blister-filled pleasure of the ‘Nike Fairmax’, the ‘Nice Air Mark’, or the ‘NickerMax Pro’?
Is this purely detritus to consumerism, or is it an ode to the neverending chain of inspiration? Have not such fakes a place in this world too, if only to perpetuate the power of those they emulate? Are such statements not patronising to the legitimacy of the ‘Jordan Gucci Max’ as a prince of his very own culture?
The answer, from a ‘real-systemic’ point of view, is, of course, nope. It’s not naughty. It’s now just plain bad. Louis maybe couldn’t see, but now, Jordan can.
The Law is not designed to assume anything other than malice in such obvious situations. Indeed, in a bid to standardise the concept of legitimacy, authorities have made recent haste in ensuring that this sub-culture has no place in society.
By late 2017, ‘genuine fakes’ amounting to around Dh300 million had been seized that year, with Dubai authorities even citing such goods as a mechanism for fuelling organised crime and terrorism.
The power of institutions such as the World Trade Organisation are such that the standardisation of global principles of intellectual property are now the benchmark for those societies looking for an established place in the globalised world.
So be it. However, the logical economic conclusion to this lies in our cheaper air fares to Sri Lanka being balanced out by our saying goodbye to the beloved ‘Dike Superhowl’, that great fashion sneaker for the overly rebellious and/or the overly compliant, in equal and unequal measure.
Perhaps this also means saying goodbye to newer, arguably better, evolutions of the things around us today – everything generates an opportunity for improvement, and if the opportunity for improvement becomes overly limited by protection of ownership, we all lose out.
But the truth is that stealing ideas also destroys the love of creation, and stifles innovation. In the ‘real’ world, this is why we have copyright and patent laws, not only to protect ownership, but to ensure that no design enters the marketplace twice, whether as a genuine or a genuine fake.
However, in a fairer world, every lover of a design would, one day, have access to becoming patron of it, whether in a museum or on their feet. And every designer would be gifted with inspiration, rather than coveted by desperation, adding their take to whatever becomes a trend and helping it grow into new generations.
And until that fairer day comes, with great love for those dreamers who believe that it ever will, without condoning ‘Mike Fair Fax’ loitering on the side roads of Karama, one might give thought as to better ways to fix the dysfunctional love affair between this sub-culture protagonist and its dominant forbearer thereof, and understand what ingredients make an inspired and commercially just international design ecosystem over a desperate one.
Lest we find the same sarongs of Karama being sold in the high streets of London at fifteen times the price…
Ali Khan is a freelance global advisory consultant working between the regulatory systems of the UK and the Middle East. He is also one of the founding team members of the Wasla Music Festival in Dubai, Zabardast (the Indian Wrap Company) in London, and writes/sings/acts when he thinks himself out of a regular sleep pattern.