Christian Dior settles plagiarism dispute with People Tree's Orijit Sen

(Left) The People Tree print and the Elle India cover featuring actor Sonam Kapoor in a dress with a yoga print that the company accused Christian Dior of plagiarising
Over nearly three decades, People Tree carved a niche for itself among a liberal section, in Delhi first and then Goa, with its funky T-shirts and stationery laced with tongue-in-cheek jabs at large corporations and the government. Now, it has emerged victorious at the end of a David and Goliath battle after it accused French fashion house Christian Dior of plagiarising one of its block prints. With the row having turned into a cause célèbre on social media, graphic designer and People Tree co-founder Orijit Sen took to Facebook this week to announce that it had reached an out-of-court settlement with Dior and to thank supporters.

A non-disclosure clause in the settlement prevents People Tree from revealing details of the deal, but Sen is thrilled, as it means that a long-cherished dream can draw closer to reality. The company, founded by Sen and his wife Gurpreet Sidhu, started out at Connaught Place in New Delhi decades ago and, more recently, opened a branch in Goa’s tony Assagao. It also has a studio in an old house in Corjuem, a north Goan village. Now, they hope to convert the crumbling house into a full-fledged design studio and art residency.

In January, Sen’s daughter Pakhi spotted a yoga print on a Dior red cotton dress that was similar to one People Tree created years ago. The dress was worn by actor Sonam Kapoor who was featured on the Elle India cover.

After uploading photos of the prints online, an intense social media campaign driven by People Tree supporters made the mainstream media take notice. Sen, who enjoys a strong following that laps up his posts and sketches on politics and social justice on Facebook, was pleasantly surprised by the extent of coverage overseas — from The New York Times and The Washington Post to fashion blogs. After @Diet_Prada, a feared Instagram account that calls out plagiarism in the fashion industry, picked up the story, it quickly spread to an even wider audience globally. By the middle of February, Dior got in touch with the company.

Sen says, “All of it would not have been possible if hundreds of people on social media did not speak up strongly for us.” In their posts, users tagged the artistic director of Dior, just as it was publicising its fashion line that included the contentious print which made its way to a hat donned by its ambassador, actor Jennifer Lawrence.

While People Tree’s triumph is seen as one that would inspire small independent firms, craftspeople and rural artisans, Sen’s excitement over the unexpected financial gain fuelling their Goa plans is only natural. Two decades ago, a group of eight friends including Sen and Sidhu had bought the Goa house in a quiet, leafy village. Of late, People Tree has put in money and also taken loans from friends to repair it in fits and starts.

Into its 27th year, the company has chosen to function within a scale where its small team can be involved in the creative process that results in the end products. “People Tree has always been interested in creating a level playing field for artists, designers and craftspeople. They cannot be separated in terms of creativity, but in India craftspeople normally come from the weaker economic sections, artists from varied backgrounds and designers from institutional backgrounds. There are few opportunities for all three to interact,” Sen says, adding that the Goa studio would provide that space.

He feels that a residency experience is vital for the creative rejuvenation of artists, and adds that the art of drawing is disappearing in the design world because of computers. “This space will allow for many kinds of creative exchanges. We want to include local kids so that they can learn if, let’s say, we have an installation artist in the residency.”

Sen describes People Tree’s as a business that is “like a low-tech machine, which consumes less or more natural fuel, creates less pollution and does the job”. It may be one which would be seen as a failure in a capitalist paradigm, but it has allowed the company to stay true to its principles and pursue its craft without constraint. Even if it means standing up for the fights waged by many — or, sometimes, its own.

Business Standard is now on Telegram.
For insightful reports and views on business, markets, politics and other issues, subscribe to our official Telegram channel