Imagine the outrage an average Canadian citizen would feel if they were strolling through Harrods in London, gazed down at a display case and saw a humble Montreal Canadiens tuque dressed up as a luxury hat retailing for 20 times its cost.
Imagine, further, that this uplifted hat was named something ridiculously, impeccably, pretentiously English – perhaps the Sir Giles or the Duke of York – while also failing to credit or refer to the culture or country from which it came in even the most cursory of ways.
Similar conniptions are now flowing through the Pakistani twittersphere. Sir Paul Smith, the well-known British designer behind the popular label, has launched a high-end sandal that looks suspiciously like the Peshawari chappal, a popular shoe worn by millions of Pakistani men on formal occasions, such as weddings or when they are celebrating Eid. A pair costs about $15.
These high-shine, buckle-at-the-back black sandals debuted on Paul Smith's website at the very un-chappal cost of £300 ($554 Cdn) under the name "Robert," sporting a distinctive hot pink stripe round the outside of the sole. When the shoe originally went up for sale, there was no reference to Pakistan or Peshawar (the capital of Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, formerly the North-West Frontier province), and it struck some Pakistanis as being a blatant case of cultural appropriation – a modern day, more profit-motivated version of what pith-helmeted British explorers used to do when they found something they fancied in another culture. Something tells me the marketing folks at Paul Smith thought they'd get more luxury mileage out of "Robert" than calling it the "Nawaz."
An article in the Pakistani newspaper Dawn highlighted the digital outrage and also canvassed noted Pakistani designers.
"The initial reaction was just WOW," said designer Nomi Ansari. "What really made me upset is when I did not see the country, region or culture inspiration mentioned. Instead they're calling it 'Robert' sandals. If they had been Indian sandals, that association would've been highlighted in capital letters. It's not really stealing directly, but yes one Pakistan/Peshawar mention would've been an answer to many questions being raised now."
One foreign correspondent working in Pakistan joked on Twitter that the cost breakdown was 15 pounds for the actual shoe and 285 pounds for the hot pink stripe. But most of the anger was from Pakistanis, including some people of Pakistani heritage living in the UK. There is even a petition on Change.org with 421 signatures. It says, in part: "Here I request concerened (sic) authorities to ask the company in question to sell the product as [P]eshawari chappal (sandal) to show respect to the local culture/traditions as it matters a lot to the Pashtun people living around the world particularly in UK."
And, in a way, it seems the anger has worked. Paul Smith's current listing for the chappal previously known as Robert no longer sports the name "Robert," and now features on overt reference to being "inspired by the Peshawari Chappal." It says something about our era of globalization, perhaps, that digital controversies can force a company to change track, no matter where they start.