Fashion designer Roberto Cavalli has angered many Sufi Muslims for using what many consider a sacred religious emblem in a racy perfume ad.
The Italian fashion designer says the contentious two-pronged symbol, stamped on the necks of two scantily-clad models, simply represents a snake bite.
“The tattoo is the bite, the snake bite. It draws us together. And it’s basically the sign of seduction,” said model Georgia May Jagger, 22, in an interview for the scent — Just Cavalli — gesturing to the black tattoo on her wrist.
But those who study Sufism, a mystical tradition within Islam, claim the designer hijacked the holy emblem to sell perfume. The nameless symbol spells the word “Alla,” meaning God, twice and the disciple “Ali” four times. It has appeared in Sufism texts dating back 150 years.
“Cavalli says it represents a snake bite, and that snake bite represents sexuality, primality. It’s in diametric opposition to what this symbol means for us,” argued Nasim Bahadorani, an American public health doctoral student protesting the campaign.
The debate has raised questions about the finicky line between originality and appropriation in logo design. The Cavalli logo is rotated 90 degrees from the Sufi symbol and printed in a snakeskin pattern.
Those differences were sufficient enough for a European lawsuit, put forward last fall by a Sufism school that owns the trademark for the similar logo, to be dismissed by the European Union’s Office for Harmonization in the Internal Market (OHIM) in May.
“The court states that the two logos are not mistakable and do not present any similarities,” said Cavalli’s company in a statement to Torstar News Service.
Still, the fashion-versus-faith debate is far from over. A Toronto protest will be held Saturday at Holt Renfrew, which sells the perfume, where an estimated 200 Sufi students are expected to gather at 2 p.m.
Protesters aim to reclaim the symbol, which they say represents “peace, purity and the name of God.” They say Cavalli has tarnished the holy symbol by appropriating it in a sexually provocative ad campaign.
The ad has offended those outside the faith. In one commercial, two models slowly undress as they run through abandoned hallways, throwing articles of clothing at each other. The overtly sexual ad sparked complaints to the U.K. Advertising Standards Authority, which were not upheld.
Religion aside, “the most important thing is trademark infringement, the second layer is the insult,” said Bahadorani, a public health student who has protested Cavalli across the United States.
Sufi students, of which there are an estimated 500,000 globally, have protested outside Cavalli stores on Rodeo Drive in Orange County and New York City’s Madison Avenue, snowballing their following with the Twitter hashtag #TakeOffJustLogo. A similar protest has already been held in Vancouver.
“They have been repeatedly ignored,” said Bahadorani.
In response to the protests, Cavalli’s company said it is “deeply saddened by the distress expressed by the Sufist School students, but hopes that the sentence emitted by a competent authority such as the OHIM, will convince sufist religion (sic) of the complete good faith and the groundlessness of their requests.”
It’s not the first time Cavalli has been under fire by a religious group. In 2004, the designer drew ire from the Hindu community for displaying images of Vishnu, Lord Rama and Devi Swaraswati on bikinis. The line was quickly pulled from many shopping outlets, including Harrods in London.
“We obviously didn’t realize this would cause offence,” a Cavalli spokesman told Vogue at the time.