Vodka company tells Everett’s Absolut Hair to rebrand or else

EVERETT — It wasn’t at all the kind of delivery that Jessee Skittrall expected last week at his Beverly Boulevard salon, Absolut Hair.

When the Federal Express truck pulled up, Skittrall might have thought a product delivery of shampoos, conditioners or the latest barrel hairbrushes had arrived.

Little did he know that his delivery contained papers from the Los Angeles office of international law firm McDermott, Will and Emery with an order that would affect his business and his staff.

“I was doing what I do every day,” Skittrall said. “It was a huge shock.”

Skittrall was told in no uncertain terms that Swedish vodka giant The Absolut Co. wanted him to change his salon’s name because of trademark infringement, since his spelling of Absolut is the same as the alcohol brand’s. The attorneys’ letter clearly gave him no choice.

“It makes no sense,” Skittrall said. “We are a neighborhood salon.”

Lawyers working on behalf of Absolut Vodka have given Skittrall until Jan. 1 to make the name change. When called Aug. 16, they had no comment on the issue.

The experience has left Skittrall shaking his head. His business is a small, local outfit. How can he possibly fight an international company with vast resources behind it?

The Absolut Co., based in Stockholm, was purchased by Pernod Ricard of France in 2008. Absolut vodka is sold in more than 125 countries.

Absolut Hair, at 7439 Beverly Blvd., has 12 staff members paid by the hour. Skittrall bought the salon in 2009. The name, Absolut, came with the business, which was established in 1998.

Absolut Hair concierge Boo Brantley said the previous owner chose the name because it came first in the phone book.

“Now we don’t use phone books,” she said.

To Brantley and others at Absolut Hair, forcing the trademark infringement almost feels like a joke.

“Jessee has had a big career and has Internet presence,” Brantley said. “But I can’t imagine how shampoo and hair gel could do anything to them (Absolut vodka).”

Rebranding an established business is a huge cost to an entrepreneur. There’s signage, stationery, a new website and other costs to consider.

“The reality is it’s going to cost me to rebrand,” Skittrall said. “It’s about $20,000.”

Skittrall volunteers his time through his philanthropy with 48 Hour Finishing School, a group that helps give job and life skills to young women leaving foster care. They also are treated to a new hairstyle at his salon. And Skittrall also cares about his employees.

“Jessee feels responsible for the lives and families behind these chairs,” Brantley said, nodding toward stylists working on clients’ hair. “He knows it will affect them and their families.”

After the shock of receiving the letter and processing what it meant, Skittrall spoke to a lawyer at McDermott, Will and Emery, then weighed his options. He has been told that hiring a lawyer would cost him more than the $20,000 he’d still have to spend to rebrand his business if he lost the case.

But Skittrall’s first concern is for his employees and clients, which has led him to focus on the positive side of what might be considered as a modern-day David versus Goliath battle.

The salon will hold a renaming contest on its Facebook page, Absolut Hair, after Sept. 1, where clients, friends and other local businesses have recently left comments. Others have called to offer funds, Skittrall said.

Rachel Chambers, hairstylist and makeup artist at Absolut Hair, has witnessed the kindness of clients and other local businesses.

“It’s silly that such a big corporation would be threatened by us,” Chambers said. “But there has been such a positive outpouring of love and support from people.”

As well as customers calling to help, two other vodka companies have offered Skittrall supplies for the rebranding party that will take place after September.

“We will persevere. This is a minor bump in the road,” Skittrall said. “We have a good team and you just gotta deal with stuff like this occasionally.”

On the Web

Absolut Hair’s Facebook page: www.facebook.com/AbsolutHair

Absolut Hair’s funding page: www.gofundme.com/3z6n8k

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