In a biZARA twist, Inditex goes with cudgels after one-woman biz

Fashion giant Inditex has taken umbrage to a Vietnam-born entrepreneur for using the name 'Tara Sartoria' for a small artisan-driven clothing business that she had founded and was selling through the website tarasartoria.com. A texfash.com report.

Long Story, Cut Short
  • Tara Sartoria does not have a single employee: it started as a one-woman business, and is still one.
  • Thao Nguyen works with a small workshop of artisans in Vietnam. In sense, scale and proportion, the entire episode is an exemplar of a mismatch.
  • The clothing is handcrafted in limited quantities and follows sustainable practices.
Inditex SA, a multi-billion-dollar apparel company with over 6,000 retail stores worldwide is taking legal action aganst Tara Sartoria, a small artisan-driven clothing business supporting independent artisans and women, for alleged violation of the former's trademark.
Unequal Battle Inditex SA, a multi-billion-dollar apparel company with over 6,000 retail stores worldwide is taking legal action aganst Tara Sartoria, a small artisan-driven clothing business supporting independent artisans and women, for alleged violation of the former's trademark. Tara / Inditex

In the early days of November last, when the entire retail industry in the US was gearing up for a sales blitzkrieg for the ensuing festival season to make up for the slump they had been through, an insipid, jargon-laden mail landed in the mailbox of a small business owner based in Chicago.

She had to read the mail more than once to make sense of it, and when she did, it shook Vietnam-born entrepreneur Thao Nguyen out of her wits. The mail was from a lawyer firm representing Inditex, the owner of brand Zara, arguably the world’s most well-known fast fashion brand.

The message was as intimidating as it was stark: that she was to withdraw her UK and US applications (for trademark), surrender her EU application, change her trading name and, over a reasonable period of time, stop using the "TARA" name and rebrand to a name that is not confusingly similar (to Zara).

The message ended with a not-so-veiled threat: opposition would be filed, and "our client" reserves its right to take other action.

Inditex had apparently taken umbrage to Nguyen using the name 'Tara Sartoria' for a small artisan-driven clothing business that she had founded and was selling through the website tarasartoria.com, a platform set up with a Shopify backend.

Slowly, the message sank in, and so did Nguyen's heart. In December, Inditex filed legal opposition to the Tara Sartoria trademark application in the UK. And, the long-drawn ordeal began.

[Inditex has not responded to mails sent by this writer. Mails were sent on 14 February and 9 March]

 

Tara Sartoria does not have a single employee: it started as a one-woman business, and is still one. Thao Nguyen works with a small workshop of artisans in Vietnam—all of them women, and engages with four—at times five—others on a contractor-freelancer basis for her admin, social media and design chores. Nguyen had launched her online store only a year earlier, in November 2020, in the middle of a raging pandemic in the US.
The One with Guts Tara Sartoria does not have a single employee: it started as a one-woman business, and is still one. Thao Nguyen works with a small workshop of artisans in Vietnam—all of them women, and engages with four—at times five—others on a contractor-freelancer basis for her admin, social media and design chores. Nguyen had launched her online store only a year earlier, in November 2020, in the middle of a raging pandemic in the US. Thao Nguyen

Tara is no Match for Zara

In sense, scale and proportion, the entire episode is an exemplar of a mismatch.

Industria de Diseño Textil, S.A. (Inditex, for short) is a Spanish multinational clothing company headquartered in Galicia, in Spain. Inditex is the biggest fast fashion group in the world, with 6,477 stores in 95 markets worldwide. Its flagship brand is Zara, and it also owns Bershka, Massimo Dutti, Oysho, Pull&Bear, Stradivarius, Uterqüe and Lefties. Inditex’s sales in 2021 were of €27.7 billion. Taylor Wessing LLP, on the other hand, is an international law firm with 28 offices worldwide. It has over 300 partners and more than 1,000 lawyers worldwide.

In contrast, Tara Sartoria does not have a single employee: it started as a one-woman business, and is still one. Nguyen works with a small workshop of artisans in Vietnam—all of them women, and engages with four—at times five—others on a contractor-freelancer basis for her admin, social media and design chores. Nguyen had launched her online store only a year earlier, in November 2020, in the middle of a raging pandemic in the US.

Nguyen works directly with artisans in traditional silk villages in Vietnam, and also Indonesia. The clothing is handcrafted in limited quantities and follows sustainable practices: minimal packaging, handmade production with low impact on the environment, zero waste of fabric, and usage of eco-friendly materials. Tara Sartoria also grants university scholarships and donates 10% of the profits.

In fact, Nguyen was herself the beneficiary of a scholarship once. She went to Australia for a Master’s in Electronic Commerce at Curtin University of Technology in 2000, and then earned a scholarship to do a PhD in Business Information Systems in 2004–08. From 2009 to 2011, Nguyen was based in the UK, having received the prestigious Newton International Postdoctoral Fellowship for a multi-country research project in Brazil, Kenya and Vietnam to evaluate needs of women entrepreneurs and recommend innovative strategies for empowering women to start businesses.

Before Tara Sartoria, she had been around, first in academia as a lecturer at Curtin University, and then as an IT consultant. She also started a couple of businesses and worked as an international development consultant where she provided research and advisory services for international development agencies on women’s entrepreneurship for women empowerment.

"What I feel passionate about is to provide women with opportunities to fulfill their potential, having come from Vietnam and experiencing first hand the hunger for opportunities and the willingness to work hard, as well as the power of education and entrepreneurship in lifting women and communities out of poverty. My work as a consultant in international development as well as my postdoctoral fellowship research, and now Tara Sartoria, were born out of this commitment."

But all that seems in the distant past, now that she gears up for a highly probable courtroom drama.

When she had gone scurrying for counsel shortly after the November missive, the overwhelming response from most was this: just give up and move on. But Nguyen decided to live on and fight.

Nguyen contends: "Tara Sartoria is named after Tara, the Buddhist goddess of compassion and protection. Tara was born from a lotus, the flower depicted in the Tara Sartoria logo. The goddess Tara has been known throughout the world for over 3,500 years. In comparison, Zara has existed for only 47 years. Should a corporate giant be allowed to stop a small enterprise from using a name that is not only substantially different, but has completely distinct origins, and is a deeply significant part of its founder’s personal cultural heritage?"

She attempted a petition and a fund-raiser. But after the initial flutter, some traction waned away, in a milieu where public attention span is as short as the reels they produce on Instagram. The fund-raiser did not get much traction, but the petition did, and continues to. It is now at 14,218 signatures on  Organise.network and 5,481 on Change.org.

Tara Sartoria is named after Tara, the Buddhist goddess of compassion and protection. Tara was born from a lotus, the flower depicted in the Tara Sartoria logo. The goddess Tara has been known throughout the world for over 3,500 years. In comparison, Zara has existed for only 47 years.

Thao Nguyen works directly with artisans in traditional silk villages in Vietnam, and also Indonesia. The clothing is handcrafted in limited quantities and follows sustainable practices: minimal packaging, handmade production with low impact on the environment, zero waste of fabric, and usage of eco-friendly materials. Tara Sartoria also grants university scholarships and donates 10% of the profits.
A Question of Commitment Thao Nguyen works directly with artisans in traditional silk villages in Vietnam, and also Indonesia. The clothing is handcrafted in limited quantities and follows sustainable practices: minimal packaging, handmade production with low impact on the environment, zero waste of fabric, and usage of eco-friendly materials. Tara Sartoria also grants university scholarships and donates 10% of the profits. Thao Nguyen

A Drain on Resources

What is interesting to note is that Nguyen had filed for trademark in three jurisdictions: the US, UK and EU. The legal notice did not come from the US (where Nguyen is based) or the EU (where Inditex is headquartered), but in the UK. Incidentally, London has been notoriously referred to often as the libel capital of the world. This one, nevertheless, is a trademark issue.

A trans-Atlantic wrangle also means a continuous drain on monies. Nguyen had put in all her resources to start her clothing brand. A simple re-branding would not be as simple as it may sound; it would mean starting from scratch--trademark, domain name. Everything. All work hitherto would have gone down the drain. Either way it is debilitating.

She describes Inditex's action as an "over-reach," as she wonders who Inditex will target next. Nguyen throws up her hands in despair: "Will they go after everyone whose name ends in -'ara'? Sara, Mara, Dara..." The going has been hellish, but Nguyen retains a sense of humour as she recollects before going into a fit of giggles: "Initially, I thought it was junk mail."

Just that it wasn't.

And, as you read this, Zara would have raked in a few more millions, Tara/Thao would have been squirming over her next move, and 10 women in a far-away Vietnamese semi-urban setting would have been wondering whether they would get another set of orders.

What I feel passionate about is to provide women with opportunities to fulfill their potential, having come from Vietnam and experiencing first hand the hunger for opportunities and the willingness to work hard, as well as the power of education and entrepreneurship in lifting women and communities out of poverty.

 
 
  • Dated posted: April 1, 2022
  • Last modified: April 1, 2022