“I love stories about people who aren’t afraid to take a chance and give of themselves. I share with you the story of Vincente Pagalli, the name behind our project whose skills and generosity of spirit inspires us to make beautiful quality leather products that you can use.
It’s your journey too, enjoy it!” – Mauro Beck
The year was 1954 and Vincente Pagalli arrived in Bangkok on a small commercial fishing boat. He’d docked in Singapore, a month before, with little savings in his pocket, and unsure of what he would find but after a couple of weeks he knew it wasn’t there. So he kept moving. Pagalli negotiated with some local fisherman to take him as far as they would go. He ventured up the coast until he’d arrived in Bangkok and from the moment he stepped onto the hot and crowded city pier he knew he was in the right place.
Pagalli had come from a small village in Italy. The family business was shoes and he took to it like a fish to water. He loved it. As a young boy he would watch his father and his uncles producing soldier boots made of sturdy leather. First, he learned to care for the tools and then to assemble and stitch the shoes. Long hours were spent holding, pressing, sewing and gluing until young Pagalli could put together a pair of shoes with the precision of a surgeon.
At the age of 17, he made his first pair of shoes for himself. He could see his future stretched long before him and he wanted more. These were war years and modern industry was about to change everything. His plan was to learn the art of tanning and to turn his hands towards crafting fine leathers.
Over the next 7 years, Pagalli spend his days and nights in a small tannery working his way up from apprentice to leather craftsman. He did everything by hand, the right way. He loved the smell and touch of good leather and he loved even more the slow process of creating the perfect leather. In Italy after the war, Pagalli was just one of many such skilled young men, with dreams but little money. Every few days a truck would come to pick up the finished leather hides.
One day, he packed his few things and his tools into two beautiful sturdy leather bags, he’d designed and made for himself and he climbed into the back of the truck and headed for the port. At age 23, Vincente Pagalli, shoemaker and leather craftsman, negotiated a passage on a merchant vessel and began a journey.
On the steaming hot day he arrived at the crowded pier in Bangkok, he met a young Thai man. Chatchawan had been picking up fresh vegetables and fish for his parents noodle shop when he spotted Pagalli wandering in shiny leather boots and carrying two leather bags. Pagalli appeared friendly, so Chatchawan approached and gestured with hand signals for Pagalli to follow him to the noodle shop. Pagalli without reservation followed Chatchawan. Once there, the younger Chatchawan gently set Pagalli’s bags in the corner and offered him his first meal in Bangkok.
Pagalli was grateful for this hospitality but had little money, so in return for the meal and kindness he insisted on repairing the shoes of the entire family. He was excited for this opportunity to show his skills. They each had one pair of good shoes but Pagalli’s earnestness had swayed them to hand over their shoes to him. He asked for a small space to work in, very carefully he laid out his tools and he painstakingly went over each shoe until it was like new. At the end of the evening he had, neatly lined up by the door, three pairs of shoes practically unrecognizable to the family. The family was in awe. Inspecting his work and thoroughly impressed they offered him room for the night.
The very next day, although Pagalli knew no Thai, he made up a neat sign and stood with his tool bags on a sidewalk near the shop to offer his shoe repair service. He had so many customers that first day from curious passersby and those who really needed the service, alike, that it was unbelievable. Chatchawan really admired his new friend’s courage and the family appreciated his initiative and skills so much they told him he could stay with them as long as he needed. Chatchawan introduced Pagalli to many clients and within 6 months he could afford a mobile cart to work from. Pagalli’s friendly personality and professional craftsmanship attracted many and earned the respect of the people who came to him.
One day while working from his cart at his usual sidewalk spot, an older gentleman and businessman who had been coming to him for shoe repairs and cleaning for some time took notice of his tool bags, which Pagalli kept on his cart as a display. The gentleman inquired for a similar made bag and Pagalli without hesitation took the commission. The man wanted the bag rather quickly and Pagalli knew finding good leather in Thailand wasn’t going to be easy.
With Chatchawan’s guidance the two men set out for Klong Toey, Bangkok’s port area, to find a tannery. Pagalli was looking for something to match the fine leather quality he used to make in Italy, but many of the tanneries used processes and grades that turned out poor quality.
After many visits and discussions, Pagalli found a tannery that shared his vision of fine leather. They were willing to cooperate to improve their methods and in the process, create a leather he could use. A smooth naturally tanned leather that was thick, sturdy but flexible and would age beautifully. This leather would later be known as Marchesa Premium. With the leather in hand Pagalli crafted a bag that the gentleman couldn’t live without and it would become the cornerstone of a fledging business and partnership. In just 3 years the men were able to attract Sino-Thai investors and Pagalli and Chatchawan opened their first shop with 3 employees.
Pagalli was a man of detail so he apprenticed his employees like his father had done with him and every piece put out he carefully inspected, often fixing imperfections himself. Pagalli received many orders from locals and foreigners alike and he always gave priority to his customers and his partners. In ten years, this Italian man had become a fixture in a tight knit, elite business community. Something a bit strange though, Pagalli did not date and rarely went out. For the sake of being near his work, Pagalli had installed a small room above the shop to stay in. He was always there but he’d never laid down any roots.
Well, one day, Pagalli showed up at Chatchawan’s home and handed him the keys to the shop. The men looked deep into each other’s eyes and nothing else was said. Pagalli left everything, taking only some savings, the two bags and the tools he’d arrived with. In the years to come Chatchawan, now married, increasingly struggled with the business and his motivation, terribly missing his friend that had become an older brother to him. Yet no news ever arrived. Finally Chatchawan closed the business, sold everything and moved with his wife to Chiang Mai.
A new beginning
The story was completely lost, until one day in 2014 when I was at a noodle shop in Chiang Mai and while waiting, this older, very friendly gentleman sat down next to me. Chatchawan shared with me a part of his life story and the intriguing story of Vincente Pagalli and by the end of it I was completely enthralled. Who was this man with so much talent and drive, who had given so much to the community, to Chatchawan and then just one day got up and left? As a foreigner and businessman in Thailand I could completely identify with both men.
Here I was working to develop and connect products with our partners and customers in a meaningful way and this story fell in my lap. Chatchawan had no idea where Pagalli had gone and kept only a few things but, more importantly at least to him, he said he had his memories and with that, no regrets. He said- with wonderful appreciation, that Pagalli had come to him on that day he’d arrived in Bangkok and given him a life story. And he shared a little advice, too. He said, “Work wholeheartedly in everything you do and enjoy what you get from it. We don’t know what tomorrow brings”.
It took over a year of research to piece the journey of Vincente Pagalli and even though I still don’t know where he ended up I find this open ending inspiring. When we give wholeheartedly of ourselves our life continues in the things we create and in the people we touch. They tell our story. Pagalli was a pioneer, a man that had real skill and talent, along with the drive and the courage to share it freely and use it to help others. Chatchawan told his story and now we share it with you. In honor of this spirit, we have launched an assortment of fine leather goods that will tell our story and yours.
Thus the story of Vincente Pagalli, shoemaker, leather craftsman, entrepreneur, traveler, doer, shall live on.