by Gene Fowler
There’s something about a vintage leather item. If it was well made with a fine grade of leather, a bag or jacket, a saddle or pair of boots can take on a sort of resonance. It speaks of the past. Its appearance comforts and soothes. And when the item was carried or worn by one’s family member in a world now gone, the leather’s quiet power and beauty is an emotional connection to that ancestor.
That’s certainly true of a leather map case carried by Daniel Ralsky’s grandfather in World War II. When the grandson first saw the case, while going through the grandfather’s mementos in suburban Chicago, its patina and character spoke to him. Years later, the vintage piece inspired Daniel to found Satchel & Page, a New York indie that produces exceptional leather products including bags, jackets, belts, portfolios and other small carry items.
As with so many one-of-a-kind outfits that produce fine leather items, Satchel & Page began with necessity sparking invention. After returning from a trip to Japan in 2013, the month-old bag Daniel carried fell apart. “Shopping for a replacement, I just couldn’t find anything that I thought was well made,” he says. “So, I started making wax canvas bags with elements of oil-tanned leather. I did that for a year or so, partly as a business, but also just kind of as a hobby.” A graduate of the University of Texas at Austin with an MBA, Ralsky had taken a job as a consultant with the energy giant Schlumberger. “But I got laid off after six months. I was not happy at the job and wasn’t that great at it, but it was really the first bad thing that had ever happened to me. I was $100,000 in debt from college loans.”
What is that old saw about one door closing and another opening? When Daniel stood in that metaphorical door, he saw his grandfather’s map case. “Listening to customers also influenced the move to all leather,” he adds. A 2014 Kickstarter campaign proved his hunch was right. Big time. “We sold $30,000 of bags the first night it was live.” In time, the campaign drew some 599 backers who supplied $288,000 in funding for the start-up.
But Satchel & Page offered the same caution as did the folks at American Bench Craft, who also ran a super-successful Kickstarter fund drive in 2014. Back then it was a lot easier to drive traffic to your campaign. Today, Daniel says, fundraisers might have to spend a lot of money advertising their project to achieve a similar result.
Ralsky’s products are based on timeless, classic designs of the 1940s and 50s, like the lines of his grandfather’s map case. “They’re also inspired,” adds the world traveler, “by a certain place or adventure.” An early bag, the Austin Messenger, produced when Satchel & Page was still based in Texas, reminded Daniel of vintage saddles he’d seen in the state. “We even sourced the leather for it in Texas.” Another early product, the colorful Alegna iPad Purse reminded him of his time working and living in Brazil. And he often wishes that he’d had one of Satchel & Page’s early Passport Travel Journals while backpacking through Europe. (We always think we’ll remember, but you need to write it down.)
In addition to Texas leather, in those days S&P sometimes acquired hides from Brazil and Mexico. But too often, Daniel found the South American leather to be dry and prone to cracking. “And the Mexican leather, of good quality for the first few orders, would often fall off. There would be bug bites on the hides and we’d receive grade c leather when we ordered grade a.
”After relocating his carefully growing company to the Big Apple in 2016 (the S&P distribution warehouse stayed in more centrally located Dallas, where it remains today), Daniel realized that the erratic quality of his leather providers was holding the company back and resolved to find a more dependable source of better-quality leather. “I didn’t have a background in leather or production, of course, so I had to amp up my research.” The quest included treks to massive leather trade shows in Hong Kong and Italy. “There were tanneries from all over the world. It was kind of overwhelming. You really needed to know what to look for to make the trip successful. Fortunately, in Italy I had the names of some specific tanneries ahead of time and was able to obtain about 10 or 12 sample hides based on a color swatch I’d sent around. It was medium brown with tan pullup. I asked the tanneries to match it.”
He chose a small family tannery in Ponte a Egola, a village in the central Italian region of Tuscany, which now provides the veg-tanned leather for most of Satchel & Page’s products. “The company was founded in 1986 and the founder’s grandson now runs its export business. I met them in 2017 and our first order was sent in the summer of 2018.” The tannery is a member of the Consorzio Vera Pelle Italiana Conciata al Vegetale (Genuine Italian Vegetable-Tanned Leather Consortium), a nonprofit organization of 20 artisan tanneries of the Tuscan Leather District.
Its mission, proclaims the Consortium website, “is to safeguard the centuries-old tradition of vegetable tanning, to protect a typically Tuscan product, to guarantee the quality of the raw material and workmanship [and] to promote the know-how of Tuscan tanners in the world.” The organization’s activities include “scientific studies and historical research, events, exhibitions and publications, [and] guided tours to the tanneries for fashion and design schools, seminars and practical workshops….”
Though S&P jackets are made in Turkey, everything else is crafted in Tuscany, not far from the tannery. “It’s a midsize production facility with 40 to 50 craftsmen that doesn’t take on too many clients,” adds Daniel. “They do production for a few brands in the U.S. and Europe, and they also have their own private label.” Along with its founder, Satchel & Page’s customers have been pleased with the switch, to put it mildly.
One reviewer of the Slim Mailbag, for example, a design inspired by USPS mailbags of the early 1900s, deemed its leather to be “absolutely gorgeous.” Like many S&P products, the hide origin is French cowhide shoulders. Daniel adds that the bag is “aniline dyed and hot stuffed with oils and waxes, resulting in a natural transparent leather. The French cowhide shoulders have the distinct characteristic of prominent wrinkles.” The regular, non-slim S&P Mailbag, designed with the Pony Express in mind, can accommodate a slightly larger laptop and is a little more popular.
The company’s best-selling bag is currently the Counselor, which features a Japanese YKK #8 Excella zipper, tobacco suede lining and antique brass hardware. Like so many S&P carry items, it is designed with a classic look, but offers the ability to transport just about all the tech you need when on the go. “We also have a tough time keeping the Gladstone in stock,” adds Daniel. “The design of its brass hinge opening originated in England in the 1890s. It’s a workhorse of a weekend bag and when you’re not using it, it will fill your home with the beautiful scent of vegetable-tanned leather.”
A particularly lively blogger, who describes his shared musings as “the (somewhat) rambling thoughts of a 40-something art history professor,” waxed philosophical on Daniel’s modern take on the original inspiration, the S&P Map Case. “I have many problems,” confided the professor and “one of those involves a predilection for leather goods and school bags.” (Note to prof: This is not a problem.) Not long ago, the art historian began “an intense, research-driven endeavor” to find a medium size bag that would hold an iPad, an iPod and a book or two. Discovering the Map Case, “I was immediately smitten.”
Musing about the design origin, the professor daydreamed that his own WWII ancestor carried one like it. “In short,” he summed, “it’s wonderfully functional. But beyond that, it just looks so damn great.” Ending on an even more personal note, he adds, “Daniel, the owner, was wonderfully kind to me.” And kindness, dear reader, is one quality that money can’t buy and never goes out of style. satchel-page.com/ pellealvegetale.it/en/