THE DATU, a card case shaped like a shield

CHRISXAVIOR Bautista Aguila, founder and one-man worker of leatherware brand SATO does his own sewing — in the times that BusinessWorld could contact Mr. Bautista Aguila, he would sign off by saying that he had to go back to sewing.

His brand was founded in May 2020, just two months after the initial pandemic lockdowns of March 2020 and consists of wallets, cases, money clips, purses, tags, bags, and other leather accessories.

“Hard is an understatement. Being a one-man team is vigorous. The level of accountability is through the roof. If I don’t get things done, I know it’s on me and only me,” he said in an e-mail to BusinessWorld, on the question of working alone. “On the brighter side, it also teaches me how to value my time wisely and it gives me more self-worth knowing that I can do it and I can accomplish things even though I am alone and pressed for time.”

What was it like opening a new business in the field of fashion during the height of the pandemic, when people were scrambling over essentials? “I launched my brand in the middle of mayhem, May 2020. I thought long and hard about doing it but that only gave me more stress so I decided to just wing it. I GOT NOTHING TO LOSE. (Capitalization his) If I didn’t do it, I’d still be on the drawing board thinking about countless what if’s and I did not want that,” he wrote.

Mr. Bautista Aguila had previous jobs in real estate and advertising, but his irritation with his wallet was what launched him onto a new path. “I like my hands free, but I needed something where I could put my essentials and my bulky wallet wasn’t doing it for me. I did not know how to make one so I reverse-engineered my wallet and made one from scratch. I enjoyed the process and realized I can do it for a living. “I knew ever since I was young, that I would end up doing something with art but did not know exactly what it was until a few years ago,” he said.

His previous work experience has helped his work now: “I learned how to communicate with different kinds of people both in real estate and advertising which is crucial when making a sale and I am using this skillset to my advantage. Everybody can be a salesman but not everybody can make a sale. These previous jobs were integral and I can say I got a pretty good training ground.”

The brand is already deeply personal since it is his own hands that make his items, but his own story is imprinted on the brand, down to the name itself, SATO, which comes from his father’s own name. “The first-ever wallet I made was [finished] the day he passed away. I want to honor his name and continue his legacy by being a hard worker myself,” he said.

Mr. Bautista Aguila’s stock has a strong Filipino flavor, with items named after words in Filipino like Datu (the title of precolonial local chieftains; a card case shaped like a shield); the Dayang (named after an old Filipino word for a noblewoman; a coin purse), and the Kalasag (also a small coin purse; named after a shield). While beginning initially with these small leather goods, he has since released a bag (shaped like a satchel, called the Kilig). He told BusinessWorld that he’s working on a few more bags; but also planning to launch a shoe collection.

“I love the Filipino language. Whether it’s Tagalog, Cebuano, Ilonggo… and I’ve always been proud of my roots. We have a plethora of beautiful words that we seldom use and in my own little way I want to be the brand to bring them back in(to) circulation,” he explained.

“I am a Filipino brand through and through and if we are fortunate enough to be known globally, I want everyone to know more about the Philippines and our rich, colorful history and culture,” he said. He calls his clients “maharlika” (a precolonial class of free, not enslaved, persons). Describing the profile of his customers, he said, “These are people who know what they want and know how to get it. They are driven and motivated. Self-made. Continuously growing and improving. When they send an inquiry, they already know they want my product and will only ask a few questions before they make a purchase on the same day.” His Instagram page, @satoandco, has video feedback from pleased clients dating back to about a year ago (and even a lot of likes and a post from fashion designer Francis Libiran).

He works with vegetable-tanned leather. “Vegetable tanned leather is arguably one of the best when it comes to leather quality,” he said. “It can be tooled but is sturdy enough to last a lifetime. It also gives you a gorgeous patina as it ages and it definitely gives each piece more character than it already has.”

He finds leather a wonderful medium to work with. “I like to say it’s expectedly unexpected. Not every leather is the same and that’s the beauty of it. There is always going to be a new experience. A new mistake. A new learning. This makes every product I make as unique as it can get. You are certain that what you have is the only one that exists and that gives each build its individuality.”

Since Mr. Bautista Aguila makes the pieces himself, each piece comes out differently. “There is always a different outcome. There is always interesting feedback. This makes for a better customer experience. Me as the maker and my Maharlika always learn a lot from each piece. Always tailor-made for that specific time and that is why handmade goods are exceptional.”

A one-man team can’t be expected to make a lot of things. In the business of fashion, success usually comes from ubiquity, when everybody has what you make, or at least, wants it. In the case of Mr. Bautista Aguila, he says, “It’s the exclusivity. Knowing that there are only a few pieces out there makes each piece coveted. I am not a fast-fashion brand to begin with.

“Most think of success as having lots of sales and an exorbitant amount of money but not happiness. I’m not a hypocrite, of course money can be a measure of success. It makes things move but it can only do so much,” he said.

He measures success in another way. “Not a lot of people can say they are happy with what they do. I am fortunate enough to wake up every day doing what I love and for that I am extremely successful.

“I already found my happiness.”

To learn more, check out SATO’s Instagram page, @satoandco, and website, —  JL Garcia