Marco (Papa) Bonzanni & The Denim Revolution - Part 1

Marco (Papa) Bonzanni & The Denim Revolution - Part 1

We met Marco at Pitti Uomo a few years ago when he was introduced to us by another Italian friend, Maurizio Donadi, who used to be VP of Levi”s XX. Maurizio is a very charismatic and inspiring man who is always full of ideas, but we only ever meet for a couple of seconds somewhere. We ran into him at Pitti Uomo and he immediately introduced us to the guy he was with, saying: “Guys, this is the king of fabrics. If at one point you need the best fabrics in the world, you should call Marco.” Marco is a very humble, introverted guy and he looked at Maurizio as if to say, ‘Hey, do you have to put it like that?’ Even though he really is the best man in Europe when it comes to denim fabric.
We always kept Marco’s business card in his back pocket, and when we started developing Tenue de Nîmes jeans, we recalled the conversation we had in Florence and decided to contact him. He’s now the most amazing, helpful, thoughtful person that we know in the denim business. Besides being a huge inspiration for us when it comes to finding exclusive fabric for the Tenue de Nîmes brand, he is also been a great mentor to us for the whole production sphere. Marco Bonzanni is the one that introduced us to our current Italian production house, and is the one who opens doors that normally stay closed. No wonder that one day we just started to call him 'Papa' Bonzanni.
To us it felt like the right time to introduce Marco to you. Hopefully it will put an extra bit of love into that moment when you first try on a pair of Tenue de Nîmes jeans.

(TdN) Please introduce yourself and tell us about your background.
I started working in this industry by accident. Back in the day I was working in the hotel industry. After doing military service in Italy I went to Germany. While I was in Munich I decided the hotel business was not what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I decided to go back to Italy to finish my studies. Back in Bergamo there were a few big industries one could work in at that time, such as metal, electronics and textiles. By coincidence, Legler, which was one of the industry leaders in textiles, hired me. Legler was a Swiss company that established a branch near Bergamo, in Ponte St. Pietro, in the middle of the 19th century. They became of the biggest players in the world specialising in corduroy and cotton fabrics. They were also one of the first in the 1970s to industrially produce denim fabric. I started working there in June 1981 in their back-office and I became responsible for the Scandinavian and US markets. That’s where I met Andrew Olah for the first time [Founder of The Kingpins show and CEO of Olah Inc.]. I basically worked as his secretary and it was then that I fell in love with fabrics. Legler was my university and today I believe that the best people in the industry come from that Swiss ‘school’.

(TdN) What made you decide to leave the company?
When I started working at the company I saw the sales guys going to all the shows and bringing back the most amazing fabrics from their journeys. I started to get interested in that sense of adventure. In the meantime I was all over the place. I studied everything in the labs and basically learned everything about fabrics. But at one point I realised I wanted to go and sell stuff. After one year, during my annual review, I realised that this opportunity would not come along at Legler, so I decided it was time for me to leave. You may compare it to sitting on the bench at Real Madrid: You see everything happening in front of you but at one point you want to play! I have always been attracted to travelling and to the idea of having freedom to get to know the world. I was speaking English, French and German so I felt I had the world at my feet. But during those days I was working from 8 a.m. - 5 p.m. and then going to school from 6 p.m. - 11 p.m., so before I could make my move I wanted to finish my studies.
A friend of mine worked at Sgat, a company specialising in outerwear fabrics. The owner promised me that as soon as I finished my studies I would ‘get my own bag’. So in 1987 I started my sales adventure in fabrics and my first job in denim sales was at Montebello, a denim mill specialising in fancy denim fabric. After some steps in between, I became export manager of Legler in 1994. I was back at my starting point and they were still on top of the business of cotton, corduroy and denim, producing roughly 15 million meters of fabric per year.

(TdN) What was it that got you interested in fabric in the first place?
The end of 2000 and the beginning of 2001 was considered the biggest denim boom in history of denim. It became very boring though — we weren’t hungry to sell anymore. It was basically sitting in the office taking orders. Deciding every Monday who was going to get what. But I was lucky to get introduced to the Head of Sales at Kurabo [a Japanese denim mill] by Andrew Olah, and they looking for a European agent. It was a big jump in the unknown, going from a solid director position to go work on my own, but in order to convince me they took me on a trip through the whole chain: from the cotton mills in Thailand to China and eventually to their Japan facility. It was how I got convinced that this would be the ultimate step for me. Since that day I have been their European agent and I am very proud to be their European partner.

Read part II of the interview with denim legend Marco Bonzanni here.

Interview by Menno, portrait by Sophie Ebrard for Journal de Nîmes Nº13