Vietnam’s Mr. Gessler, 88, has no intention of dropping the other shoe

By Long Nguyen, Chau Dong   October 29, 2019 | 10:45 pm PT
He’s been making shoes for 60 years. He’s had two cataract surgeries. At 88, he’s got no thought of calling it a day.

Trinh Ngoc’s life imitates art.

He does not know it, but his life has striking parallels with the protagonist of John Galsworthy’s famous short story, Quality, who doggedly perseveres with handmade shoes even as machine-made, large scale production takes over the market completely.

At 88, Ngoc is busy in his small shop in central Saigon, meticulously cutting leather pieces and then moving to a sewing machine.

"This shoe is for one of my loyal customers. He is American, comes to Vietnam twice a year and always buy up to 10 pairs at a time," he said, smiling broadly.

Ngoc was born in the southern province of Bac Lieu in 1931. He never imagined he would become a shoemaker until he turned 14.

Ngoc works on a piece of crocodile leather. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Huy.

Ngoc works on a piece of crocodile leather. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Huy.

Back in 1945, his hometown was taken over by the French, forcing his family to flee to many places before setting down in a suburban area of Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

"My family was so poor and we were trying to find a livelihood. My sister learned sewing, my brother learned suitcase-making, and I chose to do shoes," he said.

However, Ngoc was not satisfied working on repairing shoes. He would surreptitiously watch people making shoes and quickly picked up the ropes.

After six years, Ngoc decided he knew enough to open a shop in central Phnom Penh, taking his brothers' name: Duc Phat. In Galsworthy’s story, the shop is called the Gessler Brothers.

However, he struggled to find customers, especially those who could afford buying custom-made shoes, Europeans and Americans. Almost no one asked him to make new shoes. Instead, they bought imported shoes and asked Ngoc to customize them.

Ngoc never gave up on his passion, though. He would stay up all night studying his clients' shoes to learn European shoemaking techniques.

"I realized there was a huge gap between my skills and their techniques, so I learnt a lot to improve myself."

Soon, he started making new shoes and displaying them in the shop, wowing many people who could not believe that they were handcrafted by a Vietnamese souter.

Ngoc also joined a shoemaking course in France, learning foot anatomy and European handcrafting techniques to make the most comfortable shoes for his patrons.

Ngocs notebook from the shoemaking course. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Huy.

Ngoc's notebook from the French shoemaking course he took to improve his skills. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Huy.

"The prime era of Duc Phat was in the 1960s. Lines of cars from the embassies of the U.S., Britain and the Soviet Union were in front of the store. They all loved my shoes. But my most memorable client in Cambodia was King Norodom Sihanouk."

Once Ngoc's reputation reached the royal family, Norodom Sihanouk had his chauffeur visit the shoe store, and take the store’s owner to the palace.

"The King had always worn French and Italian shoes. I was astonished and thrilled when he asked me to be his souter."

On some special occasions, when the royal family wanted to have shoes with traditional Cambodian traits, Ngoc spent days at the museum in Phnom Penh learning local culture and tradition to come up with intricate patterns, using brocade fabric and other traditional materials.

The Cambodian Queen, who always loved shoes with traditional features, was one of the most lenient people he has ever met, Ngoc said.

In the 1960s, he was invited to the royal palace about seven times. "Mr. Duc Phat" became well known not only in Cambodia but also in his home country, Vietnam.

But, as the saying goes, "Man plans, God laughs." At the peak of his business, as his life flourished, he lost everything.

Restarting from scratch

The Khmer Rouge regime’s 1970 takeover of Phnom Penh removed Norodom Sihanouk as Head of State and plunged the country into a violent nightmare.

"The city was chaotic. My wife had to hide in the hospital and I was at home for days, closing the door and finding ways to escape," Ngoc recalled. Eventually, he left everything in Phnom Penh and went back to Vietnam.

Empty handed, he stayed in a house in Saigon and spent months researching the shoe market in the southern metropolis.

Then he started from scratch again, making new products and finding distributors.

Ngoc introduced his shoes and quickly got the nod from shop owners in Grands Magasins Charner (widely known as Saigon Tax Trade Center), the most popular place for imported products in Saigon in the 1970s.

"They did not believe the shoes were Vietnamese-made and asked me to use a foreign brand name, so I chose Baly. People quickly called me Mr. Baly and came directly to my place after finding out who made the shoes."

Ngoc works on his old sewing machine. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Huy.

Ngoc works on his old sewing machine. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Huy.

He earned acclaim among celebrities, diplomats and officials in the city. The alley on Tran Dinh Xu street, where he lived became crowded as more customers wanted to buy shoes directly from the shoemaker, attracting the attention of local police.

"But people did not care, they still came to my place and asked for new shoes."

Despite the demand, Ngoc’s slow and steady approach never changed. He saw his shoes as works of art that reflected each wearer’s personality. He always asked his customers a lot of questions to get a better understanding of their needs and expectations.

In 1992, he gave up his shop, by then established as a national enterprise, and decided to retire. Around this time he was offered a $5 million investment by a Taiwanese businessman to launch and operate a shoe factory in Vietnam, but Ngoc turned it down.

"If I had taken it, I might not have been myself because making shoes is an art, not an industry. I want to spend more time to create the shoes on my own, not chase after sales and profit."

Missing the smell of new leather, he decided to open his own store and planned to run it until 2000. 20 years after that deadline, the store on Ly Chinh Thang Street in Saigon's District 3 is still open, has never closed for the last 27 years.

Ngoc says footprints are similar to fingerprints, unique, so he takes great care when he traces a person's feet.

In all these years, Ngoc has had several students, but the idea of finding a successor has never come to mind. "It is not easy to find a young person who can sit and stitch every shoe or cut every piece of leather.

"It takes days to create a pair of shoes with one’s own hands. I can't force anyone to choose my way," said Ngoc before going downstairs to talk to a Frenchman, another loyal customer.

The Frenchman stepped on a piece of paper, leaned forward and put pressure on it as Ngoc used a ball pen to trace his feet. He then used a tape to measure what he’d drawn.

He spent about 15 minutes talking to his customer fluently in French before making a final decision on the design and material of the shoes, which would cost $300 and take ten days to finish.

As he began stitching a pair of uppers and soles, he said: "If I close this store, who will talk to my client and help them with new shoes? I can't imagine that."

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