Paboy Bajong fled to Italy – then started a cushion empire

Naples increasingly feels like home, says the Gambian designer and asylum seeker, but starting his new business was hard work every step of the way.
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Born in Gambia, under the brutal dictatorship of Yahya Jammeh, Paboy Bojang was forced to skip formal education. From the age of 13, he had to work to provide for his family. As an apprentice at his uncle’s tailoring shop, he unknowingly picked up the skills that have made his bold and colourful cushion business, In Casa by Paboy, so successful today. 

But, in 2013, pushed to his limits by the corruption of his homeland, Paboy decided to move to Italy. Known as the ‘backway’ to Europe, the route was dangerous and took him two years. After he got to Italy, the challenges kept on coming – as a new arrival, he was placed in a refugee camp where he had to stay for two more years. But the camp was so overfilled and unsafe that it was shut down. 

It was a turning point, leading Paboy to arrive at a camp in the middle of Naples, a city he says feels increasingly like home. He got a job at one of Naples’ most prestigious majolica pottery workshops – before the slow processing of paperwork cost him his job at the end of 2019. It was a big setback, but he remained positive and picked up the sewing machine again. Using old strips of cloth, In Casa by Paboy was born. 

On the rise

‘Honestly, I haven’t always felt like I wanted to be a business owner,’ says Paboy, 28. ‘I was very good at football –that’s what I dreamed of. Being a business owner is something I didn’t have any experience of… Being an immigrant and setting up a business is not easy; it’s quite hard.’ 

Yet, in less than a year, he’s built a company that’s attracted praise from some of the biggest voices in design. Publications like the Financial Times and Vogue have featured his range of upbeat, colourful cushions – cushions that are also proving wildly popular with customers across the UK, Europe and the US in particular. 

In July 2020, Paboy launched his Instagram page, which, alongside a web store, remains his key point of contact with his customer base. Over the following nine months, he was busy building up relationships, but not just with consumers – also with the local suppliers who now offer him first choice and preferential rates on the Italian cotton that he exclusively uses on his designs.

‘When I was starting, I didn’t know any of the suppliers,’ says Paboy. ‘I would just go and see the colours and they’d ask what I was trying to do, what kind of colours [I was interested in]. This is how I built a relationship with them and then became friends.’ 

Starting a business from scratch is challenging enough in good times – and these are not good times. Without any money, Paboy invested the profit turned from his first sales directly back into the business. His cushions, some of which retail for €100, sell out fast. At the moment, In Casa ships between 80 and 100 orders a month, but he has plans to start upping production soon. 

Paboy’s asylum status made it important to make sure everything was perfectly above-board from the very start. ‘I don’t want to be illegal and hide work,’ he says. Establishing a VAT number and other tasks were tricky, but he found a way. ‘Being an immigrant is not easy,’ he says, smiling. ‘But I have to keep this apart from the business; everything is about waiting so I totally separate it from the business.’

Staying true to his principles 

Paboy’s long-term ambitions involve a bricks-and-mortar retail space. He also plans to expand to include a range of homeware products. ‘Design is what I’m really good at,’ he says. 

At his new office in a co-working space, where he handles production and distribution, he says: ‘Before, I was working in my flat, but I had an annoying granny who complained if anyone came up, so I had to find my own studio.’ 

With Paboy’s increasing popularity – from collaborators to would-be stockists, including London’s Liberty and Browns Fashion – he’s keen to pursue new relationships but production is an issue. All products are still handmade by Paboy or his assistant. 

‘Everything is going to be made by hand, even over the next five or six years; that’s what I want,’ he says. To achieve this, Paboy is in talks with immigrant associations in Naples, with a view to hiring the diverse – and highly skilled – workers who risk falling through the cracks. Moving forwards as a business owner, he says: ‘I always want to know what’s going on: to understand and to learn.’

This article was first published in Courier issue 41, June/July 2021. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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