Based in Cambodia, Smateria fuses together fashion, social consciousness, and sustainability.
Jennifer Morellato had a background in tourism and political science when she travelled to Cambodia to join her husband who was working there at the time. “So nothing to do with bags,” she exclaims when I ask her how she came to become the co-founder of Smateria, a social enterprise producing bags made of upcyled and recycled materials.
Nothing had pre-disposed this Italian woman to start such a business in Cambodia. She was actually meant to stay in the country for only a week when she initially came two decades ago. But she “fell in love”, she tells me, “with the country, the culture, the energy, everything” and decided to stay.
Jennifer shares with INKLINE the story behind how Smateria came to life and why her and Elisa, her co-founder, decided to mix fashion with social consciousness.
INKLINE: How did Smateria come to life and how did you meet your co-founder Elisa Lion?
Jennifer Morellato: I got pregnant with my first daughter [who was born in Cambodia] and when she was six months old, I joined a baby group in Phnom Penh. It was happening twice a week, every time in a different house, and that’s during one of these baby groups that I met my business partner Elisa!
She is also Italian so the common background was what brought us together very quickly. She started talking about how happy she was to be in Cambodia and how she had so many ideas for future projects.
She actually had a project ready to take off and so the next day she invited me for coffee and she explained that she would like to design bags and that her passion was really more in creating the material and in seeing the potential in very common materials. She said that she had gone to the market and thought it was heaven. Then she showed me these rolls of netting, which is was we mostly use now in our collections, and showed me her first prototype. I really loved it and I said that she should really consider doing something here [with this idea].
It was the right time at the right place because in Phnom Penh in 2001 what you could buy was very limited. There was just local markets with silk products. She spontaneously said that she would love to do something but not on her own and asked me if I would like to join the adventure.
So we really started not really knowing each other but for some reasons trusting each other! Before coming to Cambodia, Elisa came from 10 years of experience working in China and that turned out to be really useful because we went to local markets and this kind of business [in Cambodia] was managed mostly by Chinese or Cambodian Chinese.
We negotiated the first few sewing bags and realised that we needed a pattern maker so we found one in a school. Then we found the first tailors and we started working on the first prototypes in the garage of my house. Later on we decided to try to go for real and we opened our first store on Street 57 here in Phnom Penh.
We wanted to give good working opportunities and be a place where people could grow together and exchange ideas.
I: A lot of the material that you use to produce your bags are either upcycled or recycled, could you tell us a bit more about that aspect?
J: The netting that covers more than 90% of our entire production is not a recycled material but it is upcycled and repurposed. It’s a material that in Cambodia is used for fishing, to dry rice in the countryside or to filter the cement on construction sites. We wanted to use it in a different way and to turn it into something beautiful.
We also work with recycled plastic and with upcycled leather. We basically purchase left overs from factories that are producing leather sofas and we play with the material.
I: When did you decide to set up Smateria as a social enterprise and why?
J: Since day one! We really decided to create Smateria because there was this great energy we wanted to express. We sat down and immediately agreed on the way we wanted to set up the company. We wanted to give good working opportunities and be a place where people could grow together and exchange ideas.
We didn’t decide to start this business in Cambodia because of cheap labour! It just happened because we met here and it was also the right place to do it because Cambodians are very good at using their hands and being manual.
We really didn’t see any other way of running the business than doing something fair and nice. We still believe that working in a happy environment makes a better business. So we decided not only to pay competitive salaries but also to offer two bonuses a year and pay for professional trainings like English classes and Chinese classes.
Because we met when we had just became mothers I remember taking our own children to the office and not really knowing what to do when they were crying or when they wanted to be entertained.
Both Elisa and I were wishing that we had a school here in our office building and then we looked at each other and decided to create one! 80% of people working with us are young women and mothers so it made sense and we did it. I think that’s the accomplishment that we are the most proud about, no doubt about it.
We call it a school but it’s not really a school of course. It’s a day care for babies on the third floor of our production site where mothers are allowed to go breastfeeding. It’s also a place where children from three to six years-old are entertained by two fantastic teachers. They learn a little bit of English, they draw, they dance and they just play. When kids turn six we highly encourage them to go to school.
I: What has been your biggest challenge throughout the years?
J: What we really care about a lot is the quality to produce our bags. It is important to have a good idea and to be different but this has to come along with quality. Unfortunately, Cambodia is a small country and we can’t really source everything we need like high quality zippers for example.
We really like the idea of supporting the local market as much as we can but sometimes it’s just not possible. We have been importing zippers from a Japanese brand but the closest factory is in Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam and other materials are just not available here so we have to import some from China or from Thailand and this of course increase the cost of the raw material a lot. This is one the challenges I would say that we have here.
I: You currently have five shops across Cambodia and are reaching an international market. Could you tell us more about Smateria’s expansion?
J: The first place that we rented was everything for us! It was our office, our workshop, our production site and our retailing space. We then moved several times because we became bigger and decided to open a second store in Siem Reap near the Angkor Wat temples in 2010. In the same year, we also had the chance to open another store at Phnom Penh Airport at the International Departures. A few years later we opened another one at the airport in Siem Reap and then finally three years ago we opened our second store here in downtown Phnom Penh.
At the moment we have five shops in Cambodia but we have had international buyers since the very beginning. On our very first night when we did the grand opening of our first shop, we met by chance our first international buyer. She was an American woman who loved the products and decided to import them to the US. From there we have expanded quite a lot.
Our three major markets are the US, Japan and Germany. We also have other distributors in Holland, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and Korea.
I: Do you have any exciting plans in the pipeline?
J: Yes but I can’t share them yet! What I can say though is that we have been working for a very long time with a new material which we should be able to launch soon.
Julia Migné is a multimedia journalist and wildlife photographer specialising in environmental issues and odd hobbies. She has written for Africa Geographic and BBC Wildlife among others. An endless traveller, she swears that she would visit one country for each letter of the alphabet.