SMATERIA, by co-founder Jennifer Morellato

Smateria is an Italian-owned brand that produces in Cambodia bags and accessories hand-made from common and recycled materials. Jennifer Morellato tells us its success story.
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To appreciate the beauty of a Smateria bag, you need to know the entire story of the company. This brand was born in 2006 thanks to the entrepreneurial spirit and creativity of its two Italian founders: Jennifer Morellato and Elisa Lion, who produce sustainable bags and accessories using inexpensive or waste materials. Thanks to the elegance, ethicality, and sustainability of the materials used, Smateria continues to grow in popularity at an international level and its beautiful, durable and innovative bags allow us to discover a country that is a source of infinite inspiration. 

The story of Smateria is told by one of its two founders, Jennifer Morellato. She welcomes us virtually in a video call from her office in Phnom Penh, even speaking remotely we feel her energy and positivity. Jennifer tells us that her initial encounter with Cambodia was accidental. Originally from Trento, with a degree in Political Science and a background in tourism, she moved to Phnom Penh in 2001 following her husband’s work commitments. Falling in love with Cambodian culture, energy, and life, they both decided to make it a permanent destination. 

Jennifer, Cambodia was chosen by accident, but it’s now home.

Yes. It was supposed to be a temporary location. With the birth of our children and then the creation of Smateria, for twenty years now it has been our home. 

You are one of the rare Italian entrepreneurs in Cambodia. How did the idea of creating a bag company in Cambodia come about? 

Smateria was born a bit like a game, a bit like a bet. In 2006, at a mothers’ meeting in Phnom Penh, I met the girl who would become my business partner: Elisa Lion, an Italian girl who had studied Oriental languages in Venice and had lived in China for several years. The entrepreneurial ferment of Cambodia reminded her a lot of China and the years she had spent there. We had a coffee together and her entrepreneurial ideas and creativity pushed me to believe in a future common project. Our adventure began in the garage of my house and today, after 15 years, we are still a solid reality with products created from quality materials.   

Starting a business in a garage is in the best start-up traditions. 

Yes, we did start from zero. Elisa and I haggled at the market for a couple of sewing machines and with the help of a patternmaker, who still works in our team, and some seamstresses we started to realize our project, and in 2006, we opened our first store in Phnom Penh.

How did you divide the responsibilities between co-founders?

Elisa has always followed the creative part of the company, now she’s back in Europe but continues to manage the production and development of our products. I, on the other hand, followed all the operational side. Marketing and communication activities are outsourced. 

The name of a brand is an important choice. Why “Smateria”? 

Smateria means transformation, no material is created or destroyed, but everything is “materialized”.

The first material used for the production of our bags, which has become the key material of the company, was the fishing net. An inexpensive material easily found in local markets, used for fishing, protecting animals, and drying rice. A fundamental tool here in Cambodia that is part of its identity. Later, other materials included scraps of leather to make sofas used to decorate bags and plastic used to produce small crochet decorations. 

Even today, our focus on sustainable materials is key. In January this year, we have launched IKI, a collection that represents a turning point here at Smateria because it will be our first collection of bags and accessories made with recycled plastic and produced with innovative techniques. To produce the fabric we use waste plastic from a garment factory here in Phnom Penh, we process it and mix it with our colors and products. 

How would you describe your brand? 

Our motto here at Smateria is: “Bags with a soul” because behind the creation of each bag lies the soul of the company: everything we do, we do with passion and responsibility. Smateria’s collections, starting with IKI, want to break down boundaries by setting a new standard for eco-fashion and inspiring a new generation of conscious buyers.

Can you give us some practical examples of Smateria being an ethical and responsible company? 

At Smateria, we care about the personal and professional development of our workers, 80% of whom are women, many of them working in production. We offer dedicated services: annual bonuses, personal growth opportunities, language and professional courses, and a nursery in the third floor of our workshop to help working mothers. All these initiatives are developed because Smateria does not want to offer its employees just a job opportunity, but to be seen as a place where they can grow together. 

Who buys a Smateria bag? 

Our bags are aimed at a medium-high customer base, both local and international. In the beginning, Cambodian customers didn’t understand the use of our materials but now, thanks to our marketing efforts, we managed to gain a market share in Cambodia.  We also collaborate with important corporate clients. We had the opportunity to collaborate with Viaggidea, an important Italian tour operator. Our partnership led to the creation of 58,000 travel bags and clutches offered as gifts for their customers.

Speaking of the present day. How has the pandemic impacted your business? 

Like many brands here, our steady growth over the years has been coupled with the growth of international tourism in Cambodia. As a result of the pandemic, sales declined due to border closures to international tourists. We had to cope with the emergency by temporarily suspending work for some of the staff with some of our staff. Above all, we had to rethink our sales and distribution model, moving from almost exclusive sales in Cambodia to third parties buying and distributing directly abroad. The US, Japan, and Germany are now our biggest distributors. Other important markets today are South East Asia, Hong Kong, Australia, and New Zealand. 

The pandemic in Cambodia has brought a big boost to e-commerce. Have you also opened an online channel?  

Yes. In January 2020 we opened our e-commerce store to search for foreign markets. We had some difficulties related to payment methods, for example, PayPal is not present in Cambodia, but we are seeing improvements. Thanks to the development of this digital platform we have been able to gain important market shares like the Australian and New Zealand markets. 

What are Smateria’s plans? 

We want to expand our e-commerce platform to be able to offer our product to a wider range of customers. Moreover, we would like to expand into new markets. 

Finally, what is the outlook for the post-pandemic future? 

We must be optimistic for the future. We are pursuing a strategy based on exports, but when Cambodia reopens its borders we are ready to welcome all those people who believe in us and our brand. 

Article by Francesca Danni

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