The following guest post is from Jo-Anne Bigham, who with Belinda Muir have created a very cool, socially conscious New Zealand business selling a range of bags made from recycled materials. We love hearing about exciting new kiwi companies and look forward to seeing this one grow. You can find out more on their website www.smateria.co.nz.
Finding the perfect bag is an elusive prospect for most of us. Too big, too small, too expensive, or just not ‘the one’. So we welcome Smateria to the New Zealand bag scene, with its brightly coloured, Italian designed, and socially conscious bags, purses and accessories. We’ve seen them, and all we can say is – what’s not to love?
The Smateria range appeals to the Kiwi aesthetic. From totes perfect for the beach or for carrying groceries, to wallets and shoulder bags for travelling, from weekenders to handbags that are practical but add a pop of colour to the inevitable black wardrobe. And the price point is right, with most of the collection being affordable enough that customers can ‘build’ their Smateria collection, rather than owning just one piece.
And even better, is the story that accompanies the brand. Smateria bags and accessories are made from up-cycled and re-purposed materials, including a nylon multi-purpose netting produced in Southeast Asia for fishing nets, mosquito nets and construction projects. The netting is available in a wide array of colours and Smateria has created a bright colour range by layering it in different combinations, often using fabric lining re-purposed from local markets. The combination is a winner, creating light weight, sturdy and practical bags that look great.
What started as a cottage industry by two Italian expats, Jennifer and Elisa, in Phnom Penh in 2006, has ballooned into a fashion label that is sold in 20 countries across the globe. A year ago, lifelong friends, Jo and Belinda, both New Zealanders, were taken with the beautifully designed and up-cycled bags and accessories, but it was the company’s fair work practices and mission to empower women that convinced them t bring the range to Aotearoa. Selling through its online store and at selected stockists, the response from Kiwis has been enthusiastic.
“New Zealanders love that they can have a bag that is stylish and good quality, and they love the story behind Smateria,” Belinda explains.
Belinda works on the business from Tairua, in coastal New Zealand, and Jo is based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and the distance proves no problem in this day and age.
“We can have a business meeting on FaceTime in the morning, and I can visit the production house in the afternoon” Jo said. “And the time difference means that we are better able to respond to our customers’ needs. It’s perfect!”
While the nylon netting is the mainstay of the USENET collection, Smateria has also designed the DIVA range of handbags and purses, which mixes the netting with tiny offcuts of leather from a Phnom Penh-based Italian leather sofa manufacturer.
But perhaps Smateria’s greatest triumph is its recycling of plastic bags, while training and employing women displaced from Phnom Penh under the city’s current wave of building and urbanization. Plastic rubbish bags are collected, washed and then cut into strips. The women who want to work from home because of family commitments then set to work with their needles and crochet hooks creating Smateria’s REMIX collection, which mixes the recycled plastic with the fishing net.
“We feel good about selling products made from materials that exist already, rather than being another distributor of manufactured goods,” says Belinda. “In New Zealand, consumers are very conscious of the environment and it makes sense to start looking at what products already exist and to see how they can be used in another way to get a fashionable product.”
“Most of the staff from Smateria’s early days nine years ago, are still with them,” Jo said. “And they have got other family members jobs there too, as they know it is a great place to work.”
This “great environment” is the result of Smateria’s simple approach – treat employees well, a right most of us take for granted but which is all too rare in Cambodia’s manufacturing scene. Smateria’s employees go through a non-discriminatory application process overseen by a lawyer, they enjoy comfortable working conditions, an annual one-month bonus, health insurance, professional training for production managers and pattern makers and the freedom to train across the whole organization – from pre-production to sales. And of course, there’s the free childcare and education at the preschool. Smateria employs two teachers and two teaching assistants to run the on-site preschool for the employees’ children. This ensures the children are well cared for while their parent(s) are working and they are able to get a head start on their education which Cambodian’s do not usually have access to, as there is no government funded early childhood education in Cambodia.
A recent triumph for Smateria was its being accredited as Child Labor Free by the social enterprise of the same name which promotes businesses that can prove no children have worked in the production of their goods. As its designers remain involved in every part of the process from design, to production and sales, high standards are maintained. It is also because of this commitment to the process that Smateria has developed a wide range of well thought out bags and accessories. Handbags for day or night, tote bags, laptop bags, key rings, coin purses, toilet bags, travel wallets and even protective sleeves for tablets are all available. Given kiwis love for travel and the beach, Belinda and Jo have seen a lot of enthusiasm for the totes and weekenders, especially in petrol green which is reminiscent of paua blue.