El Mato is not just an artisan workshop producing vegetable-tanned leather bags: it is the perfect example of merging work and life. In fact, the name derives from the initials of the words “Marta” and “Tommaso”, but in local dialect it also means “crazy” as their entrepreneurial adventure, which sounded like madness to many. Tommaso explains: “I have a degree in Philosophy, Marta a degree in Food Science. When we told our friends about the project, few took us seriously. They thought that after a while we would stop playing and get a real job”.

Instead, their business has continued to grow year after year. Born in a garage, today El Mato is a charming leather craft shop based in Desenzano, on the shores of Garda Lake (northern Italy), selling its creations all over the world thanks to internet. The secret of its success? A style combining elegance and simplicity. “We learned this art from a master in Cremona, who not only chose vegetable-tanned leather with tannin, but also strictly sewed it by hand. And his philosophy was: high-quality leather does not need futile accessories such as chains, studs or anything else because it’s already beautiful as it is. The craftsman’s task is to enhance the beauty of leather through clean lines, without adding too many frills. We know we go against market trends but our customers appreciate our design”.

El Mato is a perfect example of how the digital world can be skillfully integrated into a local craft business, allowing the company to expand its reach without going against its values but, on the opposite, using this network as a spokesperson for them.

“The new concept of exclusivity passes through personalisation rather than the ostentation of the mainstream brand – explains Tommaso – and e-commerce can play a key role in this change. Let’s take our bucket bag, for example: on the website you can personalise it, choosing from 15 different combinations, including the lining, which is a mix of cotton and synthetic material made from recycled plastic. Users can create their own bag directly online”.

Tommaso continues: “We really believe in the digital channel. We started off with a shop on Etsy and immediately began to get contacts from all over the world. Abroad people pay more attention to the origin of materials and how they are processed. During the first period we were very successful in the USA, so much so that 60-70% of sales came from that market up to few years ago. Then customs duties took over and the logic of search engine positioning changed, meaning our presence in the USA dropped dramatically. Moreover, the relocation from Cremona, a beautiful town located 75 km (46.6 miles) from Milan, to Desenzano has allowed us to deal with the German market, which is very attentive to craftsmanship and to the origin of materials. Much more so than Italian tourists, who are unfortunately tied to the logic of the lowest price”.

Tommaso distinguishes three types of customers, sorted by generation: “The most interesting age groups are seniors, over 60s, and the youngest. The older ones because they formed their consumer awareness before the mass market and, therefore, they value craftsmanship more, but at the same time they have been able to open up to digital. Just a few days ago, two people over seventy came into the shop and confessed that they are actively following us on Instagram!

The younger generation, under 30s, are trying to rediscover the same mentality that their grandparents grew up with, almost as an act of rebellion against a disposable mindset in which they do not identify. On the other hand, it is difficult to deal with middle aged people between 40-50 years, who are strongly linked to the television logic of discounts and “take 3, pay 2”. It is difficult to explain them that discounts have no reason to exist in handicraft”. This is one of the reasons why Tommaso and Marta are so active in spreading the word on social media, where they show the “charm” behind the creation of their bags, because “every handmade product has a great story to tell and artisans are part of it”.

El Mato’s promotional message also includes the virtues of vegetable-tanned leather with tannin. Starting from sustainability, “a complex concept that should involve our entire consumer approach. It doesn’t necessarily mean excluding specific foods from our shopping cart, but rather giving priority to local products and supply chains that respect the environment and workers. Otherwise, it’s just a label”. And the market is full of “easy labels” nowadays. Especially when we are talking about “green” products.

“There is a lot of confusion and consumers often feel disoriented, not least because they do not know basic information about the materials from which products are made of. For example, many ignore the fact that leather is a waste material from the food industry – they just don’t think about it! Others, when hearing the expression “vegetable tanned”, confuse leather with a material of plant origin, such as corn or bananas.

That’s why one of our responsibilities is to inform our customers about vegetable-tanned leather, tannins and how the tanning process takes place. And many people are amazed. Leather is nothing more than a waste material that has been treated with natural substances, tannins, which are long-lasting and therefore potentially more sustainable than other products that claim to be green but actually they are not. I always try to follow this philosophy, both in my private life and at work. That’s why we only deal with leather from bovine origin, which we know for sure is coming from the food industry; we avoid ostrich or crocodile leather because we don’t have enough knowledge about their supply chains”.

Despite the importance of e-commerce, Tommaso and Marta continue to focus on the artisan workshop, which they consider to be the heart of relationship with their customers, the place where they can build lasting connections and strengthen their sense of community. And while thinking about opening a second shop, Tommaso warns: “our goal is not an indiscriminate growth. We are not interested in becoming a mega-brand and give up on our values and our way of working and living. And this is sustainability, as well.

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