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Japanese expat is marking 10 years of ‘SuiJoh’ brand made in Cambodia

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Yusuke Asano, 41, is the founder and owner of SuiJoh, an apparel brand and retailer in Cambodia. SUPPLIED

Japanese expat is marking 10 years of ‘SuiJoh’ brand made in Cambodia

Founded in 2012 by Japanese entrepreneur Yusuke Asano, SuiJoh is a modern shop that designs high-quality custom apparel and accessories which are handmade by Cambodian tailors.

SuiJoh comes from the Japanese words for “on the water” and Asano – who first visited the Kingdom in 2002 and relocated here in 2010 – says the meaning is derived from the fact that 70 per cent of the planet is covered with water and it enabled the earliest examples of world travel so it’s meant to evoke ideas like exploration, adventure, curiosity and hope.

“There are waves that come along in everyone’s life and whether it’s a couple or a business you have to be able to ride those waves or they’ll sink you,” Asano tells The Post.

Bankrupt & bound for Cambodia

The 41-year-old Asano says that years ago his family ran a successful auto-parts business and he was always told by his grandfather that he was the company’s future CEO, so growing up he took it for granted that his destiny was to take over the family business.

Life changed, however, in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the US. The attacks indirectly affected their business – which relied heavily on exports to US markets – and they went bankrupt and became very poor when Asano was 20.

“We had eight family members: Grandfather, grandmother, my parents, three younger sisters and me. But we shared only two boxed lunches between all of us. We had to move from our big house with a garden to a very small one after the larger house was foreclosed on by the bank.

“Around that time I finally realised that I had to find a way to create my own future. I decided to be independent. I got a job to earn my own money and then I travelled around Southeast Asia to get to know the world and say good-bye to my old self,” he says.

That was when he first visited Cambodia as a backpacker in 2002. He was invited to dinner at the home of a villager in Siem Reap and he saw that there was no air-conditioning, television or refrigerator in her home. The meal was simple and everyone was friendly and smiling.

He says in that moment he felt the warmth of the Cambodian people and realised that it was what he was missing in Japan, where everyone he encountered seemed tired or stressed out and they never smiled like people in the Kingdom do.

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A Cambodian tailor working with a pattern at SuiJoh. SUPPLIED

“This trip gave me the power to live independently. I appreciated Cambodia for giving me the confidence to be on my own. After the trip, I went back to university and then started working for a company full-time.

“But I never forgot Cambodia and I missed my Cambodian friends and I missed things like the very sweet milk coffee. I went back and visited the same Cambodian family in Siem Reap again two years later. They are like my second family now,” he says.

However, he still wasn’t motivated quite yet to make the change and move to Cambodia. He was earning a steady income with the company he worked for and hanging out with his friends when one day he fainted unaccountably and doctors then told him he had a condition called AVM, which involves tangled blood vessels in the brain and can be life-threatening.

Fortunately, his treatment for it was successful and he recovered after a few months, but this brush with death changed his outlook on life.

Inspired social entrepreneur

Asano returned to Cambodia to live here full-time in 2010 while getting his Master’s in Development Management at Norton University. He founded SuiJoh two years later.

He got the idea for the shop from his own experiences with buying custom clothing in Cambodia as well as the experiences of Japanese tourists he spoke with.

“I love buying clothes, especially shirts. My classmate recommended going to his friend who ran a tailoring shop. I was very satisfied with the results,” Asano says.

However, when he visited other tailors he found that the quality could vary widely. Some shirts were too tight, some were damaged and it was difficult to ask for adjustments and the number of shirts he’d paid for but couldn’t wear in his closet started to swell.

Asano says he knew from visiting the first tailor that it was possible to get high-quality work done in Cambodia, but it was obvious from his subsequent experiences with other tailors that this wasn’t guaranteed at every shop.

From around 2010 onward, many Japanese people were visiting Cambodia and looking for business opportunities, especially in the garment sector. One of Asano’s acquaintances decided to open a factory in Phnom Penh and he had an opportunity to meet and talk with the CEO, engineers and a Japanese patternmaker in the apparel field that his friend was employing, and he got some advice.

“Certain skills like patternmaking seem to be missing in Cambodia. The tailors here directly mark down lines on the fabric with no adjustments made before they cut. However, their sewing skills are good – so I think they could make good garments if they had good patterns,” the Japanese patternmaker told him.

The patternmaker not only explained to Asano how it all worked, he offered to teach Asano the complexities of the trade in their entirety. It wasn’t long before Asano could make good patterns on his own, so his next goal was to find a good tailor.

SuiJoh’s decade-long journey

Asano says he once overheard two Japanese tourists who were roaming around the night market in Siem Reap disparage some goods marked “Made in Cambodia” as likely to break or wear out soon after purchase and it upset him to hear that said of his adopted home country and he decided to prove them wrong.

He says he also recalls lots of products advertised as charitable donations, as in if you buy this item then money will go to a poor family or the like.

“I thought to myself that I wanted to create something people want to buy because it is cool or fashionable or cute so they could show off to their friends and family, not just because it’s for charity.

“Also this is what I heard from my Cambodian friends, who said that Cambodians always talk about Khmer Pride but if they get very sick they will go to Ho Chi Minh City for treatment and they seem to prefer many Thai or Vietnamese products to Cambodian ones when they go shopping.

“I could see that nobody here really believed in the quality of products made in Cambodia, but as one of Cambodia’s biggest fans I wanted to encourage Khmer pride. So I decided to produce items that were “Handmade in Cambodia” that were of good quality and made by Cambodians so that people here could take pride in it,” says Asano.

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Some of the local SuiJoh staff members in a group photo. SUPPLIED

Asano says he visited as many tailors as possible, riding his bicycle around the city every day with his own shirt patterns in hand trying to find the right people to work with but everyone turned him down except for one shop where he found skilled tailors willing to take on the work.

SuiJoh’s tailor-made future

Today, SuiJoh is celebrating a decade doing business and providing Cambodians with jobs in the Kingdom. Their headquarters and workshop is located on St 294 and at the Himawari Hotel. They had branches at AEON2 and two in Siem Reap, but sadly those had to be closed due to the Covid-19 related economic downturn.

“I wanted to create employment as a social entrepreneur, but I feel that the locals help me far more than I’ve helped them and I hope we can keep growing the business together,” he says.

Asano says he’s most satisfied when he gets feedback from his customers, who are mostly foreigners from places like Japan, China or Europe, and they say positive things about SuiJoh apparel and how much more durable and long-lasting it is.

“I think I made some contribution to making people reconsider their ideas about Cambodian products and proving that handmade in Cambodia products can also be great. We also try to make modifications according to our customers’ feedback to keep improving and we are happy to see a lot of repeat business,” he says.

Currently the shop has bespoke and ready to wear shirts and dresses, bags, wallets, accessories, and krama. The shop is also willing to ship items to other countries. The price for bespoke shirts starts at $39 and tote-bags start at $29.

Asano’s vision for the future of SuiJoh is ambitious and he wants to take SuiJoh international as a Cambodian brand.

“In order to make my dream come true, we are planning to renovate our store interiors to attract more customers, especially Khmer people. And we’d like to open stores in Boeng Keng Kang and Tuol Kork, as well as reopen in Siem Reap,” Asano says.

For more information on SuiJoh, check out their Facebook page: @SuiJoh

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