It was in 2011 that Erin-Lee Peterson found herself dissatisfied with the high-end luxury store presence in South Africa as opposed to that of the European markets. It was initially her mother’s matching leather handbags and shoes that sparked an understanding that quality pieces beat the quick fix of fast fashion, time and time again.
The vision of what then would become her namesake brand, ELP, was clear. Providing strong, high-quality products you want to wear every day, seemed easy enough until it came to the craftsmanship behind actually bringing the designs to life. Youtube tutorials were the order of the day for Petersen and her then boyfriend, Chad Petersen, who believed in the business potential behind Erin-Lee’s ideas.
After countless Youtube videos, sleepless night and an enormous amount of passion and belief in their product, the pair showcased at what was Cape Town’s foremost design exhibition, the Design Indaba. Their exhibit consisted of all the stock their then newborn business held – 5 leather card holders, which proved to be enough in landing them orders of ten-fold their original stockholding.
It was in 2014 when the pair won the SAB kick start awards, coming tops out of a whopping five hundred start-ups. It was after this win that they really got to business in shaping the brand we see today. With substantial prize money in hand, the pair maintains their initial objective, never forgetting their humble Youtube video beginnings and even the selling an iPhone to raise start up capital to fund their dream. The industry had spoken, and it was crying out for South African crafted luxury and Research Unit was going to be the answer.
Erin-Lee takes me through her studio office space, explaining that there’s always been a lot of research when it comes to the production process. It all started with online research, then moved to approaching mentors and learning from the best. When industrial designer, Chad, came into the picture, the two creative minds became one and Research Unit was born.
The brand underwent a name change, moved into a large studio space that hosts their in-house factory, and has introduced a range of innovated products. Long gone are the days of countless Youtube videos to be paused and replayed, as today the team has smoothed out the wrinkles when it comes to the design process – from concept to creation.
Erin-Lee confesses that drawing is not her forté – something she learnt very quickly after a stint a fashion school.can’tcant draw to save my life, but I know what’s going to sell”. Her eye for design is clear in the number of innovative product developments the brand stocks. “It all starts with mood boarding inspiration and course creating a timeline, planning targets and the ROI.” It’s very clear from the early days of all-encompassing entrepreneurship, that she’s developed a mind for business. Testing and prototyping are next, this is where Erin-Lee lets me know that there is a lot of working design involved in the process; things are made, changed, and made again until it’s perfect. Finally, the lookbook is shot before these images are circulated through local and international media, used on the online store and of course, shared on social media.
The entire process takes around three months, and the team have just come out of the whirlwind that is developing a new range. Arifakt is the latest collection to be released by the brand. Expect new colour ways, new products and a new website to boot, all live and available for purchase from 25 August 2017.
Each product tells a story, and you can feel it through the locally sourced leathers, fixtures made from scratch and products that seem as though they were made especially for you. It’s local luxury that you want to wear every day.
Today the brand whose production line started on Petersen’s bedroom floor and came to life in moments between long retail shift, is a thriving business, supporting a number of local craftspeople and artisans; and it’s all the hands of founders and co-owners Erin-Lee and Chad Petersen. Together they and their constantly growing quality-driven team make up Research Unit – proof that you don’t have to travel to Italy for the perfect luxury leather bag, rather come to Africa – the Southern tip that is.
Find Research Unit at their flagship store in the Watershed at the V&A Waterfront, as well as at a host of local and international retailers or shop high-end luxury at a fraction of the price online at their virtual store.