When it comes to luxury leather goods, is it about a fancy European brand name and an exorbitant price tag, or is it about quality, style and longevity? It seems somewhere along the way, the lines have become blurred. This is where local brand Research Unit come in. They’re redefining what luxury means and bringing local, handcrafted quality leather goods to the fore.
Stylish owners Chad and Erin-Lee Petersen met while working weekend jobs. He was an Industrial Design student and she a fashion design student turned journalism major. Chad tells us that he spotted this beautiful girl at a neighbouring store, which happened to be on his way to the bathroom. Shortly thereafter his need to walk that way suddenly increased. This was the beginning of not only the couple’s journey together, but of the building of their brand. Kismet…? Perhaps, but more likely a combination of grit, fierce determination and a desire to succeed.
Having working in high end retail design stores, selling the best luxury labels in the world, Erin-Lee noted that while the products were expensive, the promise of great quality wasn’t always met. Erin-Lee started to research exactly what went into the making of these products, looking closely at elements such as, detail, stitching and finishings.Being dissatified with what kind of leather product was made in South Africa, she decided to make her own. Purchasing offcuts of leather she began to experiment on her bedroom floor. Several cut marks in the wooden floors and the unintentional dying of bed linen later, the first few prototypes of the ‘ELP 710’ range were born.
Chad, with his background in design and engineering, saw an opportunity to take what Erin-Lee was doing to the next level. The pair decided they needed to learn everything they could about the craft, and so naturally, being Gen-Yers, they went straight to Youtube. Thousands of videos later, with a much better grasp of what was required, they sought out more practical advice and the mentorship of Noor Abrahams of JL Maister, master saddlery and tack specialists.
Here they learnt the old techiques of working with leather hands-on – dying, threading, sewing. The business was rebranded, taking both of their contributions into account as a ‘unit’ and bringing in the element of research. The name Research Unit was a natural choice and the abrieviation ‘RU’ would allow the business to eventually expand.
They used a second ingenious Gen-Y method to raise capital when no-one would give them any… they took out a 24-month cell phone contract, sold the phone and used this R5000 as start up capital, paying the instalments back monthly. A weekend after their wedding in 2012, they exhibited their products as Emerging Creatives at Design Indaba in. They showcased and sold every product they had and went home with an order for a further 80! Suddenly the possibility of a real business became apparent. Roping in everyone they trusted to execute the quality they were after, they sewed well into the early hours of the morning to fill all the orders.
The success of Research Unit is due to this dynamic pair who complement each other in every way. Although Chad will tell you he’s not a big chatter and that Erin-Lee is the face of the brand, the passion he has simply spills out as he tells their story.
A simple bill fold design has become the brand’s flagship piece and the range now includes backpacks, shoppers, clutches, laptop bags, iPad covers and more. Each piece is lovingly designed and made from high quality genuine leather. Each piece bears the RU branding and is backed by a 10 year quality guarantee.
It’s easy to see how the dynamic pair were awarded runners-up in the SAB Kickstart program. Kickstart aims to empower youth businesses with the provision of funds and mentorship, helping grow brands into commercial successes.
Research Unit has also been awarded the Sage Cape Talk Small Business Award – voted into the competition by a customer who experienced excellent customer service.
Chad and Erin-Lee now work full time in the business and Erin-Lee still keeps her toes in the journalism pool as part of the breakfast team on Goodhope FM. The word energetic just doesn’t quite do this pair justice.
So where to from here? Besides managing their stores at Neighbourgoods Market at the Biscuit Mill and at the Watershed at the Waterfront, there are many other exciting things on the horizon.
RU are currently working on a project with the Naboisho women of the Masai Mara who bead. This will be a collaborative project and each piece of RU leatherwork in the range will be dyed the Masai red and funds will be donated to the Naboisho Conservancy.
They are also opening a store in Berlin, Germany, called Observatory which will showcase the full RU range to a European market.
This pair are the true epitome of trailblazers; young and energised with a compelling desire to succeed. What will set them apart from others will be a potent combination of the right attitude, strong worth ethic and most of all a quality product that speaks for itself.
In an age where factories churn out copy-cat rubbish for mass consumption, a business like Research Unit pares back that consumerism and takes things back to basics. This self-taught pair have taken new-age techniques and applied them to an age-old art form and the leather goods market will be all the better for it