Based in Cape Town, husband-and-wife design duo Chad and Erin-Lee Petersen oversee every aspect of their high-end accessories brand Research Unit – from choosing the fabrics, leather and materials they use, to design, manufacturing and customer service. Initially they struggled to get funding, but that didn’t stop them.
‘We took out a 24-month iPhone contract, sold the phone and used the R5 500 we made from it as start-up capital, paying the instalments back monthly,’ says Chad. It paid off. Opening their first store in the V&A Waterfront was a highlight, as was curating a pop-up store in Berlin, Germany. They’re currently working on their 2019 capsule collections and are opening a new flagship store this month.
how did research unit get started?
Erin-Lee: I began by researching exactly what went into the making of high quality leather goods, looking closely at elements such as, detail, stitching and finishes. Being dissatisfied with what kind of leather product was made and available in South Africa, I decided to make my own. Purchasing offcuts of leather, I began to experiment on my bedroom floor. Several cut marks in the wooden floors and the unintentional dyeing of some bed linen later, the first few prototypes of the ‘ELP 710’ range were born.
Chad, my boyfriend at the time, now partner, husband and co-owner of Research Unit, is an industrial designer with a background in design and engineering, saw an opportunity, to take what I was doing to the next level. We decided we needed to learn everything we could about the craft, and so naturally, being Gen-Yers, we went straight to YouTube. Thousands of videos later, with a much better grasp of what was required, we sought out more practical advice from mentors in the leather industry. We learnt the old techniques of working with leather hands-on, dyeing, threading and sewing. The business was rebranded, taking both of our contributions into account as a ‘unit’ and bringing in the element of research. The name Research Unit was a natural choice and the abbreviation ‘RU’ would allow the business to eventually expand.
We used a second ingenious Gen-Y method to raise capital when no-one would give us any… we took out a 24-month iPhone contract, sold the phone and used the money as start up capital, paying the instalments on the phone back monthly.
A weekend after our wedding, we showcased our products as Emerging Creatives at Design Indaba in 2012, showcasing every product we had on show and went home with an order for 80! Suddenly the possibility of a real business became apparent. Roping in everyone we trusted to execute the quality we were after, we spent hours sewing well into the early hours of the morning.
did you always want to be doing what you’re doing now?
Erin-Lee: I wanted to be a performance artist when I was growing up, because I played music and sang and was pretty good at acting, but I always knew I wanted to own my own thing as well… My room always looked like a shop on display – perfectly merchandised – and my mom taught that art well. It was nowhere close to what I’m doing now, but I don’t think I would ever do performance arts or what I was doing before. I love what I do now and we own a brand together.
Chad: I always wanted to design – I didn’t know where or what I wanted to design, but I knew it was in my blood. My father made furniture and my mom made underwear for a living, so it was in me.
do you have particular favourites among the works you’ve created?
Erin-Lee: The April bag. It’s a gorgeous piece that is multifunctional and has great space; I wear it as a backpack or sling. The bag can make me look elegant as well as cool and it’s a real complicated design and my everyday go-to bag. My new favourite is the Khorma bucket bag with beaded strap, which is such an elegant bag and everyone wants to get their hands on it.
Chad: It is the large Scout Pack for me. Extremely versatile, takes my laptop, all the parts are handmade, it’s padded, the details make it stand out. It’s my everyday bag (literally) and the proportions are perfect.
what’s your defining career moment to date?
Opening our first store at the Waterfront and our first pop-up store in Berlin, Germany.
who are the creatives on your radar right now?
Lukhanyo Mdingi, Robert Sherwood, Gary Cotterell, Virgil Abloh, Anees Petersen, Luke Doman, Sarah-Hugo Hamman and Demna Gvasalia.
and the artists you look up to?
Athi-Patra Ruga, Gregor Jenkin, Nandipha Mntambo and Lukhanyo Mdingi.
where do you find your inspiration?
The Internet, books, friends, travelling, nature, and our past.
what is your earliest visual memory?
Erin-Lee: The day my brother was born, I looked up at the hospital building and saw my mom waving at me, and I also remember the nurse wheeling my brother in and noticing his head was a little warped due to induction. I was two years old.
Chad: Looked down at my shoes at the age of two while stepping onto a plane and realising they were really colourful.
which places around the world would you recommend people visit?
Erin-Lee: Babylonstoren in the Cape Winelands, the Long Street Baths in Cape Town, the Palais De Tokyo in Paris and Berlin, Germany – in summer.
Chad: Café-Restaurant Amsterdam in Amsterdam, the Netherlands – the best place ever (designer Margaret Howell frequents it).
what’s the most memorable piece of art or design you’ve ever seen?
Erin-Lee: A piece of wallpaper art on the side of a building by the artist JR in Berlin, Germany – it’s actually is peeling off the wall now, but that just makes it look cooler. (It was right opposite our pop-up store in Berlin.) And a pair of raw silk pleated pants, designed by Lukhanyo Mdingi, from his Soulful collection.
Chad: The 606 shelving system by Vitsœ.
what is the next project that you are working on?
Our Capsule Collection ’19 and Spring/Summer ’19, plus our new flagship store opens in August 2018.
Learn all about the game changers who are taking things to the Next Level in our #HLNEXTLEVEL2018 issue.