Together for tomorrow


Q&A: Research Unit takes a long view on sustainability

by | Jul 31, 2020

Chad and Erin-Lee Petersen launched Cape Town-based utilitarian lifestyle brand, Research Unit in 2011. Nine years later, the couple showcased their debut womenswear collection entitled ‘Pilgrim’ at the SA Fashion Week SS20. Inspired by facets of meditative spirituality and travel, the ready-to-wear collection was a springboard from the accessories playground into the clothing playground.

What is Research Unit about?

We craft high-end travel bags and accessories as well as ready-to-wear, considered pieces. We only use superior quality, ethically-sourced materials including our vegetable-tanned leathers from a family-run tannery in KwaZulu-Natal and 100% cotton canvas.

We work with weavers who use natural fibres, as well as with beading initiatives in Cape Town. Our CMTs and seamstresses are from the Cape Flats areas which are often synonymous with gangsterism and drugs. Although we take care of the very finest details we allow our leathers and fabrics to determine the final outcome, leaving any naturally occurring ‘perfect imperfections’ to form part of the finished product in an aesthetically pleasing and organic way. Due to this approach and the handmade nature of our products, we celebrate the slight variations in finish that occur. For this reason, each of our products is authentic and slightly unique.

Why did you develop a womenswear collection?

We had been designing ready-to-wear pieces for ourselves for a long time. We are unable to find pieces that we want to wear and if we do find something, the quality of the fabrics is usually not very high. We also found that collaborating with brands to showcase our accessories on the runway often smothered our brand. Our product was perceived as their product and not RU’s. So we decided to showcase our RTW collection in high-quality, sustainable fabrics to complement our luxury accessories.

What are you doing for SA Fashion Week in October?

We’re working on an artisanal yet functional range while progressively pushing boundaries. It’s not a specific season this time and our collection includes key, ready-to-wear pieces which are sustainable and empower the artisanal communities in South Africa.

What sustainable practices do you implement in your business?

We believe that one of the greatest forms of sustainability is to give back to our community, in creating jobs and skills. The knowledge generated from doing so, can be passed from one generation to the next. As the Covid pandemic sweeps across the world, we have been forced to innovate and realise that many people would rather repair their old jeans, or dress, so our studio doubles up as a ‘care and repair’ service. We try not to waste in our studio and use every little piece of fabric and leather where we can. By empowering communities, we also ensure we are working with fabrics and materials that are ethically sourced.

What was the hardest thing to learn about manufacturing?

Learning how to scale and to maintain the quality and cash flow. You have to implement new systems to scale and grow a brand. Over the years, we learnt how to build a brand with the minimal resources available to us at the tip of the continent. Working with and teaching people has been amazing, but also very hard. One of our setbacks in manufacturing was that we did not partner with someone who knew how to scale  –  this was not our strength.

What challenges do you face as designers and manufacturers?

The challenges are manifold especially when it comes to trying to run a conscious business in South Africa. We struggle with a lack of consistent, sustainable but quality raw materials; barriers into markets especially internationally; cash flow as a small business is hard to maintain, especially if you’d like to increase capacity and a close-knit, vertically integrated manufacturing structure.

Who are your design inspirations?

We get our inspiration from day-to-day life, the small nuances of how people dress and movement of clothing. Our personal journey through spirituality and meditation. Reading books; nature; architecture; open-minded people; our interactions with others; art and forms of art such as beading and weaving. Here are the names of a few of our design inspirations:

What do you wish you’d known when you first started Research Unit?

Systems thinking. Not rushing through things no matter what the idea. Networking more than anything and keeping things simple.

How do you implement sustainability into your personal lives?

We try to consume as little as possible and use only what we need. We would rather make something and buy at thrift stores than buy from the mass distributors.

Eco-brands that you’re following right now?

Take a glimpse of Research Unit duo, Chad and Erin-Lee Petersen in the field at Barrydale Handweavers. Premiered April 2020.


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