Notes With a Baked Brownie: Research Unit


Erin-Lee is a fashion and broadcast journalist by profession. She founded Research Unit, a progressive luxury brand that designs and manufactures innovative, leather and canvas goods. Erin-Lee shares a little bit more about her journey.

What led you to the design industry?

It began when I started working in retail. I worked for well-known high-end retail brands like Celine, Bottega Veneta, Jean-Paul Gaultier and Paul Smith. While working for these high-end brands I always took the time to look over the stitching and noticed how much effort was put into developing these products. While working for Bottega Veneta I was given one of their bags as a gift, I stripped it down and analyzed it. I later began getting off cuts of leather from local stores in South Africa and on my days  off I would watch Youtube tutorials on how to hand-stitch. That’s how it all started.

What was your experience of the learning process?

It was quite hectic. My husband is an industrial designer and he helped me perfect the process, every night after work we would sit together and watch thousands of Youtube videos on how to hand-stitch. And through Youtube we were able to develop our stitching skills. I was quite adamant to keep on going, so much so that it was literally blood, sweat and tears. In the beginning my fingers bled all the time because it was something I had never done before. I didn’t  know how to design, although I always had an eye for design which was the reason why I decided to study journalism and fashion.

Photographed by Jacklyn Kawana

It grew slowly from there and little did I know that the five cardholders we had created would do well at the ‘Design Indaba Emerging Creatives’. We only had five cardholders at our stand, but got so many orders on that day that we realized that this was a product that could sell.

My husband and I did not have any extra income, we just worked to pay our rent, so we had to figure out how we were going to raise the money to produce all the bags that were ordered. We decided to buy an iPhone on contract and then sell the phone immediately to gain cash for the material needed to produce the cardholders. We learnt so much during this process and the beauty of it is that we could take what we learned and teach others.

Photographed by Jacklyn Kawana

What challenges have you faced since joining the industry?

In the beginning we faced a lot of financial challenges because we did not have much capital, only the R5500 from the phone we sold. Financial issues are not foreign in business; the more people employed, the more goods produced the more expenses increase.

  • Finding good quality supplies locally has been a challenge, these are products that we prefer to create from scratch because we found they are usually very expensive. Also the average price of the materials we use is starting to get exorbitant. The more the price of materials rises, the more our prices increase.
  • Managing people, everybody has different personalities which means you can’t treat everybody the same. If I knew I had to manage people, I’m not sure if I would have began this journey. Employees start out energetic and hardworking then after a while they eventually relax and become too comfortable. But you can´t just let them go, you have to keep them inspired, ask them why they seem demotivated and try to get them motivated again.
  • Being an international brand, it is also quite a challenge going overseas to meet with our buyers face to face, just to show them that our well made, high quality products are directly from Africa. Most of our buyers think our product is manufactured in Europe and having to convince them that our goods are African is sometimes quite a challenge. Most foreigners think African products have to be shweshwe, African prints, the big five but it doesn’t always have to be. We now have ‘crafted in South Africa’ engraved on every product we produce. Generally, there will always be challenges, you just have to find a way to work through them.

 How do you keep your products modern and fresh?

We decided to push the boundaries by combining other materials with the leather. Our goods are changing from being all leather, to being canvas with leather detail. If you look in our store we have a lot more canvas products that are scorch guarded, water resistant, high technology and high quality with leather details. It´s cool, progressive and different. We still incorporate leather in our products because it is super durable, mainly using it for our straps and watches. In our next collection we will probably be using new materials that are handmade. We are pushing to stay fresh and different.

Photographed by Jacklyn Kawana

Would you consider Research Unit a sustainable fashion brand?

Yes! Definitely. Our leather is sourced from Kwazulu-Natal from cows that graze freely in the fields.

Each piece is hand-made by disadvantaged individuals from townships in Cape Town and employed by Research Unit. We have taken the responsibility of empowering a community that is less fortunate thereby creating jobs and providing skills for the leather industry in South Africa. This really gives their community a different value to life.

Our innovation also keeps us sustainable, we change it up all the time.

Where do you see your brand in the future?

Well…I don’t want to grow to big too quickly. What we’ve done over the last five years is grow organically. In 10 years time I  see my brand becoming a lifestyle brand, where everybody is wearing it not only because it´s leather and it’s something that you need to buy but because it is cool and edgy. I need to grow my brand to a point where both South African and international clients wear it because it is exclusive. It needs to be a cool, driven, different lifestyle brand.

Photographed by Jacklyn Kawana

What keeps you motivated to keep going?

Mostly my husband, he is always super positive. Meditation keeps me going, I meditate every morning and night.

Running my own company really keeps me motivated, my team is constantly working hard and are committed, they  keep me going knowing that I have to do it for them and to sustain them. Keeping informed on what’s trending also keeps me inspired.

What advice do you have for people who would like to join the design industry?

Persistence! If you want something you need to work hard for it. You need to keep hounding people but be humble,and nice! Sometimes I do come across as stuck up and I’m not sure why, maybe it’s my serious look but I am far from stuck up, I’m actually quite chilled. Get yourself mentors, not one but many that have all had experiences in different areas and make sure to choose people that have been through enough experience to spot bad decisions you might be making before they happen. Being successful is not luck, what makes you successful are the decisions you make. And always take time to think before you make decisions because decisions determine your future.

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