You won’t be able to resist the tug. Walking by Pure Soul on Bridge Street in Shelter Island, you will stop in front — guaranteed — or at least slow your roll long enough to look in the window. When you do, you’ll feel a sensation that might remind you of opening up a fantastical storybook, all full of beautiful pictures and bright colors and a tale that pulls you into another world as soon as you start reading.
This is what it feels like to enter Sylma Cabrera’s world; and it’s what she wants you to feel like when you wander among the breezy, beachy wearable treasures in her five-year-old boutique, Pure Soul. The floors and walls and shelves are all bright white, the clothes in shades of blue, green, white and black. There’s brightly colored jewelry, fun purses and cute sunglasses; books you want to read, espadrilles you want to put on your feet and hats that you yearn to plop atop your head. It’s the kind of place where you want to walk in and touch everything. She wants you to do that, too.
“That’s what I want people to feel when they come into the store. That’s my purpose,” says Cabrera. “Forget about the clothing and accessories and the home gifts—that’s just the vehicle. It’s all about human contact.”
Island to Island to Island to Island
Born in Puerto Rico, Cabrera was an ambitious kid with big dreams: She wanted to be a fashion designer and she wanted to go to the top school for it on the U.S. mainland, applying and being accepted to RISD in Rhode Island, the Chicago Art Institute and both F.I.T. and Parsons School of Design in Manhattan. But along with their excellent reputation for launching careers in the fashion world came hefty price tags.
“I knew my parents couldn’t afford four years of college, so I entered America’s Junior Miss Pageant because they offer great scholarships, and I won Puerto Rico. That was my ticket to four years of tuition, room and board.” Problem was, it was a free ride but not to any of the schools where she knew she needed to be. She ditched the 21 scholarship invitations to schools in places like Mississippi, Tennessee and Alabama, packed her bags and headed to Parsons, her parents cobbling together enough to get in the door. Cabrera, who spoke not a word of English at the time, showed up determined to succeed.
“It was the ‘80s. We didn’t have the internet or any of those tools. You had to know how to illustrate; you had to know how to do your research. And that made us have to be good at what we did. And for myself, being a woman of color and Puerto Rican who did not speak the language well, I had to be the best, because I was competing with the best.”
Cabrera succeeded beyond her wildest dreams. By junior year, she was working in the industry. When she graduated after four years, she landed a job designing for a private label for Saks Fifth Avenue at the tender age of 21. She moved onto Christian Dior, and then Jones New York. Then she was offered the position of creative director for Chico’s, the then-fledgling brand that became a national hit. She relocated to their headquarters in Florida and found herself traveling the globe, to Guatemala, Peru, and Turkey.
“That’s when I got to understand fashion for real women. Not for those big brands that had to have a specific guideline of luxury, but the real women with real bodies. That’s one of the keys I still hold today,” she says. “A Pure Soul customer can be anywhere from 5 years old to 100 years old because it’s all about comfort; it’s all about good fabrics and quality. It’s all about that woman feeling beautiful.”
It was something she began to crave and an idea that started turning round and round in her head. “There was so much stress in image and having to comply to a certain look. I did my years of my designer shoes and, you know, fabulous clothing,” she laughs. “But then I needed to find my own soul.”
Weaving a path
Cabrera launched Pure Soul initially as a design service company for bigger brands, using all her connections in the industry and moving to Hong Kong with her then-husband and baby daughter in 2003. It proved a great decision. She had a design team in place, giving her the opportunity to fly back and forth to do presentations and come back with mountains of orders to the tune of $15 to $20 million annually. And then came 2008, when the world came to a financial halt. Cabrera re-assessed.
“I asked myself what do I really want to do?” she says. “And I decided to start my own brand.”
The young family moved again, this time to Bali where she began to work with local artisans and natural fibers, cultivating the kind of clothing and look that had become her north star.
But as the line took shape, her marriage dissolved. She and her daughter moved to Australia. For the next 10 years, Cabrera built her business, toggling between her adopted antipodean country, Bali and Hong Kong, alongside her slightly smaller but no less strong family life.
“I do the job of two people — as mother, as father, but also as a business owner and an entrepreneur. I’m always creating new possibilities and I’ve gathered all these concepts through travel that have allowed me to stay really centered and prepare for what’s next, because you never know what’s around the corner.”
What came next was craving closeness to her homeland of Puerto Rico, wanting her daughter to learn Spanish and be close to her grandmother — and, for Cabrera, to reconnect.
“I remember my mom coming to Australia to visit us, and after 32 hours of flying and connections, she got off the plane and my heart stopped. That was not the kind of travel a grandma should have to do to see her grandchild,” she says. “So I said, you know what? My parents did so much for me; this is what I can do for them now.”
After 10 years decade of living thousands of miles from home, she followed her instincts once again and moved back to San Juan.
It also presented an opportunity for Cabrera to launch Pure Soul as a brick-and-mortar in old San Juan. She fell in love with a petite space (“Sort of like this space — small spaces are magic for me.”) and opened her first shop there; then she opened a second larger space as well as a pop-up in the San Juan St. Regis Hotel. A multitude of other 5-star hotel pop-ups followed.
But challenge and change came once again, this time in the violent form of Hurricane Maria.
Cabrera was riding high, happy at home and with Pure Soul at what seemed the pinnacle of popularity. The hurricane destroyed her shops completely; her home was ruined. No electricity, no water, no nothing. Worried for the safety and health of her young daughter, she managed to get on the first flight out of Puerto Rico, landing in Philadelphia where they holed up with Cabrera’s brother for a few days.
Time felt endless and full of questions. What would they do? Could they rebuild? Go back? It seemed that all her years of hard work was in ruins.
On the third day, despondent and unsure of where to turn next, the key to her future came in the form of a text message. A friend from a place called Shelter Island, checking in to see if she was okay and asking if she and her daughter would like to come and stay for the weekend to clear their heads.
“The moment we got on the ferry, as it happens for everyone, I felt this sense of peace and calm and love.” It was a Thursday in October in 2017. By Monday, her daughter was enrolled in Shelter Island School (“The school was amazing,” she says. “We had nothing, and we showed up to the school and they gave her a backpack with an iPad and supplies and everything she needed.”)
That weekend tumbled into months. An opportunity arose to open a shop in Miami, and Cabrera jumped. On her way off the island to head to the airport, she spied the little corner space on Bridge Street with a “for rent” sign.
“All I see was this white space, a white canvas, and that gorgeous view out the back [on Chase Creek]. I immediately knew this was my space.”
Her Shelter Island shop opened in 2018. Since then, Cabrera re-opened in old San Juan, as well as an online store and two outposts in the St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort Hotel and the Don Rafa Boutique Hotel. She’s eyeing and expansion to the South Fork, but she hasn’t found the right magical small space yet.
But her success isn’t sorcery. Pure Soul is the amalgam of her years working and learning not just about clothing design, but women. Her connections all over the world help her to source well and create a line of clothing that she feels good about, on both the manufacturing side and the final price and look for her customers. She identified 15 to 20 silhouettes that work for a multitude of body types, recreating them in natural fabrics and happy colors that feel good both on the body and, well, on the soul, too.
“I am so happy if people come in and have a good time and enjoy the store. But I don’t care if they buy anything because it’s not about taking something without any meaning,” she says. “If they take something with them — they remember the smell of the store, they remember the music, they remember the smile — yeah, that’s what they’re taking with them. It’s not what they buy.”