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Island Profile: Sylma Cabrera | Finding shelter from the storm

ANNABELLE WOODWARD PHOTO Sylma Cabrera in her shop, Pure Soul, on Bridge Street.
Sylma Cabrera in her shop, Pure Soul, on Bridge Street.

A few days after Hurricane Maria had torn through Puerto Rico last September, clothing designer and curator Sylma Cabrera walked down to Pure Soul, her clothing and accessories boutique in historic Old San Juan, and found all the glass windows shattered.

“The hurricane was terrifying,” she said.

Terrifying might be an understatement. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in May put the death toll from the storm and its immediate aftereffects at 4,645. Electricity and other basic utilities went dark, health care, schools and most local government institutions were crippled and struggled to come back.

Left without electricity and other basics, Ms. Cabrera was relieved when her old friend Justin Sullivan invited her to his house on Shelter Island to decompress.

What was supposed to be a week-long stay turned permanent when she learned that her 16-year-old daughter, Alexa, wouldn’t be able to return to school in Puerto Rico for some time.

She entrusted a friend to manage her two Puerto Rico locations, enrolled her daughter in Shelter Island High School and began curating a new Pure Soul boutique on Bridge Street.

Now one of Ms. Cabrera’s four Pure Soul boutiques — two in San Juan and one in Miami — the Island’s shop offers clothing and one-of-a-kind accessories sourced from artists from Puerto Rico, Long Island and all over the world, selected specifically for the surrounded-by-water location.

“I’m using a lot of red and white in my collections because it’s more Northeast and nautical, but I’m using the same natural fibers, easy shapes and comfortable looks that work in all of my locations,” Ms. Cabrera said.

She works with earth-conscious and fair-trade companies from around the world for her stores’ offerings, but she also plans to create a platform within her store where accessory and jewelry designers from Shelter Island, the North Fork and the Hamptons can showcase and sell their work.

Ms. Cabrera attended the Parsons School of Design and worked for big-name design houses like Saks Fifth Avenue and Christian Dior before creating the Pure Soul line and traveling the world to source and develop her products. Ten years ago, when working out of an office in Dubai, she began to think about going home and opening a boutique in San Juan.

“I realized that there were a lot of boutiques that had the same type of clothing for the same kind of women,” she said. “I wanted to be able to service real women with real bodies and real lifestyles, like myself.”

Moving to Shelter Island, she was enchanted by its natural beauty and how welcoming everyone was, the two factors that made her decision easy when she thought of opening the store.

This past winter, Ms. Cabrera premiered another Pure Soul in Miami, which, she said, has opened some eyes, as evidenced by a recent feature in Women’s Wear Daily. Ms. Cabrera said that while she would like to continue living on Shelter Island full-time, she will need to manage the Miami store in its high season — from November to May — but will return here every June.

That doesn’t mean she’s going to shutter her windows come Labor Day, like many of the Island’s seasonal businesses. Ms. Cabrera hopes to keep her store open until December and make sure it’s open weekends so Islanders can have an option if they want to buy an outfit, or a gift, or “a pick-me-up find.”

Ms. Cabrera’s ultimate goal is to create an experience that generates a sense of community among customers. Weeks after the hurricane in Puerto Rico, when everything was in shambles, she had a staff member re-open her store in San Juan “just to get the spirit going.”

“A lot of local customers were just walking around the streets with nothing to do. There was no electricity, no power,” she said. “So my store became like a community point where people could come and share their stories. We did a couple of sales during that time because people just wanted a little bit of something that was normal to them.”

On the Island, Ms. Cabrera hopes to create the same effect. “I’m not here just to sell clothes, I’m here to give you an experience,” she said. “If I see someone walk out of the store with a smile, then I’ve done my job. It’s not about the commerce, it’s about touching every person that comes in.”

Lightning Round

What do you always have with you? Lip gloss

What’s your favorite place on the Island? Wades Beach. It’s walking distance from my house. It’s become my meditation spot.

Favorite place not on the Island?  Old San Juan.

When was the last time you felt elated? When I saw the boutique completed. That was a very special moment.

What exasperates you? When people do not take the time to smile and look at you in the eyes.

What’s your favorite day on Shelter Island? The day I arrived. It was peaceful, and peace brings you happiness.

Favorite movie? ‘The Piano.’

Favorite food? I love the food of wherever I am. In Japan, I love Japanese food. In Italy, I love Italian food.

Favorite person? The love of my life. You always have that one person who takes your breath away. If I had to choose a person that inspires me, I have many, but really, my mother.