If by chance you remember my first column, then you probably remember that it included a scathing rant about how collegiate wear perpetrates boring and predictable fashion. Well, I remember it and I take it back -— at least partially.
For those of you who haven’t been in the bookstore lately (except to buy Vera Bradley products and overpriced soap), there is a new line of UR apparel produced by a company called School House. It makes up a small display, but the addition is notable. First of all, the clothes are actually cute. Second of all. … Well, I’ll tell you why you too should pay attention to this new fashion line.
School House, although you wouldn’t know it just by looking at the label, is a company started by Rachel Weeks, a Duke University ’07 graduate who created a socially responsible clothing manufacturer in Sri Lanka for her Fulbright project.
Weeks combined her love of clothing with her vision for a fashion industry with ethical foundations — starting with factories that pay living wages (a.k.a. not sweatshops).
I was fortunate enough to interview Weeks, who told me all about the dream behind her company, how to jumpstart such an ambitious entrepreneurial project out of college and what’s up next for School House.
“I’ve always loved clothing and fashion,” she said. “As early as middle school I became interested in women’s studies. These worlds came together when I thought of the idea for School House. You could say it was dress-up first and feminism later.”
School House’s mantra is “American Collegiate Craftsmanship,” and each word is equally as important for the brand as the others. School House’s production is now operated solely out of the United States, creating 2,500 jobs in North Carolina alone.
As far as the “collegiate” aspect goes, Weeks said she felt there was a deprivation of quality school apparel for college students.
“There were no companies in this industry that were really looking at each individual school and treating it like its own unique culture,” she said.
Although the company began with Week’s Fulbright project in Sri Lanka, it was forced to move last September because of production challenges. Managing a business from 10,000 miles away, it seems, does have its downsides. Weeks explained that they were comfortable with the move because the factory was committed to paying living wages without their business being in the area.
School House is expanding into other parts of the nation: Rhode Island for jewelry and Oregon for letterman jackets.
“We’ve really made a commitment to work with communities, particularly in our home state but also across the country in places that need good manufacturing jobs,” Weeks said.
It hasn’t been an easy road for School House. “It’s really difficult to find factories anywhere in the world that share your vision for honoring the craftsmanship of making apparel,” she said. “This industry has not historically done that.”
Any advice for wide-eyed young entrepreneurs? “Don’t fear failure,” she offered. “If you’re passionate, focused, confident, centered and you have a vision, then you really have to maintain that commitment despite all of the obstacles.”
After checking out the display in the bookstore (personally I have my eyes on the color-block-sleeve T-shirt), one thing threw me off: the prices.
The T-shirt was $32.98 and the varsity sweater was $74.98. Speaking for college students with tight budgets, I asked Weeks why we should consider buying School House over less expensive brands.
“I’d ask for them to look at the design and the fit of the garment,” she responded. “At the end of the day, I hope that people want to support our social mission.
“For college students now, graduating into the worst job market in recent memory, it’s really important that we think about the power of our buying dollars in support of the domestic economy.”
Maybe it’s the fact that I haven’t purchased UR apparel since I was a pre-frosh, but I for one will be sporting School House clothing before the year is out.
Burritt is a member of the class of 2013.