Stylish. Sustainable. Socially Conscious.
Sheena gives the World Bank the inside scoop on the Uniform Project’s inception, year 1 rundown, and what’s coming next.
In the wee hours of Monday morning, Sheena and I boarded the Amtrak at Penn Station for a field trip to DC to speak at the World Bank. When Sheena first received the invitation from the Bank’s Youth to Youth Community, we were totally honored, but didn’t quite know what to expect from such a huge global institution. We looked into it a bit more and found that Youth to Youth (Y2Y) is a group within the World Bank that works on a broad range of issues and initiatives concerning the development of youth to promote the Bank’s mission: “A World Free of Poverty.” Being actively pro-youth development, Sheena was invited to speak about her incredibly successful fundraiser that garnered world wide attention; making a powerful statement about consumption while giving 287 underpriviledged children a year’s worth of education.
Sheena gave a stellar presentation (although she will never admit that herself) with a candid behind the scenes tour of the Uniform Project’s inception, execution, and vision. Even if you’ve followed the project from the start, there are still a lot of things that Sheena brought to light that you probably didn’t realize. So, relax, grab a snack, and learn for yourself about how a girl’s year-long art project became a movement, in her own words…
Stylish. Sustainable. Socially Conscious.
There are three things that we at the U.P are primarily concerned with.
A while back, I was at an ex-colleague’s farewell party who was leaving his high paying advertising job to go build a house in the country with his family. Towards the end of the night (and after quite a few rounds), he said,
“If I’ve taught you anything, I hope it’s how to jump out of a plane with style. ‘Cause without grace and style you have nothing in life.”
What a great definition of style. Style isn’t about fast fashion and trends, but has all to do with individuality, originality, self expression. Style is an extension of yourself, and how you engage with the world.
The biggest issue with ethical fashion is that it is largely seen as unimaginative. ‘Green’ brands cannot work under the premise that the ethical slant preempts them from creating products that inspire. Nor should they feel trapped by the limitations of their materials. Creativity is just as important to ethical fashion as ethics should be to mainstream fashion.
As Martin Luther King Jr. most eloquently put it (as MLK was known to do):
“Philanthropy is great and all, but what we must question is the very nature of our socio-economic paradigms that makes it necessary for philanthropy to exist in the first place.”
We don’t want to treat philanthropy as another form of business. We are attempting to carve out a business model where the acts of charity and ways of giving are inherently woven into the core of what we do, and not just treated as a percent of our profits.
One Dress, 365 Days.
You’re probably wondering how the project started. Honestly, I was bored with my day job and I wanted to do something more creative and consequential. I’d been mulling over the idea of a 365 day challenge for a while, but I didn’t want this to be another “look at me” blog. I was still unsure of exactly what cause I wanted to support, when a friend of mine introduced me to Akanksha and I got to hear their founder Shaheen Mistri speak. Akanksha has been educating Indian children living in the slums for over the past 20 years. They spend exactly what the Indian government spends on each child ($360/yr) to show that good education is not just a money issue, but an issue of the right kind of resourcing and applying progressive teaching methods. The $360 per school-year model immediately resonated with me because here I was wanting to do a 365 day “uniform” project. That’s when it conceptually clicked in my head, I would put one dollar per each day of the year and by the end of it, I’d have put one kid in school myself. And I would encourage others to donate and see how many kids we could help. From there, I just got to work with the help of some friends and launched the project a couple months later, in May 2009.
The dressing up part was the easiest for me, I gave my self 30 minutes every morning. It was very important not to lose the spontaneity of this daily routine, so I didn’t plan ahead that much. I essentially became this character that was the Uniform Project girl and after a while it became very natural to channel. I’ve learnt that it helps to have no rules. You can make anything work if you sport it with some attitude. The days I got stumped in the morning and threw completely random concoctions together often turned out to be the days with the most polarizing comments from our followers. I always found those the most interesting. Now that I’m back to wearing other clothes, it’s actually really exciting because anything and everything goes.
It was very important that the dress was as versatile and suitable for creating different looks. I had a few prerequisites around the design of the dress: I wanted it to be reversible so that it can be worn front to back, with a button down on one side so I could wear it as an open tunic with layers inside. I also wanted hidden pockets and short sleeves. We based the design and silhouette mostly on some of my favorite vintage staples that I wore all the time. At the end of the project we released a limited edition run of 365 dresses to commemorate my yearlong challenge, they sold out in less than a week and helped raise another $10,000 for Akanksha.
There were two ways to donate to the project, either a cash donation for Akanksha via Paypal, or an accessory donation for me to wear with the dress. I initially put up the call for accessory donations as a joke, I figured some of my friends would send me stuff, but people started donating accessories from all over the world, it was really incredible (over 200 pieces). I never made a new purchase through-out the challenge (that was one of the rules). All of the accessories were pre-owned, vintage, handmade, thrifted, or donated to the project.
By the end of the 365 days the Uniform Project had raised over $100,000 in funds, putting close to 300 kids in school for a year. I’d received over 200 accessory donations which were auctioned off with the help of eBay’s Green Team and are now being injected into other people’s style all over the world. The website had over 2 million hits in traffic and we now have a social media reach of about 25,000 users.
The hardest part of the aftermath of such a huge endeavor is coping with the responsibility that comes with its success. When something is so well received with a potential to grow, it’s hard to ignore that and go on back to your old life and job. Much to my delight, during the course of the project we attracted a few really talented people who stepped in to help out (including Jessica, who is here with me today). I left my full time job towards the end of the challenge and we’ve since formed a company. Our plan is to expand the first year model into a social platform exemplifying the spirit of reuse, individual styling and creative fundraising. We will be launching Year 2 of U.P very soon – in August!
World Bank Q & A >
Q. How can ethical fashion infiltrate into mainstream fashion in design and practice?
A. We should all encourage industry transparency and inform ourselves as best we can about production practices. For example I recently learned that in order to claim “made in USA” on a label, only 20% of the garment actually had to be produced in the USA. This is a prime example of marketing deception that goes hand in hand with the fashion industry. But, as consumers it is our choice to buy what we buy. As Katharine Hamnett once said, ‘Industries need to sell, consumers don’t need to buy’ – if more consumers start demanding transparency from their favorite labels and products, companies will have no choice but to respond.
On the flip side, ethical companies need to make sure they are competing with the caliber of design innovation that is coming out of the rest of the industry. Especially since there is already a stigma attached to “sustainable” or “organic” fashion as being less about design and more about material.
Q. I was especially encouraged by a remark Sheena made at the beginning of her presentation about the need to question why philanthropy was ever invented in the first place as a special category in business. How does U.P believe that its socially-oriented business model will impact the larger business society and be truly mainstreamed?
A. It is true that impacting the larger industry and its ways is a much bigger beast. It would be naive to think that the way we do business will in turn impact the age old model of capitalism that has thrived since the industrial revolution. However, what we have today is the power to connect to a global audience with the click of a mouse, thanks to the internet. Consumers are hungrier than ever for facts, and information moves faster that it ever has. We hope that over time, we will be able to make an impact in the way that people think about consumption and make that shift back to a ‘need’ society rather than a ‘want’ society. All U.P products are conceived as part of a social mission, and our production methods will be trial and error and learning from experimentation (and context). We will continue to be transparent about our research and learnings with our consumers and we will constantly encourage this ongoing discourse.
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