“It takes a village to make a T-shirt,” Rachel Weeks, founder of School House, a collegiate apparel company that does a little more than just design a T-shirt, said.
When you look at an article of clothing, it is difficult to see just how it was formed. It’s hard to imagine the people actually responsible for making the T-shirt and the ethics behind it.
After receiving her undergraduate degree in women’s studies at Duke University, Weeks traveled to Sri Lanka and found out just what happens behind the scenes when creating something as simple as a T-shirt.
Three years ago, 25-year-old Weeks moved from a small town in North Carolina to the rural lands of Sri Lanka and discovered a new, ethical way to create accessible fashions for college students. It only took one day of witnessing the harsh settings where factory workers were forced to work and live for Weeks to make her goal to change the way the garments were made in this small area she grew to love.
Weeks’ clothing line, School House, was created to bring ethical awareness to college campuses and to create a clothing line with premium quality fabrics that is affordable. The idea is to have a T-shirt that is so comfortable and flattering that it feels like your favorite pair of jeans, and yet makes a real difference in people’s lives thousands of miles away.
Growing up, Weeks loved fashion. She always dressed up her pre-school uniform with fun accessories as a way of defining herself and announcing her individuality. Growing up, she took a special interest in studying women, and she found she also had a passion for ethics and the global garment manufacturing industries, where over 85% of the workers are female. There was a tension towards feminism and being a socially responsible consumer.
“And I hated feeling that I couldn’t have both,” Weeks said. As consumers, we never see what goes on behind the scenes. Weeks did, and she made it her personal goal to do something about it.
In 2007, Weeks applied for a Fulbright Grant, which allows students to do a graduate study in order to research and create a mutual understanding between the U.S and other countries. Upon learning about how the National Manufacturers Association was marketing Sri Lanka as an ethical source for apparel construction, Weeks was excited to see that such a small island in the middle of the Indian Ocean could hold so much potential. What she found most astonishing was that the price per garment paid to the workers for labor was around only 80 cents.
“I thought to myself, if all we did was raise the price an extra $1 or $1.50 a garment, would it increase their living situation at all? It’s exactly what we can do, and it’s exactly what we are doing,” Weeks said.
Weeks spent a summer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison learning Sinhala, the native language of Sri Lanka. She then spent a year in Sri Lanka learning about the factories, the environments, the people and most of all, fashion itself.
When she decided to go into the fashion industry, Weeks’ had no idea where to start or how to create a business plan. Nonetheless, her determination won out in the end providing her with the drive to write a plan that fit her goals and vision. She met her mentor, Upali, one day at a coffee shop where he introduced her to a new way of thinking.
“You don’t need a business plan; you don’t need this other stuff. You need samples, and you need a big order,” Upali said.
He taught her everything she needed to know about t-shirts from fabric choice and trim (buttons, tags, zippers, etc.), to fabric consumption per garment and prices on screening techniques.
“It was all the things a fashion designer needs to know, but doesn’t really think about,” Weeks said.
With the help of Upali and Weeks’ creative director Colleen McCann, who was the first female designer for Under Armour and Barnes and Noble book sellers, Weeks’ line launched successfully and was distributed to schools all over the country. In August alone, School House has expanded from five colleges to 50 universities and their first ever high school, an all-girls prep school in New Jersey called Kent Place. This spring they are set to open in 50 more colleges including the University of Nevada-Las Vegas where Weeks said she is looking forward to trying some “crazy ideas”.
Weeks chose collegiate apparel after she found out that college wear was at least a decade behind the normal fashion trends. Most college bookstores she researched were geared towards menswear which is the total opposite of most of the fashion world.
“They were all unisex styles and boxy sportswear from Nike and Champion, and there was nothing interesting. I wanted to start a company where the college market was our bread and butter, not just something on the side,” Weeks said.
Students are constantly learning about labor issues and ethical problems all over the world, and they are the ones with fresh ideas and new possibilities. Weeks said that colleges are the perfect place to launch the ethical fashion campaign.
School House pays a labor premium to their factory in Sri Lanka for all of their products which increases the retail prices. Because of that, they are able to provide these people with a proper living wage. They support 70 people in their factory, and they have been running for less than three years. Imagine what can be accomplished in 10, 20 or even 30 years.
Weeks travels to Sri Lanka about three times every year to see the factories, make sure everything is running smoothly and to check up on the workers themselves. Although her elementary level Sinhala makes it difficult to communicate with the workers, going to see them is something she said she will never stop doing.
The School House designs focus on silhouettes to be appropriate for college demographics and flatter girls’ figures. The T-shirts have a touch of spandex for fit and to hold the shape. The hoodies have lean cut and the yoga pants are mostly cotton with just enough spandex so they can actually be worn to do yoga––or to just be a great pair of pants.
The initial line being launched at Ole Miss is the Best Basics line of tees, hoodies, T-shirt dresses and yoga pants with the school marks, colors and logo. As she learns more about the campus and students, Weeks plans on adding the school’s personality to the line – my personal favorite, Hotty Toddy underwear is coming in the spring to local bookstores.
In the months and years to come, Weeks and the School House team are excited to see the impact that is being made on their workers’ lives. They have heard that the villagers are now able to send their kids to school and buy things for their family that they were never able to afford before. With the help of their consumers, Weeks is aiming to conduct a formal analysis soon.
Weeks also hopes to be a part of living wage factories in other parts of the world, contribute to the many environmental projects and get involved in other initiatives dealing with fair labor beyond living wage. In the years to come, Weeks wants to bring students to Sri Lanka so they can see firsthand what they are doing to help the labor force. Who knows, the future for School House may hold a documentary about their pursuits.
“That will be the ultimate when I am able to do that, for students to really see what it’s like to make a T-shirt from start to finish,” Weeks said.
The Best Basics line for School House is now available on the first floor of the Ole Miss bookstore in the Union. One T-shirt can really make a difference, and you have the opportunity to make a direct impact on the lives of 70 people and their families.