FEATURE School House brings ethical fashion to MIT

Duke graduate’s clothing line supports <br />70 workers in Sri Lanka

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Photos courtesy of Rachel Weeks
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Photos courtesy of Rachel Weeks
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Photos courtesy of Rachel Weeks
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Photos courtesy of Rachel Weeks

During the first week of school, we had a chance to speak with Rachel Weeks, the founder and president of School House — a collegiate apparel line that not only produces garments with designs beyond the usual school-name-plastered-over-front-of-sweatshirt formula, but also has a special commitment to promoting ethical fashion. Believe it or not, the School House line designed especially for MIT students has already been in the Coop for several weeks!  Read on to find out the inside story behind the latest addition to our campus bookstore.

College senior with an idea

Although Rachel Weeks graduated from Duke University in 2007 with a degree in Women’s Studies, her love for fashion has been brewing ever since she was a little girl. But these two interests were, as Weeks described, “incompatible.” Things took a turn in her junior year at Duke, when the concept of “ethical fashion” seamlessly united Weeks’s two passions.

As a senior at Duke, Weeks started looking into ethical manufacturing and quickly channeled this concept into the fashion industry. If you have no idea what “ethical manufacturing” is about — don’t worry, Weeks didn’t really know either — that is, not until she applied for and received a Fulbright grant to go to Sri Lanka and begin answering the question, “How do you manufacture clothes in an ethical manner?”

In our interview, Weeks voiced the fundamental findings of her research in Sri Lanka: “The challenges faced by women in the garment sector by and large boiled down to poverty. All of the problems that they had, all of the challenges that they faced, resulted from the fact that they didn’t have enough money to sustain themselves, to feed their families.” In response to these findings, Weeks decided to focus on “living wage” — which essentially means paying employees enough to live. And right there in Sri Lanka, a new company was born.

From Sri Lanka to MIT

As Weeks recalled of being in Sri Lanka, “I was at this stage in my life where I had nothing to lose: I could...come home and get a job working in corporate social responsibility...But this was a great time to take a huge risk and see how it turned out.” The risk was, of course, starting School House. In fact, the money Weeks had used to start the company was actually compensation from getting hit by a car during her sophomore year of college. Weeks used the resulting $20,000 to hire 70 workers and start her own factory in Sri Lanka.

“[School House] has been my baby for three years,” Weeks said. “We only started sales a year and a half ago.” For the company’s recent growth, Weeks happily credits a partnership with Barnes and Nobles, the bookseller giant that operates hundreds of college bookstores across America. Before B&N, School House had only sold in independently-owned bookstores. The partnership with B&N opened a critical window of opportunities. The brand was first tested at Harvard and Yale, and successful sales allowed School House to expand to forty-three new stores in August, including MIT’s Coop. Fifty additional stores are expected to carry School House apparel by January. More business certainly means more work, right?

For Weeks, that means traveling: “I am, three weeks out of the month, in my car, just visiting colleges, going to college bookstores, talking to students, and trying to get a feel for the campus culture...we always try to give each collection a design touch that’s very unique to that campus”. Her visit to MIT yielded five pieces, including yoga pants with iPod pockets, cardigans, and T-shirt dresses. But the most “MIT-esque” elements come from what Weeks admitted as “a little stereotypical...[The creative director Colleen McCann] came up with this equations print t-shirt and hoodie, that we thought was fun, and a little kitschy, that we thought worked for your market.” The School House products are available at the Coop in Kendall Square, and soon, if not already, on the Coop’s online store.

School House power

Fashion has a tendency to defy convention. Just look at the theatrical displays on the runway. Soon enough, we find that the somewhat watered-down versions of the same runway trends have trickled down into department stores to mark their territory in mainstream culture. School House explores fashion in the other direction. Instead of designing a drastic neckline or some exotic pattern, School House uses the college campus as the starting point for its products. With a guarantee that its manufacturing workers are given the resources to lead adequate lives, it aims to change the foundations of the garment industry.

Nearing the end of the interview, Rachel Weeks poured out her thoughts in one breath, “I just hope that more and more people will hear our story and want to support what we’re doing for these 70 people in Sri Lanka, who directly benefit from every cardigan and T-shirt dress that you buy. I wish I could take everybody with me over there and show them what it does. Hopefully we’ll gain the resources to tell that story better and better over time. ” But for now, School House is moving from campus to campus, hoping its core message resonates with college students who care about their impact on the world as a much as the clothes they wear.