School's in: Rachel Weeks, far right in black shirt, during catalogue shoot in Gothic Reading Room. Michael Zirkle
School's in: Rachel Weeks, far right in black shirt, during catalogue shoot in Gothic Reading Room. Michael Zirkle

Move Over, Abercrombie

Young alumna Rachel Weeks combines her interests in feminism, fashion, and global consumerism to launch a hip new ethical clothing line through her alma mater.
August 1, 2009

As Washington Duke and his sons, James and Benjamin,gazed down from portraits hanging in the Gothic Reading Room, a leggy brunette in black platform shoes, a yellow tank top, and boy-cut underwear adorned with Blue Devil logos struck a come-hither pose for photographer Stephen Hurst. The model, Jane Moore '12, had been recruited for the photo shoot the previous day as she ran down the Bryan Center walkway, late for class.

On a humid Saturday morning last August, Moore and a handful of other models donned fashion-forward T-shirts, hip hoodies, micro-miniskirts, form-fitting dresses, and super-cool skivvies. Between sips of Red Bull or bottled water, the models submitted to stylists who applied make-up, fixed hair, and fussed over where a waistband should sit on the hips. Heaps of accessories were scattered about. R&B music blasted from a laptop shuffling through an iTunes playlist. Hurst offered encouragement to Moore as he snapped multiple frames, stopping now and then to check his digital camera to see what he'd captured.

At the back of the room, Rachel Weeks ironed a vintage-look, royal blue T-shirt that champions "Terry Sanford for U.S. Senate" in yellow lettering set against an image of the state of North Carolina. After wrapping up a postgraduate Fulbright in Sri Lanka, Weeks '07 was back on campus to discuss  her idea of an ethical clothing line with a Duke Stores representative. At the same time, she was coordinating myriad details of the photo shoot for a catalogue and website and refining her pitch for a niche in the international fashion industry.

"I've always been interested in fashion and consumerism from a feminist perspective," she said. "In the Sri Lanka garment industry, 85 percent of the factory floor workers are women." As she talked, she simultaneously ironed and monitored the photo session. "Women are uniquely affected by this industry. But my goal is to create living-wage opportunities for everyone in the factory, while creating fresh, fun products that appeal to the collegiate market."

Weeks, who says she called herself a feminist "before I even knew what that meant," was a Trinity Scholar and women's studies major whose senior honors thesis was on "The 'Wonder' Bra: Theorizing Globalization, Women's Labor, and Consumption for Twenty-First Century Feminism." She's at ease elucidating the tensions between second- and third-wave feminism, current trends in global corporate capitalism, and the curious politics of the anti-sweatshop movement. She's also a fan of current and retro pop culture and uses "lots of hot rollers, hair spray, and bobby pins" to achieve her signature modified beehive hairdo.

Brand identity: photographer Hurst captures optimal angle during gardens shoot.
Michael Zirkle

The idea of starting an ethical-fashion line began when Weeks was still an undergraduate. During her senior year, she and Haley Hoffman '07 launched Duke Plays, a student organization that encouraged inventive alternatives to the existing party scene. The culminating event of their efforts was Duke Plays: The Party, which attracted 2,000 students, faculty members, alumni, and administrators to an upscale shindig in Perkins Library. The event was so popular it has become an annual tradition, with themes selected by current students.

As part of the celebration, Weeks and Hoffman spent hours in university archives, locating images of Duke students through the years pursuing a variety of leisure activities, and organized the materials into a photography exhibit that greeted partygoers. They also embarked on an ambitious fundraising campaign, making pitches to dozens of departments and organizations on campus for money, goods, and services.

By the time they'd finished, the duo had raised about $50,000 and signed on thirty-four cosponsors. Among them was Jim Wilkerson, director of trade licensing and store operations for Duke Stores. Impressed with the women's savvy for blending nostalgia, tradition, and modern-day revelry, Wilkerson underwrote the cost of producing $4,000 worth of faux-vintage Duke decorations and party souvenirs, including playing cards, a postcard set, and a football pin, that used images uncovered in the archives.

Looking for something special to wear to the party, Weeks commissioned designer Angela Johnson to create a one-of-a-kind dress refashioned from seventeen Duke T-shirts. "I thought it would be fun and that students would like it," Weeks recalls. "But I had so many Duke alumnae come up to me to tell me how much they loved it and ask where they could get one, that it made me start thinking about the market for something like that."

While conducting research for her honors thesis and preparing her Duke Plays pitch to Duke Stores, Weeks learned that Wilkerson was a pioneer in the fair-trade, anti-sweatshop movement on college campuses. She already knew that Duke was the first college in the U.S. to enact a code of conduct for its licensees. Once the Duke Plays party was over, Weeks contacted Wilkerson to ask whether he thought that the collegiate clothing market was ready for an ethically focused line designed specifically for the college-age crowd that frequents stores like Abercrombie & Fitch and Hollister. Wilkerson was enthusiastic about the idea, but at that point, says Weeks, embarking on such an undertaking was more a flight of fantasy than a feasible option.

Student and professional models in School House’s Duke line.
C. Stephen Hurst

Weeks put the idea on hold as she wrapped up her final semester at Duke. That spring, she learned that she had been awarded a Fulbright scholarship to travel to Sri Lanka to study ways that ethical practices could be implemented in the production processes of the country's garment industry. Her research was to focus on the country's efforts, known as the "Garments Without Guilt" campaign, to become a leading manufacturer of fair-trade clothing. With international corporations chasing cheap labor from country to country, developing countries like Sri Lanka struggle to keep businesses from moving to China for production. But with contracts usually going to the lowest bidders, companies competing for the high-quantity orders have an economic disincentive to pay workers a living wage.

Four or five months into her Fulbright, Weeks was convinced that existing partnerships between the U.S. and Sri Lanka could be strengthened in mutually beneficial ways. From a public-relations standpoint, global businesses willing to pay living wages to garment workers could gain a marketing edge over competitors that did not. Factories could attract and retain the most skilled workers, and those workers, their families, and their communities would benefit from an improved quality of life.

"Academic feminists tend to be wary of fashion because they are concerned with aspects related to its production," says Weeks. "Many feminists want us to say no to corporate manufacturing, but it is there. You can't ignore it. What these academic feminists don't realize is that the bras they are wearing were made in Sri Lanka.

"My feeling is that we as feminists have to get into manufacturing if we are concerned about how clothing is produced. As feminists, we can't afford not to be involved in fashion, to sit back and allow corporate business to be in charge."

At first, Weeks thought she could persuade some of the country's leading clothing manufacturers, who were catering to retail giants like Nike,Victoria's Secret, and Gap Inc., to phase in living wages for employees and market their efforts to consumers. "They wouldn't talk to me," she says, acknowledging that, in retrospect, it was unlikely that "this little girl with no marketing background" could change the way those billion-dollar companies do business.

Undeterred, she realized that she could effect change on a smaller scale. She recalled the conversations she had had with Wilkerson, and sent him an e-mail message revisiting the idea of a fair-trade clothing line that was stylish, as well as ethically produced. Given his longstanding involvement in the anti-sweatshop movement, Wilkerson encouraged Weeks to locate a trustworthy manufacturer and to contact the Worker Rights Consortium about what creating a fair-trade factory project would entail. And he was receptive to Weeks' notion of designing the inaugural line specifically for the Duke market, including vintage-inspired looks such as the Terry Sanford T-shirt and a line of chic, recycled dresses like the one she had worn to the Duke library party.

Using Wilkerson as a sounding board, Weeks embarked full speed ahead. She absorbed the minutiae of vendor compliance regulations, drafted a series of business plans, and conducted case studies of successful start-ups. She spoke with factory owners and garment workers. Through the Internet and word of mouth, she located a New York-based fashion designer to interpret the sketches she had drawn. And she persuaded a handful of investors to provide $50,000 in start-up capital for her fledgling company.

At the source: Weeks checks School House’s first order during spring trip to JK Apparel factory in Sri Lanka.
Courtesy School House Inc.

Wilkerson says there's always a steady stream of vendors trying to break into the lucrative Duke merchandising arena. But Weeks offers a can't-miss array of qualities, he says. "Several things about Rachel appealed to me. The first was her obvious determination and desire to bring an ethically sourced collegiate apparel brand to the collegiate industry. This approach is something I have always felt holds great promise in the collegiate market, if the right person with the right ideas were to take it up."

What's more, he says, "Rachel has the potential and skills to be successful in this endeavor. She is an extremely intelligent, energetic, business- and socially minded young woman. Being a recent Duke grad, she is in touch with the styles young people in college like today. And it's always nice to do what we can to help out one of our own."

Despite her apparently cool equilibrium, Weeks admits she was nervous about the risks involved in launching School House. This past fall, even as she moved to create a website, hire a staff, and secure orders, she recognized that the viability of her vision remained unknown. A top priority, she insisted, was paying factory workers $180 a month, double what they would typically make. (The average annual income per person in Sri Lanka is approximately $1,400.) Her plan was to take over a portion of an existing factory's production, paying the most experienced employees a living wage to produce School House clothing and, eventually, have the factory producing only School House products and paying living wages to the entire work force.

If the Duke student models she recruited for the August photo shoot are any indication, School House products will be a hit. After finishing her underwear photo session, model Jane Moore had nothing but encouraging words for Weeks.

"I seriously love these clothes," she said. "When I first got to Duke, some friends and I went to the stores to buy some spirit wear, and we ended up in the children's section, looking for something that would be cute and fit us the way we wanted. If I could, I would buy these clothes right now."

A few weeks after the photo shoot on campus, Duke agreed to purchase 6,000 units of clothing. Even so, Weeks realized she needed a larger order to make it worthwhile for a factory to commit to the project. With an introduction from Wilkerson, she contacted his counterpart at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and secured an additional order for 3,000 units of a Tar Heel-focused collection. That was enough to start production, and by the end of January, JK Apparel Lanka (Private) Limited in Colombo, Sri Lanka, began producing the School House line.


At the source: Weeks checks School House’s first order during spring trip to JK Apparel factory in Sri Lanka.
Photo courtesy School House Inc.

Throughout the spring, Weeks and School House designer Colleen McCann traveled up and down the East Coast, pitching institution-specific ideas to other colleges and universities. Weeks says buyers were immediately receptive to the creative aesthetic and business model of School House. "Most of the people we met with are used to working with large vendors such as Champion and Nike, who don't ask for input on what they offer. We can say to a buyer, what are your ideas? What colors would you like to see? How do you think we should market this to your customers? They also liked the idea that they were buying a collection—clothes you can mix and match—rather than items of clothing that don't relate to each other."

To date, they have signed contracts with Harvard, Yale, Appalachian State, East Carolina, North Carolina State, and Wake Forest universities, designing collections around such identifiable icons as Yale's bulldog mascot, Handsome Dan. They are in negotiations with a large department-store chain, which Weeks declines to name.

On March 1, Weeks flew back to Sri Lanka to witness prduction firsthand. Because of the order volume, Weeks and JK Apparel were able to convert an entire factory to manufacturing School House products, providing steady employment for sixty people.

As she drove up to the factory, Weeks saw a line of workers waiting outside to greet her. One of them placed a garland of flowers around her neck, and, in a ceremony marking the occasion, three flags were raised side by side, representing School House, JK Apparel, and South Asia Textiles, the fabric supplier. During the three weeks she was there, she got to know the women working in the factory and took the opportunity to ask them what more she could do for them. English classes, they told her. Child care. A few of the bolder ones suggested driving lessons.

In April, nearly two years after she first envisioned an ethical clothing line, Weeks launched School House in Duke Stores.

At a Saturday-morning trunk show and sale during Duke's Reunions Weekend in mid-April, several students from the August photo shoot model School House ensembles and mingle with guests sipping champagne and nibbling cookies and M&M's bearing the School House logo.

At the source: Weeks checks School House’s first order during spring trip to JK Apparel factory in Sri Lanka.
Photo courtesy School House Inc.

As alumni and friends wander in and out of the von der Heyden Pavilion in Perkins—the majority of them leave with bulging bags of School House clothes—Weeks enjoys a rare moment of living in the moment. (Her mother and sister, who have driven over from Greensboro, say Weeks might have taken one day off in the last year, if that.) The next day, there will be more phone calls to make, invoices to submit, bills to be paid. But today, the smart, stylish young woman who read works by Gloria Steinem and Naomi Wolf in the fourth grade can savor the fulfillment of a long-held dream.

"When I started out, I didn't know the first thing about the apparel industry," she says. "I could talk about it from an academic viewpoint, but I had no idea about things like how to customize grommets. The fair-trade movement is so 'anti-corporate' that it won't focus on fashion. Yet it's had success in other fields, like fair-trade coffee. Ethical fashion deserves real marketing power behind it."

Commitments from Duke and others in the collegiate market helped her acquire her "training wheels," she says. As School House gains momentum—the Duke Stores sold 500 units in the first two weeks—Weeks says she looks forward to building the brand and expanding her work in Sri Lanka.

"There are now sixty people in Sri Lanka—mostly women—whose jobs we directly support," she says. "It gets me out of bed in the morning and inspires me to do more."

As the company expands to other universities, Weeks says she hopes to interest university communities in the people behind the printed hoods, yoga pants, and miniskirts. "I hope they realize the impact they're able to have by buying a T-shirt—how quickly it adds up to a week of production in the first living-wage factory in Sri Lanka.

"It's amazing what you can do by paying a few dollars forward."

Read Weeks' School House blog and go behind the scenes of production in Sri Lanka: shopschoolhouse.tumblr.com