If you think that Sheena Matheiken, the brains behind The Uniform Project, is a fashionista at heart you're wrong. What she does consider herself: a creative do-gooder and philanthropist with a keen eye and soft spot for wearing handmade, recycled and vintage pieces. It's a skill set she's using well as she wears the same Little Black Dress every day for a year to raise money for the education of impoverished children in India.
It took a six-month sabbatical from her job at a New York City interactive advertising agency in 2008 for Matheiken to begin seriously considering how she could impact beyond her 9 to 5 and for her much-fated meeting with Eliza Starbuck, who became the Uniform Project's dress designer.
"We're neighbors, and she saw me on the train. She liked my giraffe socks, and I liked her yellow tights," Matheiken said. "Meeting her was a godsend because I don't have any fashion experience."
As their friendship blossomed, so did Matheiken's ambitions to support the education of children in India. After a few phone calls to friends in India where she had attended public school from the age of 4 and obtained her undergraduate fine arts degree Matheiken was introduced to the Akanksha Foundation, a nonprofit organization providing holistic education for children from the country's poorest slums and villages.
The foundation works with the children's families to enroll them in the school's specialized program. Every year, nearly 7.5 million Indian children don't enroll in the country's public schools because education will take away time needed to work and support their poverty-stricken families.
"The Akanksha Foundation works with families individually and approach each family on a case-by-case basis to try to keep their kids in school every day. Eighty percent of kids drop out before 10th grade," said Matheiken. "These children work from the age of 4 and are breadwinners in the families. They start begging, or they have to stand in line beginning at 6 a.m. to get water for the day from the one tap in the village."
Fast-forward to June 1, 2009, The Uniform Project site's official launch. It was welcomed immediately, achieving a place in the conservative world of nonprofit charity.
"People think that charity and philanthropy needs to be this somber thing," she said. "That's completely wrong. Eliza and I believe in loving and having fun in what you do."
And fun it is. As you scroll through the daily dress updates, you can't help but marvel and wonder how she puts together a new look for every day.
"I never plan ahead," she said. "I get about 30 minutes in the morning, because I have to go to work. It's nice to have that cap because you have to throw it together and make it work. The serendipity is what makes it work."
We caught up with Matheiken to learn more about the Akanksha Foundation and its holistic approach to education, the benefits of dressing with less, the future of The Uniform Project and why Matheiken still has to rush to get ready in the morning.
I knew that I had wanted to do something with kids and education. I still have a lot of really good friends in India. I reached out to some of my friends. One of my friends introduced me to Akanksha.
That same week I wrote to Akansha, and the founder had happened to be in New York City for a fundraiser. They were able to invite me to the fundraiser. That was early in January of this year .
At the fundraiser, they were basically talking about how their whole model is trying to give children a better, more holistic education than the public school could ever offer. They vow to spend the same amount on public school [as the Indian government], which is about $360 a year [per child].
It's a new award sponsored by a Portland-based sustainable clothing company. They found us and said that they love our project, and that they wanted to nominate us for this grant. It's a $10,000 grant voted on by the public, but eventually the company will deliberate within themselves and they pick the finalists.
We really want to use this project and all the exposure we're getting from it to grow. We're looking into ways to make the platform of The Uniform Project accessible for everyone. We're thinking of putting the dress into market [for people to purchase and profits donated to Akanksha].
Winning a grant will help us continue to do similar projects. Both Eliza and I are hoping this will be a way of establishing a nonprofit that can pay ourselves and allow us to sustain it and do similar projects that institute positive change.
We're sort of freshening up that dialogue of sustainability and fashion in a fun way. We're trying to prove that, listen, sustainability isn't this drab thing. It shouldn't be seen as a limitation. I think this pertains to any aspect of our lives. It's just getting creative with what we own, and giving things new life.
We try to do that a lot. I wear belts as necklaces, for example. Give something new life as much as possible before throwing it away. We hope that it will inspire people to get more creative and shop their own closets.
What I'm trying to do is really tricky, because I have to still surround myself with a lot of things despite the one dress in order to make it interesting. That's essentially the challenge of the creative exercise. I'm trying to make a point about sustainability, but to make it an interesting project, I have to make sure there's enough accessories and layers around it. That is the fine balance we have to walk.
But, six months down the line we're going to have a huge auction of all the accessories I've received. It's a great way to give back and things are going to find a new home.
On a larger scale, I'll say that the [green] dialogue is much more pertinent in my consciousness now. Just by existing we're leaving our footprint. It's important to be conscious of that and to make small changes to your lifestyle, like taking tote bags to the grocery store or public transportation over driving a car.
The Little Brown Dress was an experiment of anti-consumerism where Alex Martin wore the same brown dress every day for a year beginning July 7, 2005.
I did not know about the Little Brown Dress. [When she started the project] I had my Google alerts set to anything with the name "uniform" in. It didn't show up in my research until later.
It's very ambitious what she [Little Brown Dress's Alex Martin] did with one dress, however my project is slightly different. Hers was very activist; a very bold statement against consumerism. It was very anti-fashion. Mine is very much a celebration of style and fashion and trying to prove that you can be sustainable and stylish at the same time, and that they're not mutually exclusive.
Right now I really love this dress because it's so versatile. At the end of the day, I take a layer off, and I'm romping around in the dress in my apartment. It's becoming part of my skin and it's becoming so comfortable, and making a good case that I could easily wear this for a long time. But who knows, I may hate it by the end of 365 days.
I never plan ahead. I try to keep it as spontaneous as possible. I think I'll drive myself crazy if I plan ahead. Out of desperation to get to a meeting, I just have to work with what I have.
Today it just sort of randomly came together. I had this top sitting there for a while and I couldn't figure out what to wear it with. Sometimes things just click when I'm not even thinking about it. I woke up this morning and I was looking at my shoes and the top just popped up. I love how it just randomly comes together in ways that I wasn't expecting it to.
[But] there are other days when I know it's just going to be a classic look. And I know it's just my classic look, it's a very "Sheena look" as my friends would say. But then there are days that are so not me, but people love it and it's a big hit on the site. But it isn't necessarily my style, per se. There are many, many days like that.
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