On Nov. 15, a new collection of yoga pants, pinstripe pullovers, touchdown T-shirts and other popular styles hit the Drake University bookstore.
In a partnership with School House, a socially responsible collegiate fashion company, the bookstore — along with over 100 other campus bookstores across America — will be selling ethically manufactured men’s and women’s styles.
In 2007, Duke University student Rachel Weeks traveled to Sri Lanka and developed the idea of a fashion-forward clothing line that pays workers a fair wage and operates in a sweatshop-free environment. Two years later, School House opened and began designing collegiate lines and producing quality products from a factory in Sri Lanka. Weeks was able to triple workers’ wages and left a lasting impact on factory conditions in the area.
This spring, School House moved its production to the United States. Operating in Weeks’ home state of North Carolina, the company emphasizes a green, homegrown supply chain. School House works solely with North Carolina-based suppliers, ranging from cotton growers and zipper manufacturers to screen printers and shipping companies. These partnerships support almost 3,000 jobs in the American apparel industry, all of which School House oversees to ensure quality wage and to meet working standards.
The revival of the American apparel industry, particularly on the East Coast, was a big part of Weeks’ original vision. According to a promotional video that School House placed online, economists say that the age of American clothing manufacturing is dead, and the United States imports 98 percent of the clothing that is purchased here. This increase in global competition has led to unemployment and a lack of American innovation that School House’s five-employee team wants to reverse.
The team, led by the CEO Weeks, invests back into School House and is dedicated not only to the profitability of the company but also to maintaining the brand’s mission of integrity. It keeps costs low by fundraising. Weeks raised over $1 million from investors since School House began. The five full-time employees are not paid excessive salaries. The company is still in startup mode — despite these money-saving tactics — but hopes to become profitable next year. For this to be possible, School House must continue to create school-specific collections and find retailers to sell its products.
In 2011, School House added 60 colleges and universities to its roster. Said Melissa Dohmen, the business’s director of marketing and public relations, Weeks “landed most of those accounts by driving cross-country with samples in her car, visiting major universities and bookstores coast-to-coast.”
School House works with large bookstore retailers and independent collegiate bookstores. Because larger retailers collectively own nearly 2,000 of America’s on- and off-campus bookstores, School House collaborates with its buyers to choose both the schools and the bookstores where the products will sell best. When looking to sell at independent bookstores, on the other hand, the School House team must do the groundwork. The team conducts research to understand each campus’s dynamics, which leads to creating a collection that customers can connect to.
In other efforts to create a customer connection to the brand, School House recruits student interns in a variety of fields: production, operations, marketing, public relations and business development. The internships, which Dohmen said are “really more like part-time jobs,” give students the opportunity to be involved in every aspect of the company’s organization and provide them with the resources to take on projects of their own.
But this internship program is not simply a way for School House to add numbers to its team of employees, and it’s not simply an on-campus marketing strategy. It’s about building support and belief in the brand from a younger generation. As a small business making an honest investment in the environmental, economical and personal impacts of apparel manufacturing, School House is showing students that it’s possible for an ethical American company to succeed.