Selling out

A sustainable fashion initiative goes awry

Waking up in the morning and trying to find clean clothes, let alone a whole outfit, can be a daunting task. But coordinating one’s ensemble can be an interesting way to express individuality and creativity. So being constrained to wear the same piece of clothing every day for a year seems like it would be fashion suicide. Well, that’s what Sheena Matheiken did.

Founder of the Uniform Project, Matheiken pledged to wear one little black dress (LBD) for an entire year. If that wasn’t difficult enough, she challenged herself to make her LBD unique every single day without buying anything new.

For those unfamiliar with the little black dress, here is your fashion history lesson. The LBD has become a staple item of women’s wear. Some claim the origins of the LBD date back to the 1920s designs of Coco Chanel, who wanted to give women a piece of clothing that was long-lasting, affordable, versatile, and available to the widest market possible. Thus, she created the dress that has become ubiquitous in every woman’s closet.

Matheiken took the versatility, affordability, and long-lasting characteristics of the LBD and applied them to today’s anti-corporate movement. She writes on the project’s website that the premise behind the challenge was “to counter the uninspired demands of the corporate world,” where she felt “she was drowning in the doldrums of an advertising career.” This project was not only meant to purge Matheiken from fashion excess; it was also a philanthropic initiative. Matheiken was raising money for the Akanksha Foundation – a non-profit organization that provides education to children who live in Indian slums. The Uniform Project’s mission, as outlined on the website, was to “revolutionize the way people perceive ethical fashion and place social responsibility at the center of consumer culture,” and “use fashion as a vehicle to make acts of charity more inspired and playful, enabling individuals to rise as role models of style, sustainability and social consciousness.” But have Matheiken’s efforts with the Uniform Project created a greater awareness of sustainable fashion? Or has the idea itself become a commercialized practice?
During the Uniform Project’s first year, Matheiken garnered a following of supporters and by April 30, 2010, had raised $103,374 U.S.D. for the Akanksha Foundation – giving 287 children in India the opportunity to attend school. While Matheiken was working on the project, people became increasingly interested in trying it for themselves. This inspired Matheiken to develop the Do-It-Yourself Uniform Project platform. The same premise underlies the DIY Uniform Project as Matheiken’s personal challenge, except that participants can create their own timeline to commit to one LBD and raise money – most choose to participate for one month. The project is now in its second year of these monthly pilot projects, and the question of whether commercialization has eclipsed the original philanthropic aim still remains.

As often happens when something becomes popular, the Uniform Project has inspired numerous imitators and encountered mass-production. Similar projects sprouted around the same time as the Uniform Project’s inception, such as Six Items Or Less, which on its website claims to be “a global experiment examining the power of what we don’t wear.” As well, the Great American Apparel Diet has participants pledging not to buy anything new for a year. Although these two other projects may not share Matheikin’s philanthropic goals, the idea behind them is similar to the Uniform Project.

If you visit the Uniform Project website, you’ll see that the project is not only a platform for women to represent “philanthropy, fashion, sustainability and social commerce,” it has also become a channel for Matheiken and the Uniform Project crew to market their LBDs. Although Matheiken created the challenge in order to get away from the corporate world, the Uniform Project has now come full circle by offering its followers an online store. The Uniform Project lets fans of the challenge purchase their own little black dress and LBD patterns making the idea seem like it was an activity waiting to be mass-produced. The dress – modelled on the one originally created by Matheiken – costs $150 dollars. Only 10 per cent of this goes to the Akanksha Foundation. The Uniform Project is now seeking a C.E.O., looking for “the passion for building a for-profit enterprise balanced with a strong social mission.” It seems that the company’s commercial expansion is now the focus of the project. The act of commercializing the Uniform Project taints the appeal of the challenge as a way to promote sustainable fashion and philanthropy.

There is no doubt that the Uniform Project has led people to look at the melding of philanthropy and sustainable fashion in a new light. And Matheiken, along with the U.P. crew and pilot participants, have created a platform where fans can participate in the social commerce of the Uniform Project. However, as the Uniform Project grows in popularity, it is becoming an increasingly banal and commercialized concept. Cause marketing is a well-established practice in the corporate world, used by brands for over thirty years. Though it was founded to challenge corporatism’s domination over contemporary fashion, the Uniform Project has ended up a prime example of how complete this domination is.