The Etsy Blog

Accessorize This: The Uniform Project handmade and vintage goods

Wearing the same dress every day for a year is unimaginable for most of us. But Sheena, along with her collaborator Eliza, of the Uniform Project took up that self-imposed challenge and made a “little black dress” — the launching pad for a full year of fashion improvisation. What resulted is an inspiring collection of creative reuse and outside-the-box accessorizing. It’s not just about clothing and consumption — the Uniform Project raises our expectations for fashion ingenuity and in creating this spectacle, raises money and awareness for underserved kids who need funds for school uniforms.

Read on for the interview we did with Sheena Matheiken and Eliza Starbuck. Please join us on December 21, 2009 from 4 – 8 p.m. at Etsy Labs and the Virtual Labs for a special Craft Night and used clothing swap. The Uniform Project will be there, and Megan Nicolay, author of Generation T, will demo a quick and easy project for transforming your old T-shirts into fresh accessories. 

How did you get the original idea for the project? What cause are you supporting?
SHEENA: The notion of wearing the same dress for a year isn’t necessarily a new concept, many artists have done this before. The works of Andrea Zittel and Alex Martin come to mind. For me, it was about giving myself a fun creative challenge, and also making something of consequence, something that people could engage and participate in. When I discovered Akanksha and the wonderful work they are doing for children living in Indian slums who cannot afford an education, it just made sense to make it a fundraiser. Every year Akanksha spends $360 on the education of each child in the slums that they can support. The number correlated so well to my 365 day model that I decided to set aside a dollar every day as I post the daily picture of me in uniform. This way I would have just enough to sponsor one child by the end of the project. With this as an example, we hoped that people will follow suit and make donations to the cause through our website. That’s how it all began.

Sheena has seven copies of the dress, does she have the days of the week sewn into them?
ELIZA: That would have been a cute feature. I spent 4 months making the dress, and we just barely made our May 1 kick-off deadline. We were running to the tailor the night before to get the button holes put into the first dress for her to wear. By the time we got all the buttons sewn on, we were pretty much through with the sewing. Plus, my embroidery is a bit rusty.

How does this project fit in with handmade movement and reuse we associate with vintage?
ELIZA: When Sheena first approached me with the Uniform Project idea, I was hesitant because I had sort of vowed to not make “new” items ever again. I was recovering from working in the fashion industry. But after she explained her idea I got really excited at the prospect of promoting the wearing and reusing of vintage (a personal love for both of us) and how it would encourage people to refashion and hand craft things to wear. The stigma attached to the reuse and handmade culture is that it is frumpy or uninteresting, so we really wanted to challenge that notion and prove that sustainability is not only stylish but if done with some care and creativity, can even reach couture caliber. The overwhelming response and support we’ve received from the reuse and handmade community via accessory donations and blog shout-outs, I think, is a testament to this.

Have you seen other people interpreting the project and doing their own spin on it?
ELIZA: There have been a couple folks that were inspired to take on the UP Challenge and blog or write about it. There were a couple news reporters in the UK and Canada that took it on to see if they could do it for a week in the office. One of our favorite supporters, a blogger named CAG Reinvented, went so far as to challenge us to a LBD duel! It was all a win-win for us as she helped us raise more funds for Akanksha through her blog.

How is the project going global?
SHEENA: The blogs and social networks picked up our project within days after our site launch, and we’ve had incredible followership from all over the globe. Seven months into the project, we’ve received over 1.5 million site hits and we’ve raised over $40,000 in donations (that’s over 100 children in school). We’re also bombarded with emails from people who want to donate accessories to the project, and the comments section of the daily posts are thriving with colorful debates around sustainability, fashion and philanthropy. The best part is that the site is now becoming a great global platform for sustainable designers and hand-crafters to showcase their work by donating accessories to the project. It’s a win-win for everyone!

In addition, we’ve also had supporters throw us fundraiser parties in their own hometowns. One such event happened in Galway, Ireland, which we were lucky enough to attend. This year the Uniform Project has also been to Austria, England, Scotland, and our most exciting trip is coming up in January when Sheena will be traveling to India to visit the Akanksha centers.

Any tips for folks who have an inventive project that supports a good cause? How did you initially get the word out?
SHEENA: If you feel you have an inventive idea, the initial thing is to think good and hard about what you really want to do and say. Put some serious effort into it, be skeptical of your own ideas and force yourself to refine and refine, so they can be as strong as possible. You really need to play devil’s advocate against yourself. Because, trust us, the web world will be itching to do that for you later. Also, the success of an idea depends on the strength of your execution. And if it’s for a good cause, you have to believe in the cause 100%, and then you owe it to that cause to do the absolute best job possible. And lastly, (and this is perhaps the most important element): follow through. Every day.

And put your heart into it, work really really hard — all those cliches are true. Personally, I feel like I’m always a bit naive about the magnitude and potential of something when I conceive it. I just get carried away because I’m having so much fun coming up with it. So that’s the key element, having fun. If you’re having fun, you won’t feel so daunted and you won’t let skepticism creep in, and you’ll take that leap.

As for getting the word out, embrace the web. If you’re not web savvy, the first step is to not be intimidated by it, and recognize its unprecedented ability to build loyal networks and communities that can spread a message faster than any traditional media. And then get the right people to help you.

After the 365 days, what is up next?
ELIZA: Sheena will probably wake up with the question, “What on earth am I going to wear today?!” We’ve actually got some great ideas in the works for next year, starting with putting our dress into market.

Any plans to make the dress for others or licensing the pattern?
ELIZA: Absolutely. We’ve gotten such an overwhelming wave of requests for the 365 day dress, that we couldn’t walk away from the opportunity to encourage others to take on the UP model and mission. We’re currently looking into manufacturing the dress, finding the right organic fabric and an affordable manufacturer who aligns with our sustainability mission. There are so many variables involved in creating something responsibly, and we are taking our time to ask the right questions and do the necessary research. We like the idea of sharing the pattern too, which has also repeatedly been requested by the home sewing set. We tend to agree, the most sustainable method is making it at home.

Where does Sheena get her fashion inspiration?
SHEENA: Inspiration comes from everywhere — the web, a song in my head, the streets of New York. I like to keep things spontaneous and try not to plan ahead. The waking hours will usually inspire something depending on my state of mind and the typically unpredictable New York weather. I also have collected vintage and pre-owned one-off items for years now. Having them at my disposal allows me to improvise and randomly throw things together. My best ensembles have been a product of spontaneity and serendipity. But there’s also been some great thematic days that were pre-planned and labor intensive. I handmade the costume for the Mermaid Parade on June 20, which was very much a Gareth Pugh inspiration. A lot of sketching and research went into that. And then there was the wedding attire, on June 14, for which Eliza custom crafted a dramatic, tiered silk collar. Then there was Halloween, for which we used all the packaging material lying around from all our accessory donors and hand-crafted the flowers that turned me into the evil sea sprite in the garden.

Which blogs, magazines, etc. serve as inspiration?
SHEENA: My day job is in the interactive field, so I practically live on the web. There is a lot that seeps into me subconsciously from the web. I used to tune in to see what some of my favorite fashionistas are up to — Susie Bubble, Style Rookie and blogs like Lookbook, Sartorialist, etc. But lately, juggling two full-time jobs has taken its toll on all the cyber slacking.

What clothing does Sheena miss the most?
SHEENA: There’s really nothing in my wardrobe that I haven’t been able to wear with the uniform if I get creative with it. Pants, blouses, sweaters, skirts, even other dresses have all come into play despite my wearing my uniform dress. I think this is a great testament to the versatility of Eliza’s brilliant LBD.

Are you thinking about any New Year’s resolutions? Have you ever done a 365 day challenge? Tell us in the comments below!

Don’t forget to join Sheena, Eliza and Megan for Craft Night December 21. Look for details on Thursday’s Craft Night post. If you want to donate to the Uniform Project’s cause or donate eco-friendly handmade or vintage accessories, please see their website.