Fashion With A Heart

Fashion is the epitome of narcissism and vanity, right? Wrong. As Sheena Matheiken has proved along with designer Eliza Starbuck, fashion absolutely can be the vehicle for sustainability and philanthropy. The Uniform Project launched in May when Matheiken put on the versatile black dress for the first time, and vowed to wear it every day for one year. Well, to be precise, she plans to wear seven identical copies of the dress, reinventing it daily with vintage pieces and accessories.

In addition to being an exercise in fashion sustainability, the project is a year-long fundraiser for the Akanksha Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to providing the means to educate slum children in India. The Indian government spends an average of $360 on one child’s schooling. The Akanksha Foundation pledges to spend the same amount of every slum child to afford them the same educational opportunities as their peers.

At the end of one year, The Uniform Project will send supporters’ donations to the Akanksha Foundation. For the duration of the project, Matheiken herself will add one dollar to the jar each day, so that by the end of the one year, she will have provided the funds necessary for uniforms and other educational expenses for one child living in the Indian slums.

The Uniform Project is only gaining momentum. On August 17, the project hit the $10,000 mark, the equivalent of putting 27 kids in school. As a result of its huge success, The Uniform Project was nominated for the first annual NAU Grant for Change, which will support socially responsible creative projects.

In order to understand the person beyond the famous black dress, I asked Matheiken a few questions about The Uniform Project:

Q: What prompted you to start The Uniform Project?

A: The idea sparked early last year when I took a six-month sabbatical from my full-time job in order to decompress, travel and focus on some personal projects. Aside from giving myself a fun creative challenge, I also wanted it to be something of consequence and also a platform that people could engage and participate in. That's how the idea of making this a fundraiser came about. A friend of mine in India introduced me to Akanksha and their work and when I learnt about the incredible work they are doing, I was convinced I wanted to dedicate this project towards raising funds for the Akanksha schools.

Q: I understand you grew up in India. What were your experiences and observations concerning children living in the slums?
A: I had a modest, upper-middle class upbringing in the southern state of Kerala, which is known for its highest literacy rate across the country and one of the few parts of India where you don't really find as many slum children panhandling compared to cities like Mumbai, Calcutta, etcetera. Every time I travelled to Bombay to visit family and friends, I was always appalled by the jarring displacement of the cityscape with its luxury high rises on one side and the dismal slums on the other. I did get to visit a slum in Kochi as part of an outreach program when I was in high school. I remember being terrified with anticipation, but what I experienced was quite contrary. The children I saw in these slums were resilient, enterprising and brimming with life — they actually left me feeling elated and inspired to help.

Q: In your opinion, how can one person make a difference? How are you trying to make a difference?

A: Do what you love to do and try to be conscious of the world around you. Making a difference and having fun needn't be mutually exclusive. This project is an attempt to send a message that style and sustainability can co-exist and that fashion can have a heart too.

Q: Why did you decide to use fashion to create awareness about education in India?

A: Fashion is such a visual and subjective medium, so there was that intrinsic draw. I consider my personal style very much a part of how I express myself and I wanted to take that daily act of dressing up and make it part of something bigger, something more consequential. The repetitive model of a 365 day project makes it addictive as well, bringing viewers back on a regular basis, which made it a great platform for fundraising.

Q: What do you hope to achieve by the end on the year?

A: A substantial fund! There are over seven million kids that don't attend school today in India, so it’s up to everyone to see how many kids we can put through school at the end of this project. At the close of the 365 days, we have ideas on extending this into an ongoing nonprofit mission that promotes and practices sustainability and charitable causes.

The Uniform Project
The Akanksha Foundation

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