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One dress,365 days. An Indian web designer in US shows how thrift can be chic.

Written by Sunanda Mehta |
July 26, 2009 1:01:19 pm

One dress,365 days. An Indian web designer in US shows how thrift can be chic
It could be a woman’s worst nightmare. But three months into it,Sheena Matheiken is yet to tire of wearing the same dress every day for a whole year. The US-based web designer decided to go on a sartorial diet as a fund-raising endeavour for Akanksha,a non-profit organisation working in the field of education in Pune and Mumbai. Apart from raising funds,the Uniform Project has become a talking point for its experiment in thrift—the one quality that post-recession America is brooding on these days.

Matheiken has certainly attracted online attention,from enthusiastic fashion bloggers and websites as well as mainstream newspapers. The New York Times called the project an attempt to show how rules can inspire “creativity that thwarts conformity”.

While Matheiken embarked on her mission on May 1,the project’s official site (theuniformproject.com) went live only on June 1. Every day,she posts a picture of whatever ensemble she has created,using her one black tunic dress and accessories. And from the response till now,her attempt seems to have measured up. “In the first six weeks since the site’s launch,we have raised over $6,000,” says Matheiken,who is a creative director at an interactive ad agency in New York.

“The idea came to me early last year when I took a six-month sabbatical from my job. Aside from giving myself a fun,creative challenge that advocated sustainability in fashion,I wanted it to be something of consequence,” Matheiken says over e-mail from New York,the city that has been her home and workplace for the past 10 years.

Born in Ireland to Indian parents,Matheiken was raised in Kerala,as her parents moved back to India when she was four. She went on to pursue her Bachelors in Fine Arts from Stella Maris College,Chennai,before taking the flight to New York to do her Masters in design and technology at Parsons School of Design. Soon New York became home for her.

“A good friend of mine in Mumbai introduced me to Akanksha’s founder Shaheen Mistri at a fundraiser event here in New York early this year. When I learnt about the incredible work they were doing,I was convinced I wanted to dedicate this project towards raising funds for the Akanksha schools,” she says. Akanksha vows to spend about $360 on every child who lives in the slums and cannot afford an education.

“Each day,as I post a daily photo on the site,I contribute a dollar to the fund jar so at the end of the project I will have enough to sponsor one child for a year,” says Matheiken. The website also encourages others to contribute either hard cash to the cause or donate pre-owned or handmade accessories for Matheiken’s daily ensembles.

If you thought austerity would mean giving in to dowdiness,you are wrong. Matheiken remains the picture of chic. She mixes and matches accessories with her simple black tunic to come up with a different look every day. The tunic dress was designed for her by her friend and designer,Eliza Starbuck,and she has seven such identical pieces stitched—one for each day of the week.

The dress is designed so it can be worn both ways,front and back,and also as an open tunic. It’s made from a “durable,breathable cotton”,good for New York summers and great for layering in cooler seasons. “It was a lot more fun than designing for the regular fashion industry. It was more challenging,and exciting to solve problems like how to make it fit backwards. But the execution took long hours and hard work,and a lot of late nights,” says Starbuck,who advises and supports Matheiken as she does the actual styling on the dress every day.

Matheiken denies she is an activist but says she wanted to “get people excited about sustainable shopping and to show that style and sustainability needn’t be mutually exclusive”. “The accessories I use to reinvent the uniform are pre-owned,repurposed,vintage,handmade or hand-me-down goods to make the case that you don’t need to constantly buy new things in order to satiate our innate shopping bug,” she says.
The idea is not original. Many artists have done this before for their own reasons. “The works of Andrea Zittel and Alex Martin are some recent examples,” says Matheiken.

She plans to travel to India before the close of the project with a visit to Akanksha topping her agenda. Matheiken says,“If I think about it,the idea came from my school days in India,where uniforms are compulsory,leading students to use their ingenuity to add a dash of individualism to the imposed conformity.” She’s putting the same rules to test.

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