One Dress, 365 Days: An Interview with The Uniform Project’s Sheena Mathieken

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Back in high school, wearing the same thing twice in a row was considered a cardinal sin. Some of you may even remember Mean Girls-style rules being arbitrarily enforced — pink on Wednesdays, sweatpants on Fridays, free-choice never. Unfortunately, many of us have subconsciously carried this doctrine into adulthood, keeping track of what we wear and when, never liking to be seen in exactly the same ensemble. All this, coupled with our modern obsession for fast, disposable fashion, makes Sheena Mathieken’s Uniform Project all the more daring and exciting.

Since May 1st, for the next year, Sheena will be wearing the same black custom-made dress, in an effort to raise money for a children’s education project in India, and to raise awareness about fashion sustainability. Intrigued by the project, we sat down with Sheena on Day 47 to discuss inspiration, donations, and the little black dress at the center of it all.

Click here to view a slideshow of our 15 favorite looks>>

Flavorpill: What inspired the project?

Sheena Matheiken: I’ve had the idea for a while… it came out of a need to do something a little more conscientious and also to give myself a creative challenge. I was talking about the idea of wearing the same dress with my friends, and we brainstormed about what else we could do to really make it appealing. I’ve always been interested in children’s education, as it’s a great area to contribute to. I approached The Akanksha Foundation, who have an office here, and they were very supportive. I got to meet the founder of the foundation and heard her deliver a lecture about the work that the foundation do. The Indian government spends an average of $360 on one child; Akanksha has vowed to spend the same on every slum child to give them a better education. That’s when it really clicked for me — I plan to contribute a dollar a day of my own money for the year, and doing the dress project for a year just makes sense. I have a friend who is an independent designer, so she and I worked together on the dress. I plan to visit the center next year in January or February, so I’ll still be wearing the dress!

FP: Why fashion as a way of creating awareness?

SM: Well, dressing up is fun! It makes a very visual statement, and I really enjoy being pushed beyond my comfort zones with fashion, to the extent that I’ve been getting pretty harsh criticism for some of my choices on the site! To be honest, I’m just so pleased that people are getting passionate and engaged with it. Fashion is a great avenue for inciting interest, but I also think it shows people a way to feel less guilty about shopping — I like to shop, but I’m making an effort to be more sustainable through the project.

FP: What do you see as your influence on other people?

SM: I’m really trying to challenge myself to be more sustainable, but still creative and expressive in the way I dress — I do hope that people can see the fun in that and are inspired to do similar things themselves. For some reason, I’ve acquired a big following in Amsterdam through Twitter — a bunch of Dutch girls want to jump on the bandwagon and start wearing the dress. I’m all for it — let’s start a movement!

FP: What have been you biggest challenges in the project?

SM: It’s been hard keeping up — since the site went live in June I’ve been bombarded with interest, with emails from designers wanting to collaborate… I find myself staying up til 2 or 3 a.m. answering these emails! Style-wise, I’ve actually found it more rewarding than challenging. I look forward to getting up every morning with the base piece to work with which I can build from. I’m sure I’ll have days when I’m pulling my hair out and finding it very hard — this weekend in fact I’m going to the Mermaid Parade in Coney Island, and I’ll have to make the uniform work, somehow! I’m planning some more serious conceptual collaborations with some artists, maybe focusing on the idea of wearable technologies, which should be very exciting.

FP: How have your peers and co-workers reacted to the uniform?

SM: Most have been very supportive — in fact, the only moaning I’ve had is from my guy friends, who’ve complained about having to see me wearing the same thing everyday. I told them it really wouldn’t look the same everyday, and now they have totally come around and concede that I am pulling it off!

FP: Where do you see the project going? At the end of the year, what do you hope to have achieved?

SM: I have a lot of ideas, but I’m also trying to be open since it’s only two months into the project. I have a long way to go! I don’t really see this ending at the end of the year. I’d like it to be more ongoing and turn into something bigger conceptually with a charitable focus. I don’t have a set financial goal as I don’t want to limit what I could potentially raise. $360 pays for one child’s education for a year, but there are 7 million children who don’t go to school — it’s up to everyone else to do the math. In terms of awareness, I’m really pleased about how much we’ve managed so far, especially as all our publicity up ’til now has been viral.

FP: On the site, you’re asking for donations of accessories as well as charitable donations. What sort of stuff have you been receiving?

SM: So far, mostly jewelry, and shoes are on their way. One girl wrote to me and she wants to design one hat per week for the rest of the project. I was so blown away by that kind of commitment, and we’re in the process of coordinating that. There are a lot of my local vintage stores in Brooklyn who want to style me, which I’m looking forward to.

FP: How do you feel about you, and specifically your body, being at the center of the project?

SM: That’s part of the challenge I think — putting myself up for ruthless critique. So far, I haven’t been too unhappy about anything I’ve had to wear. I think the project is going to force me to evolve my style a lot more. I feel like I’ve been playing it pretty safe so far, but it might well have to get a little crazy! There is a certain amount of vanity in getting all this attention, but after this year I really don’t see myself as being the center of the project anymore.

FP: So what’s going to happen to the dress once the project is over?

SM: That’s the big question! I’ve had a slew of emails, asking to sell the dress — after all, it comes with a 365 day lookbook! Eliza [the designer] and I are talking about that now. We see that there’s an opportunity to monetize on this, but it would have to become a much bigger project involving larger parties, and for now we want to focus on the project at hand — we’re not rushing into it, but we’re definitely thinking about it! There’s certainly a bright future for this uniform.