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Driven by the lack of fashion-forward college T-shirts in her Duke University bookstore, as well as her interest in socially responsible apparel manufacturing, Rachel Weeks is determined to turn her School House brand into a major apparel player.
Weeks, who graduated from Duke in 2007 with a degree in women’s studies, traveled to Sri Lanka that same year on a U.S. Fulbright Scholarship to start her own ethical apparel brand. She spent the year learning about apparel production and developing relationships with clothing companies.
“After living in Sri Lanka for a year, I learned everything there is to know about T-shirts, worked to develop a sample line and used $20,000 of my own money to hire a creative director,” Weeks explained of her productive year abroad.
That creative head, who is also now Weeks’ business partner, is Colleen McCann, a Pittsburgh native who brings experience in design from companies including Betsey Johnson and Under Armour.
“It was really important for me to create a product that people would want to buy, something they haven’t already seen in the collegiate clothing already out there,” Weeks said. “But it was also important for me to find a manufacturing partner who agreed to pay their employees fair wages that they could live on.”
To make sure fair wages are paid, Weeks said she pays a premium price to her suppliers, which is what she calls “a small step in the right direction” when it comes to ethical manufacturing efforts.
Upon returning home to Greensboro, N.C., from Sri Lanka, Weeks made an appointment to meet with Jim Wilkerson, Duke’s director of trademark licensing and stores operations, who ended up ordering $100,000 worth of School House products to sell in Duke’s on-campus stores. Weeks said the product is selling exceptionally well at Duke, which has encouraged her to sell to other colleges throughout North Carolina. Today, she sells to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University, among others.
In hopes of expanding the brand’s reach even more, Weeks traveled to Texas A&M University earlier this year, walked into their bookstore and was told to contact Barnes & Noble, which runs that bookstore and about 600 other college bookstores nationwide.
“I cold-called Barnes & Noble and managed to get a meeting,” she said.
As a test, Barnes & Noble agreed to put a small amount of product in two of its university stores — Yale and Harvard. The collection has only been on sale at Yale for about two months, Harvard about one month, and it’s already performing over plan, she said. As a result, Weeks is currently in talks with Barnes & Noble to expand to more college stores for spring.
The collection wholesales from $7.50 for a pair of underwear to $40 for a hoodie. The line includes a wide range of T-shirts, tanks, cardigans, sweats and shorts. The difference between School House and many other collegiate lines out there, Weeks explained, is that a lot of attention is paid to creating trend-driven graphics and contemporary fitted clothes — this is not your traditional, boxy college sweatshirt, Weeks explained.
Weeks’ goal is to be in about 75 stores next year, but she wants to be careful to not grow too quickly. To date, she has just passed $300,000 in orders for the North Carolina schools as well as Harvard and Yale.
“Not bad for two girls from North Carolina and Pittsburgh,” she said.