Designing Uniforms that Grow

School uniforms are required in most schools throughout Africa, but they can represent huge barriers to entry for many girls.

If she can't afford a uniform, she'll be turned away from school. If her uniform is ripped or torn, she'll be asked to leave. And perhaps most disheartening of all, if her uniform is dirty because she only has 1 and cannot afford to wash it frequently, she'll be sent home. And we're not having it anymore.

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So we've enlisted the help of Fashion Design major, Royce Grassl, of the University of Idaho to design and prototype school uniforms that fit the needs of girls in Togo!

What are those needs you ask?

1. DURABILITY:  Girls often own just one uniform, and they wear it every single day to school. Togo is near the equator, so it's excessively hot and humid throughout most of the year, and access to water is extremely limited, so the uniforms have to withstand multiple days of use without washing.

2. FLEXIBILITY: We define flexibility in two ways. 1. Girls have to walk several miles to and from school, do all of their daytime activities in their uniforms, and sit in class for hours, so the uniforms need to accommodate the variety of their day. and 2. We're committed to sustainable fashion, and we plan to limit our carbon footprint by manufacturing school uniforms that can grow up to 3 sizes! Meaning girls won't grow out of their uniforms as quickly and can continue to wear them for multiple years. 

3. PERIOD-PROOF: Girls are sent home from school if they bleed on their uniform during their periods, and in some cases, they aren't even allowed to go to school while they are menstruating. Feminine hygiene products are rarely available and highly expensive, so most girls are forced to use old fabric cloths that are unhygienic and don't get the job done. Our goal was to develop undergarments that far exceeded the current options available for girls in Togo. 

4. AFFORDABLE: While every member of S H E receives a free uniform, we will be selling uniforms in other communities to support our organization with earned-revenue. Most rural families in Togo live on less than $1.90 a day, so increasing the affordability of school uniforms will increase access to them, and get more children in school! 

4. FASHIONABLE: Girls deserve a modern uniform that reflects their fashion tastes. The public schools in our village only require that the top is white and the skirt is khaki. For elementary school girls, they have to wear a khaki dress. Within these requirements, there is room for customization, so we've enlisted the help of Fashion Designer, Royce Grassl, to tackle this challenge. And we can't wait to share his work with you!

The garments were thoughtfully named to reflect the attributes girls develop while getting their educations. We hope that when girls put on their well-tailored, custom uniforms, that they feel confident and able to take on the world. 

Every inch of these garments has been thoughtfully designed to allow girls to customize and adjust them to best fit their needs and style. 

Knowledge and Wisdom Blouses

Girls will be able to choose from these two blouse styles. The Wisdom Blouse features a Peter Pan collar and Petal Sleeve while the Knowledge Blouse has a more traditional collar and a roll-able sleeve. Both blouses have adjustable ties that create a custom fit. 

Independence Dress

Similar to the blouses, the Independence Dress has a Peter Pan Collar and adjustable ties. This dress is worn in elementary school, so the Poly-Cotton blend was chosen to increase flexibility, comfort, and durability. 

Success Skirt

This wrap skirt has a size range of 3 FULL SIZES, with small elastic on the waist that fits everything in between! Extra fabric can be built into the bottom, so as girls grow taller they can let out the hem. 

Determination and Resilience Underwear

Perhaps our most favorite, are the Determination and Resilience underwear. As you know by now, girls are shamed out of school for menstruating. Another issue we talk about frequently are the millions of pounds of clothing that are donated from the US and Europe and shipped to Africa where they eventually end up in landfill. These underwear, while still in development, are designed to tackle both problems at once! Excited yet? You're not alone.

Girls at S H E - Togo reviewing the original underwear prototypes. 

Girls at S H E - Togo reviewing the original underwear prototypes. 

At the market in our village, Notse. The second-hand clothing section spans several field lengths and is packet full with mounds of clothing.

At the market in our village, Notse. The second-hand clothing section spans several field lengths and is packet full with mounds of clothing.

Our prototypes are made with recycled t-shirts and shredded denim (You read that right), and both textiles are in abundance in second-hand clothing piles. They are also GREAT materials for absorbency, anti-odor and comfort, and we're putting them to use! 

Because most schools lack the infrastructure for separate bathrooms where girls can change or dispose of their hygiene products, these underwear are designed to be worn all day and absorb multiple tampons-worth of blood each! We're not reinventing the wheel here, we're just re-engineering it out of blue jeans and t-shirts. 


Moving Forward

We are continuing our partnership with the University of Idaho design program. During Spring, 2018 they will develop patterns and other training materials to take to our seamstresses in Togo! As part of our sustainable approach, we focus on skills training for every girl in the program. We will be bringing trainers to help guide our seamstresses in advanced construction and pattern making, and each girl in our program learns to sew her own uniform!

We plan to implement these designs in 2018 after continued testing and collaboration with our seamstresses in Togo. For now, we are focusing our attention on prototyping the underwear to improve their performance. 

 
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And you can help! We are raising funds to support the continued research and distribution of our undergarments to girls in need. When you donate to S H E, you are supporting our continued work to equip girls with the necessary resources, skill set, and confidence to determine her own future. And it starts with keeping girls in school. 


Final Thoughts

This week, we got the chance to sit down with the busy designer, Royce Grassl, to hear his thoughts about fashion's ability to impact people's lives. 

First, a little background.

Royce grew up in the small towns of Uniontown and Colton, Washington and went to High School in Nezperce, Idaho. He graduated from the University of Idaho with a Major in Apparel, Textiles and Design, and he now works at Cloud Nine Bridal in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. He got involved in the project when his professor and advisor to S H E, Lori Wahl, approached him to participate. 

 
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What was your biggest focus during the design process?

Designing the underwear. They are the most technical garment and there are a lot of meticulous steps in the construction process. It required a lot of research on my end; being a male designer. I had to understand all of the functions of the female body and understand how to design for a young woman entering puberty. 

I learned so much in this process, and I was challenged to be super creative in the textile selection process, in designing for pure functionality, and overcoming more strict design constraints than I'm typically faced with in my Couture background. I have made over 4 different prototypes in the last month, and we we are now starting our wear testing with the girls in Togo. 

This project is unlike anything I've done before, but the challenge was well worth it. 
 

What was the most meaningful part of your work?

After I finished the first round of prototypes, we were able to send them to the S H E members in Togo for wear testing and general feedback.There were a few minor adjustments, but overall, the girls were very excited about all of the garments. They talked about how the underwear would impact their lives, and I was so touched to hear that. We don't always get the opportunity to see the direct impact of our work as designers, so this was very meaningful for me. 

 

What was something that you learned about girls in Togo that surprised you most?

I was most surprised by just how many challenges girls face. If the schools find out that they are menstruating, the girls are asked to leave school until they’re done. So that means these girls are missing out on one week of school every month at least. That was so heartbreaking to hear.    

 

What were you most excited about in your designs?

The thing I was really excited to design had to be the skirt. The skirt was the most fundamental design, but I love how functional it is, and we know it is going to have a big impact.

 

Do you think fashion has the ability to empower people? How so?

I absolutely think fashion has the ability to empower people. I know it is a cliché, but I honestly believe that when you look good, you feel good. I think that people who are dressed professionally are taken more seriously. It only takes a few seconds for a person to have a first impression, and it starts off with how you are dressed.

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When you close your eyes and imagine an empowered woman, what do you see?

When I think of an empowered woman I think of confidence. A woman that holds their heads up high as she walks and is perfectly comfortable in her own skin. A person that doesn’t care what other people think because she has her eyes set on achieving her goals.

 

What is your hope for the girls who wear your designs?

I hope that when these girls feel confident and feel like they are ready to concur the world. I hope that they are taken more seriously so their voices will be heard, and most of all, I hope they are able to get a proper education.  

 

What is your hope for women on the planet?

I just visualize women as strong, confident and beautiful. An empowered woman is a person first and foremost, and she is a person that has strong morals, is constantly learning, and driven to her goals. They have open hearts, and they never give up on others or themselves.

Women are as beautiful on the inside as much as they are on the outside. This is my vision for women and this is my hope for women. I hope women feel the way I envision them as, because that is what I see as true beauty and grace.

 

What’s one question you’d like to ask yourself?

The main question I ask myself is “How can I make this my own?”

When I am designing, I see images from my favorite designers and I wonder if I were to make that how would I put my own spin on it. Then I take elements from that design and then make my own garment. That is how I come up with some of my designs.