Starting a company with a social mission was always important to Rachel Weeks. She launched School House, which manufactures fashion forward college-branded clothing, while she was in Sri Lanka on a Fulbright Grant, and insisted that the factory pay its female workers livable wages. “We tripled wages in that factory,” she says proudly.
Weeks no longer manufactures in Sri Lanka, but she still has a social mission, and it involves a commitment to manufacturing right in her own backyard. “Seventy-five percent of the line is made less than 10 miles from Durham,” says the North Carolina native. “Our new mantra is ‘American Collegiate Craftsmanship,’” she says. “We’re rebranding “Made in the USA” for a new generation. And we’re fulfilling a latent but growing demand for fashion apparel in a market traditionally dominated by performance brands.”
Those would be Nike, Champion, Under Armour, and the like--great athletic brands that churn out plenty of college-branded gear, but aren’t known for their attention to the female market. While Weeks was a student at Duke University, she came up with the idea of ramping up the fashion element of college-branded clothing to increase its appeal to women. Think oxford cloth dresses, shawl collared cardigans, and printed tights. It was Duke, in fact, that gave School House its first big order.
Using $20,000 from a lawsuit settlement as start-up capital (Weeks was hit by a car driven by an off-duty federal marshal), Weeks forged a partnership with a Sri Lankan factory in 2009. Leveraging her Duke relationship, she signed on more schools and increased distribution of her college-branded clothing in university bookstores.
But her offshore manufacturing deal went sour when her orders started arriving three months late. Her new COO, industry veteran Susan Williams, who was hired after Weeks raised an angel round of capital, helped her make the decision to bring the manufacturing operation back to the U.S.
Since then, Weeks has decreased School House’s skus to 12 from 22 and raised prices, but she’s also improved quality and vastly increased her speed to market. She has more than 100 colleges and universities as customers and just inked a potentially game-changing deal with a major U.S. retailer (Weeks cannot yet release the details).
That came about after she made a cold call to a buyer at the company, who agreed to visit School House while he was on vacation in North Carolina. “Six weeks later, I was in New York and finalizing the deal,” Weeks says. “The fact that we’re made at home definitely made a difference for them,” she says. “They’re targeting millennial customers and we’re hearing from our customers they’re really excited about buying domestic.”