After spending much of her twenties working at luxury fashion institutions including Prada, Cartier, and Alberta Ferretti, today Olivia Fay is striking out on her own. But the launch of the 28-year-old’s first collection is about so much more than great fashion (though it is certainly that). Rallier is about empowering women everywhere—most importantly, the 62 million young girls around the world who are not in school.
When Olivia first saw the documentary Girl Rising three years ago, she was stunned by the sheer volume of young women denied access to education. But what was a Public Relations Coordinator at Belstaff to do? Her research brought her to a Kenya-based study which found that giving school uniforms to students who did not previously own one reduced school absenteeism by 64%. That gave Olivia an idea.
Today, that idea comes to fruition in Rallier’s first collection—a stunning line of uniform- and menswear-inspired dresses. Most importantly, Rallier’s sales cover the cost of materials and labor for production of the uniforms through a Kenyan-based women’s empowerment program. Uniforms are made in Kibera, a region of Kenya in which 43% of girls are likely to be out of school. I spoke with this rising star about the intersection of fashion and social responsibility, what inspires her, and how the rest of us can help.
Kelsey Manning: Where were you in your life when you first saw Girl Rising, and what impact did it have?
Olivia Fay: I saw Girl Rising in 2013 when I was working in fashion public relations. I was shocked to learn about the millions of girls around the world who are continually denied access to education. I was so troubled by what I saw but didn’t know what role I could responsibly play with a fashion background. When I later learned that school uniforms were often the cost barrier to education, I felt strongly that I could create a fashion brand to authentically address this clothing driven need.
KM: What were some of the very first steps. Like, okay, you had this idea…what next?
OF: After initially coming up with the idea, I slowly started writing what eventually became my business plan. It was actually really fun to come home after work and privately put words on paper. A few months later, I decided to pursue my MBA so that I could further develop and vet the idea.
KM: Who are some of your personal fashion heroes and what were their influence as you set out to design this collection?
OF: In terms of public figures, Emma Watson is the person I think of the most when designing the line. She embodies so much of what Rallier stands for. We keep her UN Women HeForShe campaign speech bookmarked for days when we need a little extra push.
KM: You’ve worked with a ton of luxury brands—Prada, Alberta Ferretti, Vera Wang, Cartier. Without calling anyone out, did you feel a lack of this type of social responsibility in the fashion industry? I just wonder about the difference between working at a massive, major design house and starting a brand from scratch that holds social responsibility as a primary goal.
OF: It wasn’t that I saw a lack of social responsibility but rather a different perspective on what it means to live an aspirational life. I’m a person of my generation and I felt a big shift happening in terms of how we define status and luxury compared to older generations. The Internet and social media have engaged us in global incidences of economic downturn, social turmoil, extreme poverty and polarizing wars unlike any other group of young people. My generation has broken out of conventional molds in so many ways and I wanted to create a brand that honors our interest in the larger world around us.
KM: I know that you have a background in both business and design—which side proved more challenging in launching this company? What were some of the unexpected hurdles?
OF: Launching Rallier is a continuous lesson in how creativity and business intersect. It’s hard to decide which side is more challenging, as they are so interconnected in this context. There were several hurdles but I can’t say that they were unexpected. I’m lucky to be launching a company at a time when we have access to so much information.
KM: Do you work closely with the program in Kenya you’re donating to? Have you visited and if so, what was your experience like?
OF: Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO) is our founding non-profit partner and an organization that I’ve been involved with since before starting Rallier—I sit on their leadership council. SHOFCO not only operates two tuition free schools for girls in Kibera and Mathare, but also runs a women’s empowerment program, which provides business and entrepreneurship skills in addition to living wages through the production of products such as school uniforms. I actually took my first trip to Kenya this past January. The entire experience from the culture, to the people, to the landscapes, to the food made for an unforgettable trip. Being in Kibera and Mathare for the first time with the SHOFCO team was nothing short of life-changing.
KM: What do you think people don’t understand about the (massive, confusing) problem of girls education? How can people help?
OF: Girls’ education has proven to be the single most impactful tool for development to date. Not everyone is aware of the fact that uneducated girls can be the root cause of other societal ills. Educated girls directly decrease major societal threats, such as social exclusion, child marriage, gender-based violence, HIV, infant mortality and extreme poverty. Educated girls can lift entire communities out of poverty and into economic success. The best way to help is to invest in people and organizations with proven track records. I have seen firsthand how effective Shining Hope for Communities is at tackling the issue of girls’ education and gender inequality. Visit www.shofco.org to learn more and get involved.