They might not look like much, but this pair of shoes could change a life.
I found them in a fashion boutique, tucked away in the northern Adelaide suburb of Modbury.
It is a shop with a difference. It looks like a high end clothing outlet: a sparkling chandelier. Curated outfits modelled by stylish mannequins. Tastefully chosen décor. A couch to relax on. Soft carpet. Fragrant candles. Impeccably dressed stylists.
But this boutique is very unusual. The first surprise is the price tags. There aren’t any. Everything here is free.
The freshly steamed, immaculate garments might look new but many have stories to tell. The clientele also have stories, often heart-breaking ones.
Welcome to Dress for Success, the new South Australian little sister of a global ‘style with a conscience’ movement.
Dress for Success was founded in 1997 by New Yorker Nancy Lublin, who wanted to use a small inheritance to support her local community. The not-for-profit organisation now has a presence in 150 cities across 20 countries*.
The impeccably dressed stylists at Dress for Success Adelaide are Joan and Danielle . Their combined careers span the fashion, retail, legal, hospitality and corporate worlds. Joan worked as a consultant for businesses supplying major retail chains such as Target, Kmart, David Jones and Myer and more recently was the state manager for the Flower Clothing chain, while UK-born Danielle has worked for the Louis Vuitton Group.
Today, they are the stylish duo responsible for preparing South Australian women to re-enter the workforce.
Their mission is to empower women to achieve economic independence by providing a network of support, professional attire and development tools to help women thrive in work and in life.
But what does this really mean? I sat down with Joan and Danielle to learn what happens behind the Dress for Success doors.
Clothing for a cause
Dress for Success is housed at Status Employment in Modbury. Since opening the doors in August 2015, Joan and Danielle have outfitted, styled, groomed, and mock-interviewed 120 women – a third of whom have found work. Their sights are set on 500 women in the first 12 months.
To put this challenge into context, the number of unemployed South Australian women looking for work increased by 110% from 2012-2015.
“In the nearby suburb of Elizabeth, 33% – yes, one in three – of people are unemployed,” Joan says.
But Dress for Success means so much more than the numbers, and certainly stands for a lot more than an outfit for a job interview.
Yes, Joan and Danielle outfit unemployed women with professional attire for a job interview and, if successful, a week’s worth of work outfits. Yes, they provide resume advice and personal grooming tips. But they also provide an impartial ear to listen, followed by positive and practical advice to empower these women to move towards financial independence.
We’re talking about women who may have been in the welfare system their whole life; women who have never had a job; women who once had bright careers but lost their financial independence; women who are in abusive relationships; women who have slipped through society’s cracks but desperately want to work.
A day in the life of Dress for Success
When women come to Dress for Success for their first consultation, their reactions are mixed. Some are terrified, Joan says. Some are embarrassed.
“Our job begins the moment they walk through the door – we start reading their body language, how they shake our hand, if they maintain eye contact, how they react to meeting new people in a new environment,” she explains. “We then sit down with them for a chat, so they feel more relaxed and open to the Dress for Success experience.”
Danielle and Joan talk about the type of job each woman is applying for. They work through the importance of outfit choice, personal grooming and body language in preparation for their upcoming interview. The next step is to select clothing, shoes and accessories that are comfy, well-fitting and appropriate.
“We want our clients to present their best selves in a job interview, so we explain about dressing for body type, how to do their hair, make-up and nails, and deportment,” Danielle says. “Clients often cannot believe it when we tell them the outfits are theirs to keep, but we are not just giving them an outfit – we are giving these women tools to get a job, and a job means economic independence.”
Danielle and Joan provide guidance on writing resumes, preparing for job interviews and giving potential employers ‘high value’ answers.
It doesn’t stop there. The establishment of the Dress for Success Professional Women’s Group will provide ongoing support with workshops and seminars featuring leadership development, economic stability, health and wellness, career advancement and also networking opportunities to ensure that women not only survive in the workplace but thrive in both work and life.
“Many of these women have no contacts, no industry networks, so we see an opportunity to develop mentoring opportunities with professional women in the community,” Joan says.
Danielle and Joan are, of course, models of discretion, but they do share some special moments with me.
Like about the 18-year-old girl – homeless since she was 14 – who looked at her newly styled-self in the mirror and started crying: “No one has ever done this for me before.” The client who was once a successful business woman but fell into the unemployment spiral: “I feel so ashamed to be in this position.” The woman who came into the boutique with sunglasses, removing them to reveal a black eye. “We do go through quite a few boxes of tissues here,” Joan says softly.
Style for a cause
Dress for Success is a local community service – it relies on donations and all clothes and funds are used to support local women.
I first heard about Dress for Success through one of my favourite online shops, My Friend Alice, which donates a percentage of every sale to the Sydney arm of the charity. My Friend Alice ran a wonderful initiative last year, encouraging shoppers to clean out their wardrobes and gift gently-worn work-wear to the organisation. This prompted me to drop off my first donation last month.
If you want to help make a positive change in your community, keep Dress for Success in mind when you next clean out your wardrobe – the change from summer to autumn is a perfect time.
So, what do they need?
Like many women, shoes are at the top of Joan and Danielle’s ‘wardrobe wish list’ – but in their case they want black court shoes that appropriate for job interviews. New stockings are also high on the list, along with new underwear and basics like white and black camisoles and nude bras.
Basically, Dress for Success welcomes all donations of new and ‘gently worn’ work wear.
“Ask yourself if you would loan a garment to your best friend for a job interview. If you would, then it is suitable,” Joan explains.
It’s a fair criteria as this is not just any op-shop or charity outlet. These outfits play a role in achieving a very important outcome: supporting women to secure employment.
Cash donations are also welcome. Joan and Danielle want to provide outfits for every woman, of every size, so they have to purchase some new garments (especially sizes 18+) so no client leaves empty handed. They also purchase new stockings and undergarments, as well as items to fill any gaps in the wardrobe, such as shoes, black slacks and work-appropriate handbags.
- Clothing donations can be delivered to 985 North East Road, Modbury, South Australia, 5092 between 9am-5pm, Monday to Friday. Contact Joan and Danielle at: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Cash donations can be made online through the Adelaide website and Everyday Hero.
- Using your network connections to offer employment opportunities to the Dress for Success women.
Dress for Success donation wish list:
- New/gently worn work clothes in good condition and not more than five years old
- Black court shoes and black flat shoes in all sizes
- Work appropriate jewellery
- Hand bags
- Black work pants
- Larger sized garments
- Black and white camisoles
- New underwear (black, nude, white)
- New stockings (nude, black)
Mrs M is proud to support Dress for Success as a donation hub for the mid-north of SA. Please contact me via my Facebook Page to discuss dropping off a delivery of appropriate clothes.
Love, Mrs M xx
*Each Dress for Success location operates as an affiliate of the head office in New York, with strong local connections. In Adelaide, the Dress for Success funding patron is Status Employment Services, under the not-for-profit organisation Inner Western Work Skills. Status Employment Services houses the boutique in its Modbury site and refers clients to Joan and Danielle.
Unemployment figures: Australian Government Department of Employment – Small Area Labour Markets September Quarter 2015