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Dress for Success client Maria Kambitsis at the organization's Manhattan boutique.
Dress for Success client Maria Kambitsis at the organization's Manhattan boutique.

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Strong Suit

Dress for Success has been outfitting disadvantaged women for nearly two decades. Can clothes really open up a whole world?

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The Dress for Success boutique in Manhattan is mid-sized and modest, with high ceilings and brown carpet. At the entrance, black and white portraits of smiling women hang on a red wall that also has the organization’s tagline — “Going places, going strong” — mounted beneath its block-letter logo.

The layout of the boutique is reminiscent of a department store, with racks of clothing organized neatly. There are suits upon suits, skirt suits and pantsuits alike, in sizes 2 to 24 from brands as varied as Barneys and Express, Elie Tahari and White House Black Market. There's a glass case full of Pandora jewelry, shelves of Spanx and pantyhose, and a selection of gently-worn shoes from Stuart Weitzman, Steve Madden, Gucci, and J.Crew.

"Helloooo! How are you?"

This is how Beverly Brown, the boutique's volunteer coordinator, welcomes everyone who enters. She's been at Dress for Success for two years. The nonprofit itself started in 1997 and provides professional attire to disadvantaged women returning to or entering the workforce. Brown's face is often the first women see when they come for their appointments. Before Dress for Success, Brown was an HR manager at Banana Republic.

The first client of the day is Tanisha, who will be interviewing for a security job on Wall Street in a few days. A social services organization referred her to Dress for Success, and today she is picking out an outfit as part of the one-on-one personal shopping experience Dress for Success offers all its clients.

Brown has picked out a blue wrap dress from Michael Kors, but it leaves much of Tanisha's chest exposed. "Now you definitely can't wear it like this to the interview," Brown says. "Do you have a tank top at home? Maybe we can try to see if this will work with a pin."

Volunteer coordinator Beverly Brown (right) with Manhattan branch manager Regina Norman and volunteer Bobby Ciletti.

The pair gets an assist from Rahel Berihu, a fashion stylist who typically works in television, dressing people in commercials for Coca-Cola and Apple, as well as styling celebrities like Queen Latifah, Uma Thurman, Anne Hathaway, and Christie Brinkley. Every Monday morning, though, Berihu volunteers at the boutique. She heads to the back of the store and reappears with a black bodycon dress with sequins on the sides.

"Oh wow, I didn't even see that!" exclaims Brown. "Sometimes it takes a fresh pair of eyes to fully dress a client because they are going to see the things that you overlook." When Tanisha comes out of the dressing room wearing the black dress, Brown lets out a whoop. Tanisha flashes a big smile at her reflection in the mirror: "I like it!"

Berihu hands her a black blazer from Eloquii, nodding encouragingly. "Let me see if I can find a necklace that will accentuate your neckline," Brown says, and begins to rummage through some drawers filled with costume jewelry.

The front doorbell buzzes.

"Helloooo! How are you?" Brown practically sings.

In walks the next client, Ariel. She's young and petite and wears baggy pants, a loose striped button-down, and gold sneakers that match her gold wire rim glasses, gold chain necklaces, and gold belt. She smiles shyly. Berihu heads over to Ariel and begins to work with her after she's filled out some paperwork.

"So we're looking for clothes for a security internship," Berihu says, browsing Ariel's forms. "How do you dress? Do we like pants, skirts, or dresses?"

"No skirts," Ariel replies.

Berihu heads to the front of the store, and begins sifting through the racks of smaller sizes.

"It's very emotional, to hear some of their stories. Knowing that you can impact their lives is a lot."

"I already knew she was going to say that," she whispers, with a smile. "I would never push anyone to wear something that isn't them and I do try to hone in on their sense of style, but I also try to get them out of their comfort zone. A lot of women avoid clothing that they think isn't them, but end up loving it once they try it on. At the end of the day, though, we want everyone to walk out feeling like themselves and feeling good about themselves."

Berihu has been volunteering at Dress for Success for 11 years. She started after seeing a segment about it on 20/20. "You know, volunteering has a selfish component to it," she says. "I get a lot out of interacting with these women. It's very emotional, to hear some of their stories. Knowing that you can impact their lives is a lot."

She heads back to the dressing room where Ariel is waiting, and hands her some choices. Moments later, Ariel steps out in gray suit pants.

"Whoa, way too fitted," Ariel giggles, staring at her waistline.

"I can grab those for you in an 8, but I'll just say that the 6 looks great," says Berihu. "They're very structured and look professional."

They go through several pairs of pants before they both agree on black ones from Barneys that are tapered at the ankle. Berihu decides to up the ante. She finds a lime green button-down with white tuxedo buttons and passes it to Ariel in the dressing room. "Just do me a favor and try this one," she insists. Ariel steps out. The shirt fits her perfectly.

"Oh, I actually like this," Ariel murmurs. Berihu grins and hands her a white blouse from Thomas Pink that's cinched at the sides: "This too!"

Ariel admits that despite her usual style, she's also "feeling this one." Five outfits later, Berihu gathers the haul in a bag. Ariel is about to walk out the door when she pauses to hug the stylist.

"Good luck, and come back to visit me soon!" Berihu says mid-embrace.

"I will!" Ariel responds. And then she's on her way.

In 1996, Nancy Lublin, the founder of Dress for Success, was a 25-year-old law student at New York University. She returned home from class one evening to find a $5,000 check in her mailbox. It was from the estate of her recently deceased great-grandfather Max Uzewitz, who had immigrated to America at the turn of the century and became a traveling salesman.

"He came to this country with nothing and he never spent anything in his lifetime," Lublin says now, sitting at the Manhattan offices of Crisis Text Line, her latest nonprofit. "I didn't feel like I earned the money." Lublin's parents advised her to invest the $5,000 in the stock market, like her sister did with her inheritance, but she had other plans.

Suits were top of mind for Lublin. For starters, she was just getting into the world of law, where suits are essential. Also, she notes, "It was the '90s and everyone was wearing suits!" Then there was what her father, a partner at a law firm in her hometown of Hartford, Connecticut, would tell her about how he hired secretaries: "He used to watch them go from the car to the building from his window, and before they got to the building, he'd know whether or not he'd hire them. Just based on what they were wearing, which is awful! That was how my father would get me to go comb my hair, or change my clothes — by saying, ‘Think about the type of impression you are making!' It always made me nuts."

So Lublin began conceptualizing a recycled suits program, where women could borrow suits for interviews and then bring them back after they landed a job. (This original model for Dress for Success, Lublin admits, "was actually a terrible idea because once you land a job, you would need to keep the suit because you'd still need something to wear to work.") She mentioned the idea to a professor at NYU, who suggested she consult with a group of nuns he knew who worked at a church in Spanish Harlem.

"They didn't know shit about money, just a lot about Jesus," says Lublin. "But they also knew poor people in New York City, and when I shared my idea with them, they were fantastic." The nuns recommended Lublin team up with a "rich white guy from Chase Bank," but she instead appointed the nuns the first members of her board of directors, and sought out the counsel of powerful women like Eileen Fisher and Gloria Steinem.

"They didn't know shit about money, just a lot about Jesus. But they also knew poor people in New York City."

Lublin decided her organization would provide one suit to women interviewing for jobs, and that clients could come back for more clothing once they landed a position. Dress for Success would not operate like any ordinary secondhand store: only the most pristine donations would be accepted, the service would include a personal shopping component, and clients had to be referred by a social services organization.

"I didn't just want to have people come in off the street and say, ‘I'm looking for a job, can I get a suit?'" she says. "But I did want to help women transfer from welfare to work, and to feel confident."

Lublin and the nuns received their first few bundles of suits from the Jewish Community Center of Manhattan, and then from an NYU clothing drive. The plan was to headquarter Dress for Success at the nuns' church. But after a major flood, the clothing was first moved to Lublin's East Village apartment, and then to the United Methodist Church across town, where rent cost a few hundred dollars a month.

Lublin's first client was Charline Brundidge, who was granted clemency after serving 11 years for killing her abusive husband. She needed something to wear for an on-air Today Show segment. As the New York Times wrote in 1997, "Gov. George E. Pataki gave Mrs. Brundidge a pardon. Dress for Success gave her a suit."

Lublin dropped out of NYU in her fourth semester and cashed in bonds from her Bat Mitzvah to pursue Dress for Success full-time. She was dogged about getting financing for it, even asking an aunt on her deathbed to give a sizeable donation. "I was not invited to Thanksgiving that year by my family," she deadpans, "but I got the money."

She ultimately worked out agreements with 20 organizations like Sanctuary for Families, Coalition for the Homeless, and Grand Street Settlement that could refer as many clients to Dress for Success as they wanted to, so long as someone from each organization manned the boutique once a month; running the charity like a co-op kept the costs to a minimum.

It was important to Lublin that Dress for Success expand nationally nearly immediately. She recalls phoning Bottomless Closet, a similar organization in Chicago, to ask if they could join forces. The Bottomless Closet rep rebuffed her request, telling Lublin that if she was really interested in working with them, she'd need to pay a large fee and fill out a mountain of paperwork.

"I got off the phone and cried," she says. "I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can't believe how mean they just were. I can't believe they don't want to work together.' Then, I was like, ‘Oh, fuck that, I'm going to be the national organization and I'm going to do it with kindness.'"

This was something people responded to. After Kathy Lambert, a 56-year-old St Louis native, read about Dress for Success in a magazine, she says "the thought of being involved in such an amazing concept like that kept me awake for several nights." Lambert tracked Lublin down and flew to New York to check out the boutique for herself. With Lublin's help, she was able to start Dress for Success's second outpost, Dress for Success Midwest, in a tiny room in a church in St. Peters, Missouri "in no time at all."

"Nancy told me she didn't care how I did it, but that I should just do it," says Lambert. "She had a real willingness to share, which was so refreshing. Sometimes organizations make it really hard to become an affiliate, but she was so giving and made it all so easy. I thought I would set up Dress for Success Midwest and have someone take it over, but here I am, 19 years later."

By 1998, there were 18 Dress for Success locations around the US. Lublin moved on from the New York headquarters to spearhead the organization's international efforts in Canada and New Zealand.

"I think people liked the story, and welfare-to-work was having a real moment. It was the Clinton administration and ‘back to work' was his big thing," Lublin explains, referencing the controversial Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act that Bill Clinton signed into law in 1996, which required certain welfare recipients to work in order to continue receiving benefits.

Lublin left Dress for Success in 2001. "I was bored," she says. "I'm an entrepreneur. I really like new things. I like vision. I like creating the brand and the culture. It's still very similar to how I built it. The brand is still strong. The way that it's delivered is still strong." She has since gone on to start two other nonprofits.

In her absence, the organization has indeed continued to flourish. Today, Dress for Success is in 143 cities in 21 countries. With a team of 41 employees and 10,000 volunteers worldwide, the organization has served 950,000 women to date.

Today, Dress for Success is in 143 cities in 21 countries. With a team of 41 employees and 10,000 volunteers worldwide, the organization has served 950,000 women to date.

These days, corporate sponsorships from FedEx, Benefit Cosmetics, Citibank, L'Occitane, Talbots, and Walmart help contribute to its $16.9 million in annual business income, as do events like galas and marathons that are held in cities around the world. Celebrities like Kim Kardashian, Bethenny Frankel, Lisa Kudrow, and Tracy Anderson have also gotten involved.

"I started working with Dress for Success because I love that they focus on all the layers it takes to get women to a place of being independent and being able to provide for themselves," Anderson explains. "It's important to know that you have advocates that are there purely to help, based on sisterhood and nothing more. You can be truthful with them about where you have been and where you want to go, and they will help you with open and capable arms."

According to the US Department of Labor, there are currently 7.8 million unemployed Americans, with 4.5 percent of women over the age of 20 without a job. This is who Dress for Success is trying to reach.

Disadvantaged women are the organization's target demographic. Dress for Success defines disadvantaged women as those who are single mothers, have been incarcerated, live in domestic violence shelters, or are in the welfare system. One of the many obstacles these women face when seeking employment is lack of regular access to a computer.

"We used to be able to walk into a company and hand our resume at the counter, but everything now is electronic," says current Dress for Success CEO Joi Gordon. "It's all someone looking at resumes on a computer screen for 10 seconds or less before they swipe it and go to the next one."

She continues: "For most entry-level positions, like to work at a movie theater, you've got to do a 60-question assessment test online, and some of our women don't even have computers in their home, and these tests aren't mobile-friendly. So what happens to the women who don't have a computer? And what about data charges that are in excess if they do use their phones for a job search? I don't expect that people have intentionally created these barriers, but they absolutely weed out a huge segment of our population."

Once you do get an interview, appearance becomes paramount. How you look shapes employers' perceptions of you, both consciously and not.

"Showing up and looking well-kempt is critically important," says Kim Zoller, the founder and CEO of Image Dynamics, a professional development firm. "You might have a person who is highly intelligent, but a sad reality is that if they aren't attractive, especially from a clothing perspective, they could likely leave a terrible impression."

The fit of clothing is particularly crucial, according to fashion psychologist Dawnn Karen.

"An oversized suit or an ill-fitting dress is enough for a supervisor to assume someone doesn't have the qualifications," says Karen. "Technically, you aren't supposed to discriminate against those things, but an outfit that needs to be tailored says a lot about someone's economic status and that leads to all sorts of judgements."

Research has shown clothing has the ability to affect the wearer's own mood and behavior too. In his most recent study published in the Social Psychological and Personality Science Journal, Abraham Rutchick, an associate professor of psychology at California State University, Northridge, found that people who wore formal clothing performed tasks more efficiently and demonstrated the capacity for clearer, big-picture thinking.

"Clothing has a real effect on how you think in various ways," says Rutchick. "The effect is most likely driven by feelings of power — clothing can make people feel more or less powerful. If someone is wearing a stained shirt or something that fits poorly, that leads to vulnerability."

Carolyn Mair, who leads the psychology department at the London College of Fashion, adds that retail, hospitality, and entertainment companies whose employees engage with the public are "usually keen on employing staff to employ image ideals" — think Abercrombie & Fitch only hiring attractive sales associates — and so, "disadvantaged women, and a large part of the population who might not be in an economic status to look a certain way, are discriminated against."

This is where Dress for Success comes in. As Rutchick explains, providing someone with an interview suit might be a "quick fix, but it also helps to change up the hierarchy of socioeconomic status. You can't change people's attitudes, but you can put on nice clothing, pass for someone who belongs for a while, and begin to permeate boundaries."

"You can't change people's attitudes, but you can put on nice clothing, pass for someone who belongs for a while, and begin to permeate boundaries."

Dani Smejkal is a senior director at Opportunities for a Better Tomorrow, a New York-based social services organization that refers clients to Dress for Success. The women Smejkal sends to Dress for Success tell her they almost immediately get treated differently in their everyday lives after being outfitted by the nonprofit: "Suddenly, they can walk into a store and not be followed around by security."

Confidence is something Dress for Success emphasizes. Christina Laygo, a 46-year-old assistant catering manager living in Sacramento, California, recalls "walking a little bit taller" after receiving a suit from Dress for Success for a job interview in 2011.

Laygo is a former model who served an eight-year prison sentence for conspiracy to import drugs. She learned about Dress for Success when a representative from the organization came to California's Dublin Federal Correctional Institution, where she was serving her term, to speak to the inmates about work attire and job interviews. (A similar scene played out in the second season of Orange is the New Black. Dress for Success even partnered with OITNB and the online shopping site Gilt on an office wear sale; every purchase was matched with an item donation to Dress for Success.)

Once Laygo was released from prison, she was referred to the organization by a counselor at a halfway house in San Francisco. A Dress for Success suit helped her land two jobs that allowed her to support herself through culinary school.

"It's pretty humbling to be in prison, and terrifying to have to go back to the real world," Laygo says. "Everyone thinks people who go to prison are bad people and so you are looked at in a certain way. I had an overall fear of failure and had no idea what I was going to do for work. I figured I was going to work at McDonald's for the rest of my life. At Dress for Success, though, I had someone helping me with a smile, and it just gave me this sense of empowerment."

Dress for Success doesn't just stop at the suit. After each fitting, volunteers sit down with clients and go through pointers like how to avoid common interview mistakes and how to react if they're asked if they have children or what their sexual orientation is, questions that are illegal according to federal employment law. No piece of advice is too small. "It's everything from how to sit, to how many piercings are okay, to stressing eye contact," says Bobby Ciletti, a Dress for Success volunteer.

Dress for Success also offers a variety of programs for its clients. There's the Going Places Network, that allows clients who have come into a Dress for Success boutique for an outfit but haven't yet landed a job to receive one-on-one career counseling, get set up with a mentor, and attend group sessions with guest speakers. There's Success is Calling, a program that gives participants a prepaid cell phone and facilitates mock phone interviews with counselors. And there's the Financial Literacy Program, a 15-week seminar on budgeting, debt, taxes, investing, and retirement.

"Even if some of them aren't landing jobs, they keep coming back to programs like the Going Places Network because it gives them hope," Natasha Leath, Dress for Success's Manhattan program director, says of the clients. "It's an opportunity to see that they aren't the only ones going through dark experiences in their lives. The job hunt can be lonely and isolating, so it's good to see that there are tons of women in the same boat as them, and they can network while also building friendships."

Lambert of Dress for Success Midwest says that many of her clients are on welfare, and that obtaining a middle-income job could make them ineligible for benefits like food stamps and Medicaid. Some women feel "they can't survive unless they never move forward," she says, but providing them a strong support group can make all the difference.

"It helps them see what their possibilities are," says Lambert. "They can start developing goals, with small steps forward, to take control of their life."

This rings true for Maria Kambitis, a 37-year-old Bronx resident who first went to a Dress for Success boutique in 2013. Before she was involved with the organization, she says, "I never felt like I could strive for something better. I was always just settling. I just thought this was my life and there was nothing else for me."

At the time, Kambitis was a cashier at a local children's clothing store, but between supporting herself on a minimum-wage job, and paying off student loans and medical bills from a cancer scare, Kambitis was deeply in debt and struggling to make rent. She turned to a local Catholic charity that encouraged her to seek better employment and referred her to Dress for Success. She still recalls the outfit — a black Tommy Hilfiger pantsuit with a light blue button-down shirt — that helped her land her current job with the New York State Department of Health.

"I never felt like I could strive for something better. I was always just settling. I just thought this was my life and there was nothing else for me."

"For a lot of us who have just been put down our whole lives, we really need that extra support and ultimately, Dress for Success helped me want more for myself," Kambitis says. "The Professional Women's Group is the best part because it's an ongoing support system. It's not like getting help and then having your case closed. They welcome you with open arms and then encourage you to stay involved. I know that they are always around if I need anything. It's like a sisterhood."

"If someone has low self-confidence and can't display their skills, no suit will hide that," says Zoller of Image Dynamics. "But if someone has had a mentor that has taught them how to feel comfortable in their own shoes, how to put their best foot forward, then it makes no difference where they come from."

The chandeliers in the lobby of the Moët Hennessy building in Manhattan glitter as sharply-dressed corporate employees shuffle out at the end of the work day. As they head out of the building, a dozen women take the elevator to a brightly-lit conference room on the second floor.

They are all part of the Professional Women's Group, another Dress for Success program. This one caters to now-employed clients who can discuss issues like how to deal with an abrasive boss and how to ask for a raise, as well as work-life balance, money management, and mental health. According to Angela Williams, Dress for Success's chief program officer, 76 percent of the women who attend the Professional Women's Group successfully remain employed.

"People often think the hard part about employment is landing a job when really it's about keeping the job and acclimating to the culture," says Williams. "We want to help our women navigate the pitfalls they fall under as they are springboarded into the workforce. They go from surviving to thriving."

At tonight's Professional Women's Group, the women are discussing goals and motivation with Kerry Preston, a managing partner at Image Dynamics and author of Enhancing Your Executive Edge: How to Develop The Skills to Lead & Succeed. Preston passes around greeting cards to everyone around the conference table; inside are handwritten phrases like, "You got this!", "Celebrate you!", and "Make it happen!" The group is joined by three Moët Hennessy employees who share career success stories and talk about what keeps them going.

Preston opens the floor for Dress for Success clients to discuss their own motivations. No one wants to speak, and so Preston hands out flashcards, asking everyone in the room to jot down a favorite motto. The cards are then passed around the circle, with everyone rating each motto out of 7. She then goes through the cards with the highest ratings:

"You are your best when you are truly yourself."

"You always have a choice."

"You are the writer of your own story."

"Remember why you started."

Preston asks those whose mottos ranked the highest to step forward, and much to the group's delight, the winning mottos don't belong to the Moët Hennessy employees, or to the volunteers present. They all belong to the Dress for Success clients themselves.

The exercise is simple but illuminating: The women had it in them the whole time. They always have. They just needed a little help on the delivery.

Chavie Lieber is a senior reporter at Racked.

Editor: Julia Rubin
Copy editor: Laura Parker


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