In its first year in Buffalo, the Dress for Success program to outfit women for professional job interviews has helped more than 200 clients and received closets full of donations of stylish suits and other clothing.
Entering its second year, it is looking for more referrals, many more volunteers and a lot more hangers.
But first, the group over the weekend celebrated the work it has been doing in Buffalo, one of the latest of the 124 cities where Dress for Success has been helping economically strapped women put their best look forward when interviewing for jobs.
“It isn’t just about the suit. We give these women hope that tomorrow will be better than today,” explained Marsha D. Jackson, associate vice president of student affairs at Erie Community College and Dress for Success board president. “The message is that they can be self-sufficient and take control of their lives.”
Taking control of one’s life can start with redefining the image a woman has of herself and the one she presents to the rest of the world. Each client who comes to the nonprofit’s boutique at 20 Court St. in downtown Buffalo gets advice from a personal shopper and is fully outfitted for a professional interview: suit, shoes, accessories. The staff will even demonstrate various ways to tie a scarf.
“We pick that first suit for them; we don’t let them do it,” Jackson said. “They might want the orange suit or something purple” – clothes more suited to Sunday or a wedding – “but for an interview you need a blue suit, or black or gray.”
Some of the clients have been out of work for a long time, some are victims of domestic violence, and some have thought more than once about giving up. But at Dress for Success, they are treated with respect and – like any woman shopping for an important event – as someone who deserves to look her best.
It works. When the women look in the mirror after their makeovers, “many of them cry,” Jackson said.
The high quality of the clothing that is donated to Dress for Success and the well-appointed boutique where it is displayed can surprise clients referred by job training agencies, shelters and aid programs, and who may be expecting more of a “thrift shop” experience.
“They walk in and say, ‘I didn’t think it would look like this,’ ” said Michelle Barron, a board member. “The ambience is welcoming; it makes them feel special. Once they look good, they feel good, and then they can feel empowered. We want to encourage women to aim high.”
That’s why the suits come with lots of practical support in getting and keeping a job: résumé writing, practice interviews, how to conduct oneself at work, and even how and how not to use social media.
“It doesn’t matter if you have a great suit if a future employer goes online and sees that you’re portraying yourself in a totally different way on your Facebook page,” Barron cautioned.
Alexandra Hemmings, an ECC student, said she used Dress for Success to find clothes to wear to a conference.
“You fill out a form with questions about yourself and what you’re doing, and then your personal shopper will dress you and even help with makeup and things like that,” she said.
Paigelyn Marshall, who is studying social science, said, “It’s cool. I got to pick out some outfits and got some good advice.” She pointed out she was wearing a jacket from the boutique.
The program is doing so well that it is looking for more help. While money is always welcome, it has received some grants and economic help from places such as Phillips Lytle LLC law firm and Mercedes-Benz of Buffalo. What they really need, Barron said, is more volunteers to help in the office, sort donations and work with the clients, so the shop can extend its hours.
Right now, it is open Monday through Thursday, plus the first Saturday of each month, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. For more information, go to www.dressforsuccessbuffalo.org.