It’s a rainy Monday morning in February when Fabulous arrives at a quiet council estate in Shoreditch, east London. What the average passerby might not realise when they walk down this street is that there’s something extraordinary happening here.
Tucked away at the bottom of a block of flats is Dress for Success, a charity that helps women to get back to work, often after they’ve been unemployed for a long time, made redundant or suffered hardships in their lives that have meant they’ve not been able to work.
After the women are put in touch with the charity via the Job Centre or recruitment companies, they are invited in for a makeover with volunteer stylists, providing them with an outfit they can wear to an interview that they will feel professional in. The clothes, which are donated, are both new and used and include labels like Burberry, Christian Louboutin and Gucci.
For many women who are nervous about their first job interview, it’s an invaluable service. After their makeover, they’re mentored on how to ace their interview – and incredibly, 80% of women who use the service get the job.
We headed down to the charity with Fabulous’ new Bossing It columnist Karren Brady to meet three women the charity has helped and give them some invaluable careers advice.
“Once they’ve started the job, they can keep wearing these beautiful clothes and go into a new role feeling really good about themselves,” says Karren.
The amazing thing about the charity is that we’re not just empowering the women we work with – we’re empowering their families as well and changing the trajectory of their children’s lives, too. The impact is huge.
“But just as important as the clothes is the coaching on interview techniques. They’re able to nail their interview because they feel that they look the part, and are also really prepared.”
Founded in the US in 1997, and with branches in 150 cities across 30 countries around the world, the charity launched in London in 2015. Since then it’s helped over 3,000 of women get themselves back on the career ladder.
The charity’s UK founder Juanita Ingram was made redundant from her job as a lawyer where she lived in the US, and was supported by Dress for Success in the city where she lived to help her gain another role. She asked to start up a London branch of the charity when she relocated to the UK in 2015.
“I know what each client feels like when they walk through the doors, and I know what unemployment feels like,” Juanita explains.
“Those experiences can harm women’s self-esteem. The amazing thing about the charity is that we’re not just empowering the women we work with – we’re empowering their families as well and changing the trajectory of their children’s lives, too. The impact is huge.”
‘After my baby died, I was at an all-time low’
Hayley Heffernan, 36, works in health and safety at a rehabilitation service and lives in London with her partner Peter, 38, an engineer, and sons Sonny, 15, and Oliver, 13.
“When my son Lenny was born prematurely in September 2017, my world fell apart. After seven weeks in intensive care, he survived a heart operation, but afterwards his health took a turn for the worst when he contracted necrotising enterocolitis, a disease that affects the intestine. On October 26, 2017, we got a call to come immediately to the hospital and he passed away very quickly. It was like the world had ended.
Before Lenny was born, I was a stay-at-home mum for 12 years, and before that my last job had been as a barmaid, and after his death, returning to work was the last thing on my mind. We were struggling for money and it was very hard to cope as I looked after my two sons who were then 11 and 13. I had counselling, which helped to pull me back from the darkness.
By January 2019 I needed to do something positive, so I applied for a few jobs at supermarkets, but didn’t hear anything back. I left education after I took my GCSEs, but I wanted to try something different such as a corporate role, and a charity set me up with an interview for a position in health and safety. At the time I had no money to spend on smart clothes, plus my confidence was at an all-time low, so I wasn’t really interested in how I looked.
The charity mentioned that Dress for Success could help me with an outfit for my interview, I said yes straight away. I was nervous before my first meeting with them, but also excited to see how they could help me.
My stylist was excellent – she knew I was nervous about wearing a suit. But she came back with a navy skirt suit, showing me how to roll up the sleeves and make it a bit funky. When I looked in the mirror I was shocked – I felt like a million dollars.”
Dress for Success gave me a mock interview to prepare me. They showed me how to give a good handshake and told me how important it was to smile. The lady who conducted it said she thought I had it nailed, which boosted my confidence.
Before I left the meeting, one of the stylists called me back and said she wanted to change my earrings to go with the outfit. She gave me the perfect pair of little seashell stud earrings and they looked fantastic. She also gave me an umbrella and an Oyster cardholder – nothing is left to chance with Dress for Success.
I got the job, and have now been working in my role for seven months. I’m so happy, and can honestly say I wouldn’t be where I am today without Dress for Success’s help.”
‘Redundancy left me suicidal’
Runa Ali, 32, is single and lives in London.
“My life hit rock bottom after I turned 30. I’d worked in HR for 10 years, working my way up to the role of manager, but when I was unexpectedly made redundant in March 2017, I was blindsided. I stopped sleeping, and every night I’d lie awake worrying about how I’d pay the bills.
I applied for jobs but got nowhere and I ended up having to sleep on a friend’s sofa because I couldn’t pay my rent. I felt I couldn’t carry on any more. Feeling suicidal, I bagged up all the clothes I had, which was nearly 25 bags, and got rid of them.
Then I went to Victoria tube station and stood on the platform with the intent of killing myself. Thankfully, a friend was suspicious and when I told her I was going to Victoria, she alerted staff at the station. Paramedics arrived, and I was hospitalised for a month.
The day after I left hospital, in July 2017, I was discharged to my friend’s house, and was rehoused a few months later by the council. Over the next year, I spent time recovering. By September 2018, I decided that I needed help getting back into work. Social Services mentioned Dress for Success to me.
When I turned up for the first meeting in October 2018 I was nervous. I was wearing a dark, baggy jumper and jogging bottoms – they were pretty much the only clothes I owned. The stylist was wonderful, encouraging me to hold my head high and look at myself in the mirror.
I felt she’d seen something in me I hadn’t seen in myself for a long time. The first outfit I tried on was a red dress. I felt beautiful. My stance changed, I stood taller and felt confident. The charity gave me a capsule wardrobe, including three dresses, a jacket, coat and smart tops for work.
I had two interviews at different firms, and the second, for a job advising on mental health at a think tank called Think Ahead, I got. Finally, I felt like the old me was back.
I’m still working in that job now, recruiting and lecturing at universities about mental health. When you’re depressed, the last thing you want to do is make an effort with your appearance, but now I love to go the extra mile. I’m stronger than ever and I’ve got Dress for Success to thank for that.”
‘I make more effort with my appearance now’
Claurdet Royes, 53, from London, lives with her daughter Dominique, 19, and son Kevin, nine. She is currently temping.
“I worked full-time as a PA and medical secretary for a doctor for eight years, but it was always a juggle with caring for my children. Though I was happy in the job, it wasn’t as flexible as I needed it to be, so I decided to leave and look for something part time.
In January 2018, I started claiming Job Seeker’s Allowance while I looked for something that could fit round looking after the children. I was signing on for 18 months, while I applied for jobs and undertook a short course in accountancy.
In July 2019, I managed to get an interview for a temporary role in admin accounts via an employment agency. It was my first interview for eight years and I felt really unconfident, so the agency recommended Dress for Success.
When I first met with the charity they were really interested in what kind of career I was after and exactly what I wanted to wear. I chose a peach blouse and smart trousers and when I looked in the mirror I loved what I saw. After the styling session, I also attended a make-up masterclass with two make-up artists.
I’ve never been confident applying make-up before and hadn’t worn much in the past, so I was really pleased when they showed me which brushes to use to apply eyeshadow and foundation, and how to blend. They also showed me what kind of lipstick would look good with my skin tone.
The interview itself was quite scary, but I felt so much more professional in my new outfit, which really helped. Soon after, I got a call back to say that they wanted to offer me the job. Starting my temp job last September was a big confidence boost – it was great to be earning money, and I began to feel fulfilled again.
Since my styling session, I’ve been making a lot more effort when it comes to my appearance and feel like people view me differently now. I’m still temping while I look for the perfect job role, but I feel really good about the future.”
How you can help
Dress for Success relies on fund-raising and volunteers, and receives no government funding. It costs £50 to help train a woman for an interview, and you can give your support by volunteering, donating or sponsoring a styling session. Visit Dressfor successgl.org/donate-to-us.
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