There are many factors in finding a job. The resume, the interview, the cover letter and more all play a role, but when the process is unfamiliar, it can be intimidating. For some, even finding the proper clothes for an interview poses an obstacle.
“One of the biggest issues is that women are expected to wear certain attire,” Joi Gordon said. “It’s the catch-22 of not being able to get a job without having a suit but not being able to buy a suit without a job.”
Gordon is the chief executive officer for Dress for Success, a nonprofit that provides disadvantaged women with professional attire and career development tools to help them succeed.
“We pride ourselves in treating all women with respect and to make them feel dignified,” Gordon said. “We don’t want them to feel like it’s a thrift shop or a handout, and we try to dress her on the inside before the outside so she’ll have all the tool she needs.”
Women like Angelica Vazquez, who visited the Dress for Success Queens headquarters in Richmond Hill to pick out a suit. She was nervous, fiddling with her bag and looking down shyly while she waited for volunteers to meet with her.
Having been a child care provider for a long time, Vazquez hasn’t been on an interview in four years.
“We sit down with them and discuss their size and figure out what their style is as well as what position they will be interviewing for,” Lakindra Askew, the program coordinator of the facility, said. “Usually we’ll already have two suits in the fitting room when she goes in. We want it to be as relaxing as possible.”
Vazquez’s fitting room had two pantsuits, one black and one gray — her favorite color. Naturally, she tried the gray suit first but wasn’t thrilled with the fit.
Trying on clothing can be an emotional process for many women, and one they often do with friends or family who validate the clothing choice. To reinforce confidence in Vazquez, Askew and the volunteers fill that void by repeating lines of encouragement and assurance.
“For most women, they don’t know what to expect when they come to us so they don’t expect much,” Gordon said. “We want to wow her and we want to make sure she looks good, so we give it the feel of a boutique and we take as much time as necessary with her because these suits, in a way, become her suit of armor when she’s sitting down for an interview.”
Dress for Success receives clothing through donations from retailers and individuals. All of the clothing is either brand-new or nearly new. In fact, a number of high-end items can be seen hanging on the racks.
“I was at the Manhattan headquarters recently and I saw this peach color dress that I thought was beautiful and when I went over to look at it, I read the label and it was Versace,” Katie Murphy, the senior manager for communications and marketing for Dress for Success ,said. “Just a Versace dress hanging on the rack.”
“We have people come here with boxes of clothing every week,” Askew said. “We had one woman come in with 24 boxes one time.”
In the end, Vazquez decided on a black pantsuit with a white blouse and black flats. But Dress for Success’ mission isn’t finished when a woman finds her garb — that just begins to scratch the surface.
“The mock interviews are something that can really benefit a woman because some of them may not know how they should act during the interview process, so this acts as just a boost of confidence for them,” Murphy said. “It’s just the reassurance that some of them need.”
Though the volunteers are kind, they are also honest. During Vazquez’s mock interview, she clutched her purse to her chest as she nervously answered questions. Murphy was quick to point out the tiny mistake.
“I know it’s hard for a lady to put her bag on the ground but it’s important to sit correctly and show an employer that you know how to sit and you can be presentable,” Murphy said.
Once a woman picks out an outfit and goes on her actual interview, a Dress for Success representative will contact her and see how everything went.
“When the woman gets the job, that’s when the real fun begins,” Murphy said. “They come back here and they’re excited and ready and we’re excited for them.”
Any woman who receives a job offer but cannot afford or does not have access to proper attire can come back to Dress for Success, where she can receive five to 10 pieces of clothing.
“We also have a few special partnerships,” Gordon said. “Bobbi Brown is on our board of directors and so we give every woman a Bobbi Brown makeup kit. We also provide women with a piece of Lia Sophia jewelry that she donates to our boutiques. Then there is the partnership with Walmart.”
The Going Places Network by Walmart helps unemployed and underemployed clients gain professional skills to accelerate their job search and build confidence. The program meets weekly for eight to 12 weeks and was piloted in New York City in 2009 after the economic collapse left many unemployed.
What’s more, there is a 60 percent job placement rate for women who utilize the Going Places Network.
By the end of her session, Vazquez seemed to be a bit more confident.
“I hope this works out and that I get the job,” she said.
“Oh no, we don’t use ‘hope,’” Askew said. “We use ‘know’ and ‘am.’ You practice how you play and you’re never alone. We are always here for you.”
With that, Vazquez was sent on her way to prepare for her interview to be an administrative assistant, knowing that she will have the support of the Dress for Success staff for as long as she needs it.
Dress for Success is open six days a week. Nearly all women who utilize the group’s services are referred to it, though if you feel you might be an eligible candidate, visit dressforsuccess.org.