Dress for Success helps disadvantaged women suit up in style


On the ninth floor of the historic Taft Building in Hollywood, women who have never had a personal stylist or tried on designer clothes are experiencing both, and leaving with an ensemble concocted to help them land that rarity in today’s economy: a job offer.

Dress for Success, a multinational nonprofit organization that has been around since 1997 and has helped about 500,000 mostly disadvantaged women compete more effectively in the workplace, has amped things up a bit. With the recent opening of its West Coast headquarters in Hollywood, it intends to provide the women it serves with an experience more akin to having a personal shopper than to rummaging through bins at Goodwill.

“We wanted to create a boutique feel, to allow these women to feel like they were shopping instead of taking donations,” said Lisa Adams, wardrobe stylist and consultant, who is chief executive of LA Closet Design and the designer behind the 250-square-foot space. Since its opening in early December, the outpost has been used by about a dozen women. Dress for Success expects it to serve about 2,500 this year. As is the case with all Dress for Success operations, women have to be referred by social service agencies that help people prepare themselves for the workforce. They must have at least one job interview scheduled before they can take advantage of the Dress for Success services, which include career advice in addition to wardrobe planning.

But Adams wanted the wardrobe aspect of the service to replicate a shopping spree. Using her repertoire of tricks -- and extensive contacts -- she has created a stylish, welcoming environment. Dressing rooms feature draped curtains and inspirational sayings on the walls. Merchandise is neatly arranged -- bags on one side, shoes on another. Jewelry is laid out in sliding trays. Racks hold a finely edited collection of suits. Wal-Mart donated animal print rugs, and the Container Store provided some of the fittings. The overall aesthetic is high-end boutique -- with merchandise to match.

Tommy Hilfiger donated silk scarves and a local retailer gave the group new shirts in iridescent crinkled coral silk and embellished mauve knits. The racks hold suits from Nordstrom, Ann Taylor, Anne Klein and Tahari. Shoes are from Kenneth Cole and Steve Madden. Many still have their price tags attached, and all were chosen to reflect a classic and upscale sensibility.

On a recent Monday, Mayra Rivera, a 35-year-old former office temp who has been largely unemployed for the last two years, tried on suits under the watchful eye of Adams, who was once an executive recruiter. Rivera had already interviewed for jobs with a hotel chain, an educational institute and Los Angeles County, and she wanted to be ready for a callback. She says she had never been comfortable in suits, having in the past picked out an ill-fitting blazer or two from a thrift store, but she always wished she could look like some of the more polished candidates who showed up to interview for the same jobs.

On this day, Rivera looked poised and elegant in a black Jones New York suit (which still bore its $320 Macy’s price tag). With it she could wear a mauve knit top, Joan & David pumps and, if she interviewed for a more “creative” position, dangling silver filigree earrings. A compact black handbag from Rina Rich rounded out the look.

Rivera had been referred by Hollywood WorkSource, a center funded by the city of Los Angeles that helps link job seekers with potential employers. Margie Gardner Cruse, Hollywood WorkSource’s business services manager, said Dress for Success meets a need by “providing appropriate professional attire for those without the means or experience to do it on their own.”

“Initially, my clients were all very nervous, apprehensive and really did not know what to expect,” Gardner Cruse said. But “the boutique-like setting of L.A.'s Dress for Success made something potentially uncomfortable fun, engaging and interactive.”

Kathy Ann Culpepper, director of West Coast operations for Dress for Success, said that while fashion might be fun and frivolous for some people, it represents something more important for this boutique’s clients. For them, the right outfit might make the crucial difference between landing a job and remaining unemployed.

“Women often weren’t schooled like boys to have that competitive edge, to go out there and aggressively job search,” she said. “But this service can provide a big emotional and psychological lift. They are coming in feeling confident and empowered. They really are putting their best foot forward.”