London - Having worked in fashion for 30 years, the comments I get most often when I say what I write about are along these lines: “Really? How frivolous. How can you care about what’s in or what’s out this season?”
And, to be honest, it can be hard to take seriously the new trend for floral playsuits or look on with gravitas as Giorgio Armani sends yet another sparkly shrug down the runway. But, just occasionally, fashion does matter. It changes lives.
I’m in the North London headquarters of a fantastic charity called Dress For Success, which is all about upcycling clothes, bags, shoes, tights, jewellery and even underwear.
You wouldn’t know it was a charity, as there isn’t that charity shop smell of mothballs and damp. It feels like an atelier or an upmarket outlet shop.
There are immaculate tailor’s dummies wearing sharp little suits, full-length mirrors, airy changing rooms and rail upon rail of new, or nearly new, clothes.
Dress For Success gets its donations from individuals, clothes drives in corporate HQs, and brands such as The Outnet (the discount arm of Net-A-Porter, hence all the Jil Sander shirts and MaxMara shoes), Evans (plus sizes are the most in demand) and Next.
The charity was founded in the US in 1996 and a British branch was launched in Islington in 2000 by Susan Denmead, who is still involved as an ambassador. Chief executive Delyth Evans, a former BBC news journalist, joined in 2010.
The idea is simple. Women who have been unemployed, have spent years as full-time moms, been very ill or in prison are helped back into the workplace by being furnished with a fabulous outfit for that all-important job interview.
As Samantha Cameron, who has spent time as one of the team of 50 volunteers (patrons are Jennifer Saunders and Betty Jackson), said in an interview: “People say employers make up their mind about a candidate in the first five minutes.
“If you are on a low income, don’t have any smart clothes to wear, have not had interview training and lack confidence, it’s hard to make a good first impression.
“I’ve seen the difference those few hours at Dress For Success make to a client’s confidence.”
As well as each woman taking away her interview outfit (and a goodie bag containing Bobbi Brown make-up), she is also given interview training, counselling and an opportunity to take part in workshops. CVs as well as nails are polished. What makes this charity unique is its emphasis on appearances.
As Pauline Murphy, who is 44 and has the delightful job title of Transitions Programme Manager, says: “It’s all about restoring a woman’s confidence and clothes do that. These women get a few hours of me time, so important when they’ve spent years being moms at everyone else’s beck and call.”
But now we have Primark, Forever 21 et al, isn’t it easier than ever for a woman to buy her own interview outfit?
“Not really. It’s not just about cost. Women have lost so much confidence that they even find going in a shop daunting.”
I watch two volunteer stylists, Liz Grove and Anissa Jamil, working with 34-year-old Sam, who is returning to work after an eight-year gap bringing up two children. There is nothing patronising about the makeover: it’s all about suggestion, trying things on, twirls in front of the mirror and broad smiles as a new, businesslike butterfly emerges from the mommy cocoon of black leggings and flats.
There is plenty of colour on the rails, simple dresses and every trend you can think of. Sam leaves in a gorgeous black dress by Jaeger, a swing jacket, pointy heels, bag and necklace - the works. Her interview for a job as a receptionist in a hotel chain is that afternoon.
How different does Sam feel after being transformed? “I can’t stop grinning,” she says.
The help doesn’t end there: if they get the job, clients can come back for outfits so they can look smart in the workplace for the first few days. If they don’t get the job, they are boosted and reassured to try again. -