Islington charity Dress for Success giving women the best chance to secure a brighter future

Volunteer stylist Liz Grove in Dress for Success's wardrobe department

Volunteer stylist Liz Grove in Dress for Success's wardrobe department - Credit: Archant

Interviews are enough to test the nerves of the best of us. But imagine facing that terrifying experience, having been out of work for a long period, sometimes even years – with little self belief and no money to buy the appropriate clothes as a result.

Left to right: Training manager Pauline Murphy, chief executive Delyth Evans, office manager Louise

Left to right: Training manager Pauline Murphy, chief executive Delyth Evans, office manager Louise Mann - Credit: Archant

It’s a situation that many women in Islington and Hackney trying to secure a better future find themselves in each week.

Interview trainer Marjon Huizing

Interview trainer Marjon Huizing - Credit: Archant

But for the past 12 years charity Dress for Success (DfS) and its army of volunteers has been working with them to instil the confidence they need.

Not only does the organisation, based in Shepperton Road, Islington, equip the women with interview skills, it also kits them out with the outfit they need to boost self esteem and make that good first impression.

It’s a service that some 1,200 women take advantage of every year – and an impressive 54 per cent of them manage to clinch the first job they go for.

Those who don’t are offered ongoing mentoring support to ensure they go on to get a foothold on the career ladder.

Chief executive Delyth Evans, who left politics to head up the London franchise of the charity which was founded 15 years ago in America, said: “The women who come to us can be out of work for a number of reasons – many have taken a career break and haven’t been able to get back into work, some have been in prison, others have had problems with mental health or have had an abusive partner, and we also have homeless women living in hostels.

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“There are all kinds of reasons, so there is no ‘typical’ client.

“But none of them has a job, they don’t have any clothes and they have very low self-confidence because of the situation they’re in.”

After being referred to DfS by their job centre or recruitment agency – a pre-requisite of any appointment – the women are ushered into the bulging wardrobe department, filled with high-end high street and designer wares.

The vast majority of the clothes, shoes and bags are donated by high-flying city women, but five per cent of the goods are donated directly by designers and stores.

“The whole process takes around 20 minutes to half an hour.

“Many of the women have very negative body images, so you really have to work to persuade them they look nice in something, and we normally manage it,” said Ms Evans.

When the women secure the job, the charity then invites them back and provides a capsule wardrobe with which to start their journey into the world of work.

Some of the volunteer stylists are professionals, while others are women who just have a strong interest in fashion – like Liz Grove, who has been helping at DfS for nearly a year.

She said: “The job the woman is going for determines whether we pick out something very corporate or something a bit more relaxed, or something a bit funky for jobs in retail.

“It’s lovely to see somebody who comes in quite vulnerable and nervous, after putting them in a lovely outfit. Their whole demeanour changes.They light up and relax as they feel so much more confident. It’s fantastic to see.”

With the right outfit in the bag, the women are then given coaching for the interview by volunteer trainers.

Marjon Huizing, a freelance HR consultant and life coach, is one of them.

She said: “I talk them through the interview and how to answer the questions, and discuss any concerns they may have.

“If they have had problems, such as mental illness, they want to know how to explain a gap in their CV.

“It’s really rewarding to see people leave here confident that they can do the interview.”

Another volunteer, Donna Devlin, a law training manager, said helping at DfS can be more “fulfilling, exhilarating and exhausting” than her day job.

“Days are filled with wonderful little stories from these women who want to do their best and land the job.

“In turn, I want to help them succeed, and I give them the best advice that I know, from experience, that could give them an edge,” she said.

As well as four full time members of staff, there are more than 50 volunteer stylists, trainers and wardrobe stock managers – and there’s a waiting list of more people wanting to help out.

“I think it’s something that appeals to a lot of women,” explained Ms Evans.

“They understand the importance of clothes and how looking good can affect confidence. Lots of women come to help out other women.

“It’s amazing, and also unique – nobody else in the country is doing this.

“I often get calls from women in places like Manchester and Leeds, looking for a job and desperate for help as they’re not getting anywhere, and there’s very little I can say to them.

“We would love to be all over the country but we don’t have the funds.”

She added: “Every day we get calls from somebody who has just been for an interview and thanks us, saying they would have never got that far without us – that’s incredibly rewarding.”

One of those clients – who did not want to be named but secured an administration assistant role with DfS’s help after seven years out of work following a bout of mental illness – spoke about the help offered.

She said: “I felt a sisterhood of women, who genuinely had an idea of what it’s like to have been out of work for some time, to lack the confidence to be certain of the skills and competence I’d had and shown in the past, and who knew how critical it was to feel and look marvellous.

“I felt they believed in me. They encouraged me and gave me the professional coaching and clothing to assert myself in an interview and show myself at my very best.”

She added: “I’ve been bowled over by DfS. ‘‘I’m deeply indebted and grateful to the women who make up this company.”