Dressed for success
In an inner-city space above a former Brisbane garage, recycled designer label outfits are helping open doors for job-seekers long used to rejection.
Upstairs on the site of a former garage in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley is a boutique outfitting people in new threads of hope
Kerri-Anne McKenzie is a tall woman, even if a little folded in on herself, with striking blue eyes and a habit of speaking quickly yet directly about even the toughest topics. Like the day her husband’s verbal abuse suddenly turned physical and he kicked her so hard she fell to the ground. Or how she decided to leave when he hit her a second time on Christmas Eve with a plastic bag full of canned food. And how she fled South Australia at the crack of dawn in January last year, aided by the St Vincent de Paul Society, taking the first flight back home to her family in Brisbane.
McKenzie arrived with just one hastily packed suitcase. Her whole life – her furniture, her keepsakes, most of her clothes, even the man she once loved – was gone. Somewhere along the line, her sense of self-worth had disappeared, too. McKenzie moved back in with her parents; an embarrassment, she felt, at age 45. She tried applying for jobs but it didn’t go well. Her job history was intermittent and she felt unskilled, worthless, unemployable.
Then a job agency referred McKenzie to a small inner-Brisbane boutique in Fortitude Valley, near the RNA Showgrounds. There, atop polished wooden floorboards and surrounded by racks of designer clothes and a team of fussing stylists, McKenzie’s luck finally began to change. “They gave me a really nice suit to wear with a bright red shirt. I would never have picked a red shirt but they said, ‘That will get their attention. You will get the job.’ And I did,” she says. McKenzie landed a five-month contract with the tax office and then, in December, became P.A. Khoury Lawyers’ permanent part-time receptionist.
McKenzie is among more than 5000 unemployed south-east Queenslanders who, since 2008, have been kitted out in fancy new threads by non-profit Suited to Success, all for free. It’s a deceptively simple tactic. Because while a change of clothes might improve someone’s appearance and help them look the part and make a good impression at job interviews, the process often sparks a more profound inner change, too. “It’s not just the clothes,” McKenzie, now 46, says. “It’s the people here. They’re just so friendly. I’m usually a very confident person but [the domestic abuse] gets to you. Even people being nice to me was something different. This place has given me the confidence to go to work every day and know people are here to help me. People here actually like me.”
Improved self-confidence had largely been a fortuitous yet unplanned side-effect of the Suited to Success process up until about a year ago, when general manager Nicole Hard took the helm. She’d started as a volunteer in 2014, hoping to give back to the community while working as a government and business consultant for global risk management firm Marsh Risk Consulting. “I went along to volunteer for one day in the boutique and had a life-changing experience,” Hard recalls. “I sat down with a client to go through his resumé and asked him a standard interview question: ‘Tell me a bit about yourself’. The answer I got just astounded me. It was about his parents going to prison, his mother committing suicide, all when he was seven. That really affected me and I thought, wow, I could really mentor and help some of these people.”
Less than a year later, Hard was named acting general manager and officially took over the role in October. “I gave up my fancy, corporate, wellpaid career job but I’m so satisfied with what I do. I guess it’s become my passion and that’s what I want to enthuse into some of our clients,” she says. Hard felt the Suited to Success program was missing something but couldn’t put her finger on what. She’s a methodical woman, making decisions based on research, statistics and expert know-how, so she invited a group of Griffith University and University of Queensland psychology students in to help find that missing link. Soon after, Hard secured $50,100 for two projects helping jobseekers aged 15 to 24, under the state government’s Ready for Work program. But Hard went a step further and created a wider Steps to Work initiative aimed at all ages, developed with the help of the universities and corporate supporters.
As always, step one gives clients access to new,
work-appropriate clothing and interview assistance. But this program goes much further. Clients can attend additional workshops on subjects such as using technology and searching for work. The most important component, Hard believes, is a new focus on self-care and self-esteem, which includes helping clients identify their values, goals and what truly makes them feel passionate and driven. “For a lot of our clients, nobody has ever asked them this and they don’t know, they can’t answer it. But the good news is they start to think about it,” she says.
It’s an unusual approach, especially considering Suited to Success often deals with the kind of down-and-out unemployed ostracised by the wider community: alcoholics, ex-prisoners, long-term dole recipients, the homeless, and people with mental health issues. Many believe these people should simply take whatever job they are offered and quit complaining. When talking solutions, the idea of helping long-term unemployed people find their passion almost never enters the conversation.
Hard agrees taking “any old job” can be an important stepping stone for Suited to Success clients, but believes the key to helping people gain and remain in employment lies in uncovering what they truly enjoy doing. “In the past we had been willing to sort of push someone into a career – get a job, get a certificate, do this training course. Well, has that really worked?” she asks. “They’re great tools and techniques, but what provides satisfaction and long-term sustainability in employment is going a bit deeper. Asking some of those big questions seems to lead to better career paths. It is confronting for clients but hopefully it’s the start of a lifelong journey.”
Styles was one of the first to go through the new Steps to Work program as Hard was developing it last year. He’d grown up a misfit in a rough school on the NSW coast. Then, while studying television production at university, he discovered alcohol could be an excellent social lubricant. “I kind of got sidetracked and sucked into the binge-drinking culture a fair bit,” Styles, 34, says. “I think that’s stuck with me right up until recently. Probably that had a lot to do with not going back into the corporate world full-time.”
Styles never put his degree to work, instead heading into call centre and labour hire contracting, then a 14-month stint in Canberra’s public service. But politics left him cold, so Styles moved to Brisbane in mid-2012 and has been flitting between cleaning and labouring jobs ever since, supplemented by the dole. Last year, he decided it was time to quit “carrying on like a goose” and get his life back on track. Styles finished a dual business and management diploma last year and then, determined to return to the corporate world, was referred to Suited to Success. Stylists lined him up with an elegant black suit. It’s a little long in the arms and legs, but Styles doesn’t mind having it taken up – that will be much cheaper than buying a suit outright, which he’d never have been able to afford. Now he’s off to interviews, using the skills he picked up at one of Hard’s workshops. “The plan is to get a full-time corporate job, like nine to five,” he says.
Nine of the 12 people who have gone through the Steps to Work program this year have already landed jobs. Hard can’t be certain that’s an improvement because Suited to Success previously had no way of tracking what happened to their clients after styling. “We don’t want them to get a job and just go off into the abyss,” she says of the new approach. “We want them to connect in to us, our resources, our networking, our ongoing development programs, and continue to grow.”
Yet the program’s success so far is just a drop in the ocean, considering more than 150,000 people are currently registered as unemployed in Queensland. Two in five of those have been jobless for more than six months and one in ten for more than two years, with the highest rates of unemployment in Ipswich, the Wide Bay region and Cairns. Many are middleaged people struggling to compete with younger applicants. Of the 900 clients referred to Suited to Success last year, 40 per cent were over 40 – like Pat Macdonald, who worried she couldn’t compete with the technological know-how of the younger generation. The 59-year-old from Brisbane’s inner-north Kalinga found herself out of work after hurting her back while gardening last May, rupturing a disc so badly she needed surgery. The accident killed her career. She’d worked in aged care for 15 years, but could no longer push heavy wheelchairs around.
“I didn’t realise how down on myself I was,” Macdonald says of the day she had her styling session. “There’s so much fear involved, especially at my age. I didn’t envisage looking for a new job at this point in life. But the stylists just went, ‘Stop. You’re focusing on the negatives.’ I walked out feeling so much better about myself.”
Of course, an attitude change won’t always magically lead to employment. Macdonald just
I’d say 85 per cent of our clients grow two inches in here. Because they come in like this – [ dispirited hunch] – and they go out very straight, like: ‘Don’t I look good?’
AILSA CRANE, SUITED TO SUCCESS BOARD MEMBER
missed out on a job at a Brisbane wellness centre last month, but the company instead offered her unpaid work as a receptionist two mornings a week, in exchange for free fitness classes. Macdonald is happy; it’s a chance to learn those puzzling computer systems she was so worried about while getting her head around an office environment. She feels like the door has cracked open to new career possibilities.
Hard’s pleased the styling sessions seem to help. She would like to offer her new styling plus self-care package to every client who walks through the boutique door, but it costs about $650 per person and she’s hamstrung for now by a lack of funding. “We’re not a top-heavy not-for-profit organisation,” Hard says. “It’s basically myself and an admin lady, and I don’t work full-time and I certainly don’t work for a large wage. We are critically reliant on volunteers, and individual donations of money and clothing.”
Donations often come from office workers handing on corporate clothes they’ve outgrown or updated, which are dropped at the boutique by the boxful. These are sorted into three piles. The priciest designer labels that aren’t suitable for interviews – formal frocks, ball gowns and the like – are sold from a small secondhand store below the boutique, raising critical cash to keep the whole show running. It’s a small, no-frills space that still feels very much like the garage it once was – not the kind of place you’d expect to find chic labels such as Alexander Wang, Grace Hill, Leona Edmiston and Tokito.
Today, on the one rack dedicated to designer labels, a beautiful Cooper St dress that normally retails for more than $600 hangs with a $120 price tag, but everything’s half-price for the day so it could go for $60. Good-quality casual clothing that’s unsuitable for styling sessions is sold down here, too. Men’s jackets are priced at $10 and suits are $20, but everything else is just $5. Sometimes the volunteers aren’t quite hawk-eyed enough while sorting donations and, if you’re lucky, a high-end label might slip through onto the $5 racks. The rest goes upstairs, to six enormous racks packed tight with shirts, ties, jackets, skirts, dresses, handbags, even underwear and toiletries. An entire room is dedicated just to shoes. Everything here is given away.
“I’d say 85 per cent of our clients grow two inches in here,” says board member Ailsa Crane, 70. “Because they come in like this” – she adopts a dispirited air and pulls herself into a hunch – “and they go out very straight, like: ‘Don’t I look good?’”
She’s barely finished her sentence when there’s a commotion by the change rooms as Styles emerges clad in his new suit. The assembled volunteer stylists make a fuss, calling out compliments like “isn’t he gorgeous!” Styles grins like a Cheshire cat. He couldn’t look more confident. It’s exactly the result stylist Dian Stroud, an “over 60”-year-old from inner-west Milton, has been looking for. “They need to be able to walk into the interview room feeling like a million dollars,” she says. “You can imagine a person who’s starting from nothing, perhaps is on the dole, what wearing these beautiful clothes does to their confidence. I think because their confidence level rises they tend to attract work to them. They’re ready. They’re not hiding away because they’ve got nothing to wear or their shoes are in bad repair.”
The styling sessions help clients understand what colour and cut work best for them. Then they’re matched with clothes that best suit the job they’re hoping to secure. Often, the session is enough to start gently pushing people out of their comfort zone. “I always say we have to pick a wild card,” says volunteer stylist Stacey McGregor. “We’re picking something you don’t normally wear, an outrageous colour, and we’re going to try it on for fun. It’s amazing just how many times they go out with that wild card.”
Gold Coast 18-year-old Eboney Bunn took that concept and ran with it, changing her entire look after her styling session. Previously, she’d kicked about in sloppy track pants and baggy T-shirts, aiming for maximum comfort. Unsurprisingly, her attempts at landing a job after high school were unsuccessful, and most of the time she wasn’t even picked for interviews. “I was sort of like, ‘Let’s get out of bed and just put on whatever I can find’,” she says. Since adopting a smarter casual look Bunn’s had five interviews, though she hasn’t yet landed her first job. Still, she reckons it’s just a matter of time.
“I feel like if I have a job, I can do anything. I’ll be independent. I’ll have my own income. I can save up and maybe go round the world,” she says. A dream that began with just one free set of new clothes. More information at suitedtosuccess.org
dressed to impress … from far left) clint styles, pre-makeover, with ailsa crane; styles, suited up; eboney bunn, interview-ready.