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.

The Courier-Mail - QWeekend - - INSIDE THIS WEEK - STORY KOREN HEL­BIG PHO­TOG­RA­PHY DAVID KELLY

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.

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