Tampa Bay Times
Nonprofit helps low-income men find suitable job
NEW YORK — The community center at Redfern Houses was the last place Shareef Wise would have expected to lead him to his next job.
Redfern, after all, was the place he was trying to escape. He had lived in the public housing complex in Far Rockaway, Queens, his entire life, in the same fourth-floor apartment he shared with his grandmother, older brother, older sister and younger brother. For the past month and a half, he had been searching for work in the hope of being able to move away, to Rochdale Village in Jamaica, Queens, maybe, so his 16-yearold brother could avoid the gang violence that had forced Wise, 22, out of school after 11th grade.
Wise hadn’t had any luck, and he thought he knew why: He didn’t have the right clothes for job interviews. He usually wore a pair of brown jeans, some sneakers and a polo shirt. Never the business attire the job postings called for.
So when the man standing in front of the Redfern community center one recent Friday offered Wise a free suit, he didn’t believe him.
“I didn’t think they were serious,” Wise recalled. “But they said, ‘Yeah, it’s free, everything is free, the whole suit, tie everything.’ So I’m like, ‘This is perfect.’”
Wise had a job interview the next day for a ramp agent position at Kennedy International Airport, and another the following week. He and his friends had been walking by the community center, which for the day had been transformed into what the man called the Male Boutique.
The man was Kevin Livingston, 39, founder and president of 100 Suits for 100 Men, a nonprofit that aims to fit at-risk and formerly incarcerated people with business attire and, ideally, jobs. One of the organization’s newest projects is the Male Boutique, which provides styling and tailoring to men for whom such an experience is usually unimaginable.
“You’re sharp, bro,” Livingston said as he watched Wise smooth out a black Calvin Klein suit jacket he had selected for himself. It would have cost between $100 and $600 at Macy’s.
“Woo! Look at your boy!” Wise said, snapping and dancing in place.
The organization, which Livingston conceived of in 2011 while working as a customer service representative at a bank, is still small and run entirely by volunteers. It doesn’t have the resources yet to re-create full Fifth Avenue swankiness. At the Male Boutique in Redfern, the suits, all donated, hung from a ceiling beam with flaking maroon paint; $80 wool ties were laid out on a collapsible plastic table.
But the group seems poised for growth, especially after a recent surge of high-profile attention. In February, Lu-Shawn Thompson donated $30,000 and two dozen suits that had belonged to her late husband, Ken Thompson, the Brooklyn district attorney who became known for his efforts to reform the criminal justice system before he died of cancer last October. Then, in May, Colin Kaepernick, the former quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers whose kneeling protest of police brutality has continued to roil professional football one year later, contributed 50 suits (he later also donated $33,000).
The attention, and the donations that accompanied them, Kevin Livingston, right, founder of the nonprofit 100 Suits for 100 Men, instructs Shareef Wise, left, and Rayshawn Carter-Moore on the art of tying a tie in New York in September. helped Livingston expand the boutique arm of 100 Suits. Previously, he had simply handed out suits, either at community events sponsored by other organizations, including gun buybacks, or at popup events he planned himself. But he wanted to create more personal interactions with the men — and to imbue those interactions with a sense of dignity.
“I don’t want to become nobody’s thrift shop,” Livingston said. “I want the men to have an experience. To walk out with the clothes, encouraged.”
He opened the first boutique last fall, in the same building as the Queens parole office. As Livingston likes to put it, men walk in wearing their prison garments and out wearing a designer suit. He opened two more locations this year: one in a Bronx high school and, most recently, the one at Redfern, which will officially open at the end of the month. (Wise and his friends had stumbled upon a soft opening.)
The experience at all three is the same. Upon entering, men are greeted by a “boutique stylist.” The stylist, a volunteer, helps the men select a shirt, tie, jacket, pants and shoes.
If the fit isn’t perfect, the stylist can do some minor tailoring: a cuff here, a hem there. Then there’s a free haircut. At the end, the men sit down with a “men’s talk specialist,” who takes their contact information and promises to check in with community resources, mentorship and tips on how to clean their suits.
On the recent Friday in the Redfern boutique, Wise and Livingston stood across from each other, a tie draped around each of their necks. They moved in unison, like mirror images — Wise, tall and lanky, opposite Livingston, short and sturdily built — except that Wise lagged just a few seconds behind as he mimicked Livingston’s tie-tying moves.
Looking on, Monique Wiggins, Livingston’s assistant, offered a suggestion for when the Redfern boutique officially opens, complete with haircut services. “What about the brothers with locks?” she said, eyeing Wise’s dreadlocks. “Can we get someone to tighten up the locks?”
Meanwhile, Wise’s friends Fabrice Rowe, 21, and Rayshawn Carter-Moore, 22, riffled through the rack of jackets. Rowe and Carter-Moore had both picked up gray wool ties, to match Wise’s, but Carter-Moore was still searching for a jacket to complete his outfit.
“Try this one, bro,” Rowe said, pointing to one. “It’s a whole different jacket.”
A few minutes later, CarterMoore emerged from the community center’s bathroom, which doubled as a makeshift dressing room. He wore a black pinstripe jacket over a blue button-down shirt. In place of his ripped black jeans, he wore a pair of dress pants.
“Who’s this guy?” Livingston said with delight.
“That feels good,” CarterMoore said.
As they prepared to leave the boutique, all wearing the new suits they had picked out — Wise said he wanted to show his grandmother — Livingston gave them each one more item: a wristwatch. The collection, he said, had been donated by a retired black firefighter.
A sly grin spread across Wise’s face as he raised his wrist into the air to admire the watch face. “It’s time to go get a job!”
It would turn out that, for all the groans immediately induced by Wise’s pun, he was not wrong.
He was offered the job at the airport. The next week, he was offered the second job, too.
He took both. He works the night shift for one, the day shift for the other. He is also studying for his high school equivalency diploma. He hopes to go to college and become a police officer. He wants to move out of Redfern by next year, he said.
In the meantime, he has taken to wearing his suit even on days when he doesn’t have formal appointments, because he likes the way it makes him feel. On a recent Wednesday, two weeks after he discovered the boutique, he wore it to lunch at Applebee’s. Two men approached him; they told him they owned a construction company.
“They asked me if I wanted a job, like, ‘I like how you dress; we need people like you,’ ” Wise recalled.
He turned them down. After all, he said, “I got two jobs already.”