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Clothes for a Cause

Dress for Success Mid-Fairfield County

Anabelle Melendez was working in retail when the pandemic hit. Like everyone else, she hunkered down at home, wondering what kind of career landscape she’d find when it was safe to come out again. 

As our ‘new normal’ took hold by mid-2022, the mother of three sons signed up for The WorkPlace’s Health Career Academy, eager to become a community health worker.

“It was the right choice. I loved it,” the Bridgeport resident says of the 10-week training program. “I really got hooked on the classes.”

But there was one problem. She needed a wardrobe that reflected and projected her newfound skills and confidence to potential employers – like those at Optimus Health Care, where she had snagged an interview.

“I didn’t have business clothes. I didn’t know how to accessorize for that,” she says. “I didn’t have the experience of what to wear.”

Enter Dress for Success Mid-Fairfield County. Armed with a referral for a free consultation and interview ensemble, Anabelle met with volunteers and quickly learned why they say clothes make the woman. After trying on a few options – finding a chic black jacket and slacks and two pretty blouses with a pop of red and purple – she left ready to turn the spotlight on herself.

“A stylist works with the clients and it’s a learning process,” she says. “But you feel more confident. You feel like you can conquer anything.”

 The mission of Dress for Success is both simple and profound, says Michelle Artis, director of the Mid-Fairfield County affiliate. While more than 70 referral agencies, including human services organizations and shelters, refer women to the Bridgeport-based affiliate for professional attire to wear to job interviews, what the women gain far exceeds a sharp-looking suit and a pair of heels. 

Upon stepping through the door, each client becomes part of a network of support, receiving the development tools and encouragement to help her thrive in both work and life. They receive free career guidance, technology skills and job-seeking support, including interview prep and financial literacy and leadership training. The goal is self-sufficiency, giving women tools to seek out more resources themselves and, ultimately, develop and advance their careers.

About 400 women take advantage of the local affiliate’s services each year – more than 10,000 since it opened its doors in 1998, notes Michelle, who was tapped to run the local boutique and other programs after working at The WorkPlace for 2.5 years. With a long background in retail management, including stints at cosmetics counters, she understands how to work with women to make sure they feel their best when going into an interview or starting a first week on the job.

After the stay-at-home COVID years of nonjudgmental yoga pants, many women come in with a false sense of their own size, she says. Volunteer “suiters,” many of whom are former teachers and businesswomen, help them choose pieces that are both becoming and allow for freedom of movement.

“You don’t want to be distracted thinking about your clothes,” Michelle advises. “If you make sure a shirt is not too tight, you can feel confident to give that firm handshake.”

That kind of attention to detail and respect for clients started in 1996, when law student Nancy Lublin received a $5,000 inheritance from her great-grandfather and decided to turn it into an enduring gift for others. Teaming up with three nuns in her area, she founded Dress for Success in the basement of a Manhattan church. Today there are 140+ affiliates in 24 countries.

Dress for Success Mid-Fairfield’s gently used clothing comes from businesswomen from Westport, Stamford, Greenwich and communities and many pieces are high-end name brands. All the organization asks is that the pieces be recently cleaned and hung on hangers, ready for display.

Volunteer “sorters” go through the donations, weeding out anything that might not be suitable for a typical office or workplace. 

Each client receives both a new outfit and the shoes, handbag and accessories to complete her look. Once she accepts a job, she can bring her hire letter to the boutique and choose six more mix-and-match outfits for the first few weeks of employment.

Between word of mouth and the publicity Dress for Success MId-Fairfield County receives, the organization is able to go beyond the ensemble. Shelton-based law firm Berkowitz and Hanna regularly donates totes filled with toiletries and hygiene products and Subway has offered clients $10 gift cards – perfect for grabbing lunch with new co-workers.

The annual Purse-suit of Success fundraiser held at waterfront Boca Oyster Bar in Bridgeport this year featured a silent auction with a Dooney & Bourke bag and Target recently donated a day of shopping for Michelle’s team that netted coveted larger-size shoes and 24 pairs of staple black pants. 

The results are myriad. For Anabelle, Dress for Success means she can focus her attention on the many children and families she works with throughout her day, assisting them with the food, housing and other resources they need to lead healthy, productive lives. 

“Bills don’t wait. The rent doesn’t wait,” she says. “It’s very rewarding. It makes my day putting smiles on faces.”

Michelle says she doesn’t know who is more grateful at Dress for Success – the staff and volunteers, the clients or the people who benefit from the clients’ newfound inner confidence and skill. 

“A lot goes into it, but this job is everything I love to do wrapped up in a ball. And it’s women helping women feel their best,” Michelle says. “I love making people feel good. And with a perfect outfit, you can stand up a little straighter.”

The partnerships don’t end with a job offer.  Dress for Success MId-Fairfield County has a Professional Women's Group (PWG) that offers networking events, mentoring opportunities and workshops to help women advance in their careers and maintain long-term economic independence.

“Sometimes it takes a village,” Michelle says of Anabelle and other clients. “Now we’re part of her village.”

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