Beauty Both Inside and Out
26 March 2014 at 9:47 am
A burgeoning social enterprise is showing its inner beauty by professionally outfitting men in need, as journalist Nadia Boyce discovered in this latest Spotlight on Social Enterprise.
A burgeoning social enterprise is showing its inner beauty by professionally outfitting society’s needy – unmasking a need for services for men in the flurry of the recycled clothing movement.
A companion organisation to Dress for Success which assists women, Wear for Success is the only social enterprise in Victoria specialising in providing free work clothing and grooming advice to disadvantaged men seeking employment.
For many of the forgotten gender, access to a top-to-toe service including suits and ties through to underwear is the starting point to improved self-confidence and ultimately a better life.
Since opening in July 2011 the services have helped more than 400 men and women in collaboration with over 150 case managers from 80 social welfare and employment organisations in Melbourne, including the Salvation Army and WISE Employment.
Surplus donated clothes are resold for income at periodic sales, generating revenue to put back into the organisation’s day-to-day operations.
Initially confined to the northern states, the Melbourne arm came about through a chance meeting between the parents of co-founder Danielle Baillie, heavily involved with the movement in New Zealand, and the operators of Dress for Success Sydney and Brisbane.
Now, with its income-generating arm still relatively small in comparison to funds sourced through grants, philanthropy and fundraising, the organisation has begun grappling with the prospect of transition to a fully-fledged enterprise model to boost its prospects of future sustainability.
In a world where the concept of inner beauty is emphasised, Wear for Success addresses a stark reality – that appearances really do matter.
“It’s really quite sad someone’s had to go through that just because of what they're wearing,” Baillie says.
“This breaks the cycle. It can change someone’s life.
“The transformation…it’s amazing, because if you look good, you feel good.”
The Wear for Success showroom in South Melbourne is staffed by a volunteer team which helps clients choose a wardrobe that will be appropriate for interviews, the workforce, or important meetings.
Clients are able to try on various outfits recommended by volunteer stylists and are fitted with a suit, business or work outfit. Ties, belts and quality leather shoes for the men and accessories, bags and cosmetics for women are all part of the service.
“It seems so basic but it’s so, so important,”Baillie says.
“No one really spends the time with them like we do.
“We get all sorts of clients…those who may have been in a job for 15 years and been made redundant…those who have been working in manufacturing and the plant has closed and they’re trying to move into the corporate world.
“Their confidence is shot to pieces. A lot come through in track pants and sneakers, because that’s all they’ve got.”
It’s a man thing
The women-centred Dress for Success brand, with which the organisation is officially affiliated, is a worldwide movement with more than 120 branches in Australia, New Zealand, North America and Europe that has assisted more than 650,000 disadvantaged women.
“[Dress for Success] is huge in the US,” Baillie says.
“We’ve had some great opportunities come our way as a result. But it’s really tricky, we got stuck.”
It was adding men to the equation while springboarding off ties to the established brand that proved toughest.
“They won’t allow you to suit a male client under their brand, but we felt we needed to help male clients as well,” Baillie says.
“In our first year we suited 223 men and 164 women, so there really our male clients almost need the service more.”
The solution was a separate ‘brother’ organisation – Wear for Success, while female programs continued to be administered under the Dress for Success label.
Baillie says there were only three or four similar organisations working with males in the world at the time.
Procuring clothing for the service, a need met through donations, has proven a challenge, however.
“We do still have to buy a lot, particularly plus-size clothing and men’s shoes – men don’t part with their shoes often!”
Cultural differences have also come into play.
“Some of the cultures are quite different.
“We get people through all the time who might not be able to wear skirts for religious reasons, they have to wear pants…others might have a body type that’s very tall and skinny.
“Our volunteers are all really well-trained, you name a situation, and they’ve come across it.”
A model Not for Profit
Wear for Success is funded by a combination of philanthropy, fundraising, grants and regular sales of excess stock to the public.
The challenge in procuring funds has resulted in the creation of an extra stream of finance, through the sale of excess donations.
“It’s our biggest source of income,” Baillie says.
“Quite often there’s a lot of things that are not interview appropriate – like party dresses, racing dresses or high heels. We get some amazing branded things donated.”
She says the success of the sales in a market that on the surface appears heavily saturated with recycle shops and retail is down to a loyal following.
“I think the vintage clothing thing in Melbourne is huge. We’re fortunate to have that.
“We don’t have a marketing budget…I think it’s just word of mouth.”
The system provides a much needed source of funds for the organisation, who, like countless other Not for Profits, must compete for hotly-contested grants. When funding is forthcoming, Baillie says, restrictions may still prevent some needs being met.
“A lot of times the funding’s tied to specific programs. It’s really quite tough to find grants to fund every day expenses – it’s not sexy in a grant application.”
Moves to a model that place more emphasis on self-generated income is possible, but the organisation is not quite sure what that would look like yet, she says.
“There’s sites like Ebay, but that would almost require a full time person to run it.
“There’s also a really successful full time Dress for Success clothing shop in the US.”
But, in the competitive clothing market and with the burdens imposed by overheads, she says, “we’re really not sure we’re ready for that yet.”
There can be little doubt Wear for Success has achieved a tremendous amount in its short tenure.
The organisation has developed a volunteer workforce contributing 1900 hours annually, and now employs a staff member. Supplementary programs include Work it Out, tailored to young people, and a scheme specifically to assist migrant males.
Wear for Success also runs a series of Job Support Services Workshops to help clients develop additional skills to prepare for their transition to work.
Some 73 people have so far participated in the organisation's career support program, and Baille spotlights it as an area where the organisation can grow and add value.
Other forms of expansion have not been as successful, however.
In the US, Dress for Success has established a dynamic professional women's network, which meets once a month, allowing those who have secured a job to share their experiences.
“It’s quite a big movement in the US, but we’re struggling with it,” Baillie says.
I think it’s a cultural thing. It’s this idea of ‘I’m OK now, I don’t need help anymore’.
“We have trouble explaining that to the US”
As she looks to the future, Baillie, now a Director at the organisation who also works as a retail sales planner for Cotton On Kids, says involvement in the service’s formative years has proven invaluable.
“To be part of it from the beginning it’s been a huge learning experience,” she says.
“The people you meet along the way – they are a big part of the reason why you keep doing it.
“I’m glad I do this on the side because it’s easy to get caught up in what you do every day. There’s a whole other world out there for these people.
“It keeps things in perspective, I think.”