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Career gear: AFW knows the value of Dress(ing) For Success

Austin Photo Set: News_Michael_dress for success_August 2011_poster
A poster hanging in the Dress for Success meeting room
Austin photo: Event_Dress for Success_Sign
The sign outside of Dress for Success
Austin photo: Event_Dress for Success_Volunteer
A volunteer "personal shopper" at Dress for Success

You’d think with the title Executive Director, Judy Chambers would have her own desk.

But the savvy businesswoman behind the Austin affiliate of the national nonprofit Dress for Success (DFS) is on her feet all day long and has no need for a desk where she’d rarely spend any time. Plus, the DFS space doesn’t have the room for another desk.

“We currently have about 2000 square feet and need about twice this much to accommodate all the women who come in here,” says Chambers. “We’re having to get creative about the space we do have.”

Housed in the collective office complex of the former Mrs. Baird’s Bakery at 701 Tillery Street in east Austin, DFS feels like a warehouse space divided into four main areas: reception, dressing, meeting and storage. Each area is packed with racks of suits, bags, accessories, makeup and more.

For some, this excess of fashion would be like a dream come true. For others, these items are a lifeline to a new lease on life.

Founded in 1996 by law student Nancy Lublin in New York, Dress for Success spread like wildfire across the country and then the world. Today, there are 118 affiliates around the United States and 11 different countries. Each affiliate is supported entirely by their local community.

“Many people think of Dress for Success as a clothes closet, but we’re much more than that,” says Chambers. Not only does the Austin office provides disadvantaged women from Travis County and five surrounding counties the access to professional attire but also job training, interview skills and mentorship opportunities.

A national partnership with Wal-Mart provides unemployed or underemployed women the chance to participate in the Going Places Network, a 12-week program that builds knowledge and confidence in their professional goals. After a job has been landed, the Professional Women’s Group continues training on a monthly basis, including pairing individuals with a volunteer businesswoman in the community for one-on-one mentoring.

As a retired school counselor, Chambers is passionate about this line of work. She envisions an expanded Career Center in what is now the meeting area of the Dress for Success office to allow further coaching, resume updating, and job searching with the volunteer coordinators.

But, of course, renovations cost a significant amount, something Chambers knows all too well. “We always need suits. But I’m not hesitant anymore to say we need money to keep the lights on and expand the space even more.”

Luckily, DFS has some pretty significant support from the local community. With the assistance of David Anthony Martinez at Luxe PR & Promotions, over twenty of Austin’s top businesses maintain Corporate Guild Memberships with DFS, donating between $1,000 and $5,000 annually.

Dress for Success also enjoys a strong, active Board of Directors comprised of individuals who are all responsible for recruiting new Guild members. Many of these individuals participate in matched giving with new Guild members, resulting in even larger amounts.

In-kind donations are also making life easier at DFS. West Bank Dry Cleaning, for example, is donating and installing a conveyor belt garment rack to run the length of the building to hold the hundreds of donated suits. An overhead rack would help free up floor space and help keep the collection organized.

Matt Swinney, the founder of Austin Fashion Week, also directs a sizeable amount of Fashion Week’s proceeds to DFS.

“Ostensibly, [DFS] fits on the fashion side,” explains Swinney, “but they really do some amazing work getting women ready for the workforce. It’s inspiring. Plus, Dress for Success keeps all the money and services here in town. That was important to us.”

A Fashion Week brunch was held Sunday at Fleming’s Steakhouse at the Domain where $25 of each $30 ticket was marked for DFS. And the entirety of ticket proceeds at Tuesday’s Heist party at the ND@501 Studios also went to the nonprofit.

Additionally, throughout Fashion Week, folks can donate suits, bags, shoes and jewelry at EcoClean, who will dry clean items and have them sent directly to Dress for Success for consignment.

Chambers points out that beyond used suits, they also desperately need new bras, shoes and jewelry. “We want to suit these women up from head to toe,” remarks Chambers. “Most of our clients are between a size 12 and a size 16, so we’re especially looking for those items.”

With over 1,000 women already using DFS’s services this year, there is a constant stream of referrals to keep Chambers, her two part time employees and the 70 volunteers (“personal shoppers”) busy throughout the day.

“From consultation to fittings, it usually takes about one hour for each woman that comes to us,” explains Chambers. “The most important thing is that we sit down and get to know the women. We establish trust, woman to woman. Then a personal shopper is able to give them the blue ribbon treatment they deserve.”

Each woman leaves DFS with a suit, two blouses, accessories, shoes, makeup and a purse. Many of the women have never had a suit before. Once they’ve seen themselves in a different light, they’re more confident to continue training for a new life.

“Our goal is to financially assist DFS as much as possible, but also to give them a platform to get their message out.,” says Swinney. “We’re pleased that Austin Fashion Week helps them get access to a wider group of Austinites who now understand their goals.”

Beyond Fashion Week, several area businesswoman have organized parties at their homes to collect donations. And signing up to be a personal shopper or a mentor is the perfect way to combine your fashion knowledge or business savvy to a great cause. Everything from interview tips to makeup training will benefit the women at DFS.

Adds Chambers, "We do everything from a heart level. So you have to be prepared to really connect with some amazing women."

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