How UK charity is empowering women to return to work with a free capsule wardrobe and mentoring

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  • Being unemployed can leave women lacking self-belief when the time comes to return to work and face their first interview. That’s where Dress for Success comes in, a charity helping women to look and feel the part.

    Clients are given a capsule wardrobe, a makeover and mentoring. Three women tell us how this support helped transform their lives…

    “I struggled to keep going after my son’s death”

    Hayley Heffernan, 36, son, Lenny, was born three months premature in September 2017.

    She and her partner, Peter, then 36, spent seven anxious and exhausting weeks in Neonatal Intensive Care, willing him to keep fighting.

    Hayley Heffernan with  charity supporter Karren Brady

    She says: Despite surviving a heart operation, Lenny died after contracting necrotising enterocolitis, a disease affecting the intestine, and my world ended.

    Struggling to keep going, I isolated myself from friends and, having always been a stay-at-home mum, I couldn’t consider getting a job. But the kids and Peter needed me, so giving up wasn’t an option.

    My mum, Debbie, 51, and Peter encouraged me to try counselling and yoga, which helped pull me back. But in January 2019, I was rejected for several supermarket jobs, destroying my confidence. Eventually a charity got me an interview at a rehabilitation centre at NTC, an organisation working in criminal rehabilitation. While I was thrilled, we had no money for smart clothes and with zero self-esteem I wasn’t interested in my appearance.

    Then the charity suggested Dress for Success, and although I was anxious I’d be treated with pity, the opposite was true.

    I chatted with a stylist over tea and she suggested a navy skirt suit and blouse. Looking in the mirror, I felt fabulous. The charity gave me a mock interview, too, showing me a good handshake and the importance of a smile. After, I felt armed for my interview and got the job. I’ve since met Baroness Karren Brady at a Dress for Success event – she’s an inspiration.

    My revival has been the making of my family. I know my worth, what I’m capable of, and love getting dressed for work every day.

    “Redundancy left me depressed – now I’m stronger than ever”

    Runa Ali, 33, says: Redundancy from my managerial role in HR just before turning 30 in March 2017 blindsided me.

    Runa Begum (left) with stylist volunteer Vanessa Knox

    I’d been working in HR for 10 years, and suffered sleepless nights worrying how I’d pay bills. Endless job applications went nowhere, and suddenly I was relying on benefits and was prescribed antidepressants. By June, I struggled without a network and was sleeping on a sofa.

    Suicidal, I bagged up my clothes and binned them. One morning, I went out intending to end my life. Luckily, my friend found me, an ambulance was called and I was taken to hospital.

    After a month in hospital, I went back to my friend’s before being rehoused. I focused on recovering, until September 2018, when I felt ready to return to work. Once I’d secured my first interview, employment specialists directed me to Dress for Success.

    Feeling cynical and uncertain, I arrived in my tracksuit bottoms and t-shirt, yet they listened to me talk about my background and my hopes for the future. For the first time in years, I felt valued and worthy. I was given two dresses, a coat, scarf, trousers and smart tops. In October, I was offered a job as a consultant on mental health at a think tank.

    I still work there now, and as part of the job, also lecture about mental health. When you’re depressed, the last thing you feel like is making an effort with your outfit, but now I enjoy choosing clothes. I’m stronger than ever and love being able to use my experience to help others.

    “I proved to myself it’s never too late.”

    Claurdet Royes, 52, says: In January 2018, I signed on to receive Jobseeker’s Allowance after working as a PA at a doctor’s surgery for more than eight years. I’d enjoyed it, but resigned as it didn’t offer the flexibility I craved to spend more time with my children, Dominique, then 17, and Kevin, seven.

    Claurdet Roye (left) with stylist volunteer Vanessa Knox

    While hunting for something with better hours and claiming benefits, I completed courses at Westminster Adult Education Service in Bookkeeping and Accounting. Then, in July 2019, after being unemployed for 18 months, I secured a job interview for a temporary admin role through a Government website.

    I was thrilled but daunted as it’d be my first interview in a decade, so was relieved when an organisation supporting people returning to work, called Kennedy Scott, referred me to Dress for Success. When I arrived at their studio in east London, I instantly felt comfortable.  The stylists took genuine interest in the job I was going for and asked what I’d usually wear.

    I explained that I wanted to look smart, with a bit of colour to brighten things up and was given a selection to try, from designer to high-street. I loved every moment and took home a capsule wardrobe of tailored black trousers, peach blouse, colourful scarf, with pretty earrings and a matching bag. I even got some tips at a make-up masterclass.

    At the interview I exuded confidence, and got the job! Now, I’m on the books at a temping agency, and love spending more time with my children. I’m glad I took time out, retrained, and proved to myself it’s never too late. In fact, I feel like I’m just getting started.

    What is the Dress for Success program?

    Fionnuala Shannon, executive director of Dress for Success Greater London, explained, ‘Our charity wraps its arms around women who need the tools to be successful at interview.’

    The good news is anyone can help. It takes just £200 to support a woman for 15 months, and that includes a free wardrobe.

    Help by donating clothes, sponsoring a dressing, a financial donation, volunteering or offering corporate partnerships.