Dress for Success New Zealand

1999 –

Dress for Success New Zealand

1999 –

Theme: Service

This essay written by Gwynneth Jansen was published online in Women Together: a History of Women's Organisations in New Zealand in 2019.

Dress for Success in New Zealand was part of a global movement for change and empowerment of women.  The first organisation was established by Nancy Lublin in 1997 in New York, and by 2018 it had grown to more than 150 affiliates in 20 countries. Dress for Success was first launched in Auckland in 1999 by Judi Hartley, then in Wellington in 2001. More affiliates were formed in Northland (2002), Hamilton (2002), Christchurch (2003), New Plymouth (2011), Bay of Plenty (2011), and Manukau (2019).

The mission of Dress for Success (DFS) was to empower women to achieve economic independence by providing a network of support, professional attire and the development tools to help them thrive in work and in life. The vision of the organisation was a world where women do not live in poverty; are treated with dignity and respect; and are strengthening their families and shaping their communities. 

The increased focus on recycling and sustainable practices from 2000 reinforced the ethos of Dress for Success, which encouraged donations of quality clothing and accessories for reuse.  The generosity of other women maintained the supply of work appropriate clothing, in the full range of sizes from 6 to 26, as well as shoes, bags, scarves and jewellery. The organisation was also supported by donations of surplus new clothing and shoes from companies. Any stock of good quality but not suitable as work wear was sold, providing income and spreading the Dress for Success story.

Rack of clothes

Emma Pearce

A full rack of donated dresses in Wellington, alongside jackets, ready for clients to choose from, 2018.

Women were referred to the service through a range of community organisations, government agencies and educational providers.  Some of these women might not have worked in paid employment for a long time; they were often shy and lacking in confidence. The stylist who worked with them had an hour to develop rapport and help them to choose the best outfit for their interview and their lifestyle. 

Rack of shoes

Emma Pearce

Donated shoes in many different styles, colours and sizes, 2018.

There was a great deal of trust involved. As one client wrote:

What Dress for Success does is important.  They level the playing field so that you really do feel like you fit.  You fit the nice clothes, you fit with the people interviewing you, you fit with the organisation, you fit in the world.  With Dress for Success you really are the right fit, for success. [1]

From the beginning the service that Dress for Success offered was so much more than simply providing a new outfit. The other vital factor was instilling confidence.  As the Executive Manager, Wellington, stated, ‘It’s not a one-size-fits-all service.  You have to truly understand who these women are.’ [2]

The organisation focused on developing ongoing relationships with the women who walked through their doors. When a client was successful in gaining her new job, she returned and was given a capsule wardrobe for her first few weeks at work. 

The relationship continued with opportunities for women to attend Women in Work workshops, where they learned from guest speakers and from each other through sharing their experiences.  These workshops replaced the original Professional Women’s Group (PWG) meetings of the earlier years.  The Wellington branch also developed a mentoring programme to support women who accessed the service.

Dress for Success was always a collaborative enterprise.  ‘Ma tini ma mano ka rapa te whai.  By many thousands, the work will be accomplished.’ Each affiliate was run by a board at local level.  As well as a few paid staff, there were a huge number of volunteers, who went through a training process to help with clothing management, client stylings, publicity, social media, special events and administration.

These volunteers were the other side of the relationship. For example, in 2018 at DFS Wellington, volunteers gave a total of 6717 hours to the organisation. The video from 2015 shows some of their stories.

Dress for Success Wellington

‘Our Volunteers’, 2015.

During 2018, DFS Wellington developed another two locations; had 234 women participate in their ongoing programmes; and completed 456 dressings across the three locations, with a 95 percent client satisfaction rate.  It also won the international Lublin award which was presented at the annual Dress for Success conference in Las Vegas in 2018, recognising the outstanding efforts and progress of the affiliate despite difficult circumstances in 2017.

Working for DFS was as transformative for the volunteers as it was for the clients. All wanted to work in an organisation which supported other women in a practical way.  There were opportunities to play various roles: back room person, sorting and organising; getting involved in promotion and ongoing administration; or stylist, working to prepare a client for her interview and the next steps in her working life. 

One volunteer stylist from Northland had been with the organisation for 17 years.  Another stylist said, ’I love the friendships with other volunteers and the contact with clients. They make my day!’ A third commented that she enjoyed ‘the convivial company of my colleagues, the chatter and the fun that we seem to have, sharing ideas, bouncing them around and learning from each other.’

Gwynneth Jansen

Notes

[1] Client correspondence, DFS Wellington.

[2] Marcia Skinnon, Executive Manager DFS Wellington, interview, 2018, available at: https://dressforsuccess.org/stories/marcia-from-wellington/

Unpublished sources

Dress for Success Wellington, Annual Report 2018 [prepared for AGM], DFS Wellington, 2018

Further sources

https://dressforsuccess.org

https://wellington.dressforsuccess.org/

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