photos: Inside the Wear2Start boutique in Victoria. Photo supplied.

Dress to impress

Heartbeats: How Victoria’s Wear2Start helps women step in to the job market

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Everyone who has gone for an important job interview knows they can be stressful. Not only do you have to know your stuff, you have to look the part as well. But what do you do if you can’t afford an outfit that catches your employer’s eye?

First impressions are everything, and if you can’t get the look down, you’ll likely be passed up for another candidate.

Wear2Start, a Victoria-based non-profit, has worked for 16 years to make it easier for women who are entering or returning to the workforce by providing them with the clothes they need to succeed.

Clients are referred to Wear2Start by local employment agencies, and are fitted with two to three outfits that they can mix and match, as well as shoes, undergarments, other accessories, and a haircut.

“We are the final touch,” says Diane Carpenter, Wear2Start vice-president. “We give (the client) the image, we boost her confidence, and then she’s out hopefully being successful.”

Women helping women
Though Wear2Start was officially founded in 2001, its history goes back to 1978 with its founder, Kathleen McMullin. Having just gone through a divorce, and raising three kids, McMullin was forced to start over. The first challenge: building a work wardrobe from scratch.

“To try to build a wardrobe ... is very, very expensive,” says Carpenter. It can cost anywhere between ($600) and $800, sometimes even more, for two or three outfits. Even if you go to a consignment store, “you’re still going to be (spending) between ($200) and $300, and for many people, that’s a barrier.”

With some help from her friends, McMullin was able to borrow clothes so that she could get back on her feet. “She said, ‘You know, I really don’t want other women to go through that.

That was humiliating, that was difficult,’” says Carpenter.

And so, starting with donations from her friends, McMullin established Wear2Start to help women going through the same situation she did. “Not everybody has that circle of support,” Carpenter says. “So we want to be that circle of support.” Sixteen years later, they’ve helped thousands of women enter the workforce with renewed confidence.

A tailored experience
After being referred to Wear2Start, clients go in for an appointment at their downtown boutique. There, volunteers go over the client’s likes and dislikes, their clothing sizes, what sort of job they’re starting, and so on. “It’s a bit of a discovery process,” Carpenter says, “but it’s also putting them at ease, and that can take anywhere from five to 20 minutes, depending on the client. Then we get them in the change room and we just start playing.”

Carpenter says there’s a huge variety in the women that come into their boutique.

“From the statistics we gather, we have a lot of people between 30 and 50 (years old),” she says, though some are as young as 16, and even some in their early 70s. “We’ve had students, we’ve had runaways, we’ve had women fleeing abuse who’ve had to start over, we’ve had employed women for whatever reason the wheels fell off.

“When we say women in need, it can be long-term need or it can be temporary need,” she says. “We just want to reduce barriers to employment for women, so they can feed themselves or their families.”

The services Wear2Start offers are free to clients and all the clothing they give out is donated by the community.

Sometimes those donations come from unexpected places. When Carpenter went to pick up a donation from Curvalicious, a clothing store that provides “carefully curated items for curvaceous women,” she was given an extra bag of clothing from a sales consultant named Annie.

As it turns out, Annie was a Wear2Start client 10 years ago.

In a video posted on Wear2Start’s website, Annie says she was happy to donate to an organization that helped prepare her for an interview that led to a new job. “We appreciate all the work that’s done for women in the community, and Wear2Start is a great program to go to.”

More stories to tell
Moving ahead, Carpenter says Wear2Start is looking at ways to bring in more clientele and utilize their boutique as best they can. “We have time in the boutique, and we have the stock to serve more women.”

But the focus will likely remain on the services provided currently. “We feel that this is something that no one else is doing well in Victoria, so we definitely want to keep the focus on women that are ready for interviews ... and first days on the job.”

Hopefully, that means even more stories of women taking their first steps out of the boutique and into the workforce. “We love to hear those stories,” Carpenter says.

“Sometimes, these women have never had anybody focused on them. They’ve always been helping everyone else—family, kids, whatever. This is the very first time they’ve had people positively focusing on them and having fun with them,” she says.

“It’s very rewarding for the boutique volunteers to see the impact that they’ve made, and this person walks out feeling good about themselves.”

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