Whether you consider yourself a dedicated follower of fashion or not, few could fail to understand the power of a good outfit.
To see clothes as a mere frivolity is to misunderstand the role they play in helping you stand straight when the pressure is on – something the charity Smart Works knows all too well.
Aimed at helping women out of unemployment, the charity pairs its clients with expert coaching and, crucially, dresses them for success, providing them with a professional wardrobe to see them through from interview to their first pay cheque.
It’s a recipe that works – 65 per cent of Smart Work’s clients go on to receive a job offer within a month of visiting the charity. And astonishingly, that figure has held throughout lockdown, despite face-to-face coaching and wardrobe styling being off the table for the first time in the charity’s history.
“We had a lot of women, young women in particular, coming to us who had been planning to get internships over the summer, so we were desperate to keep giving them advice to secure those,” Kate Stephens, the charity’s chief executive explains. “There were also still women needing support who were going for jobs in care homes, supermarkets or on the supply chain during lockdown. So, we needed to move very quickly to switch to a virtual service delivery.
“Now, our coaches work with each client one-to-one online, and then we take a brief from them about their clothing needs and send wardrobe parcels out to them.”
A royal intervention
The charity’s online efforts were further boosted when the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle, joined in to provide one-to-one coaching herself over Zoom – with a client who then landed the job she was going for. It’s a level of engagement that Stephens says has been repeated time and again since Markle came on board as the charity’s Royal patron last year.
“She came to see us first before she was married, when she was getting to know the charity sector in the UK, and I think she just really connected with what we were doing and the way that we were doing it.
“She saw the impact we were able to have, in terms of both the clothes and the coaching, in helping women. I think that’s always been a part of her own ethos, so she came quietly to see us over the course of that year and then when we asked her to be our patron, she said yes, which was lovely. She’s had great ideas and has been a great inspiration to our clients above all else. Whenever she comes to see us, she always gets involved in dressing and coaching our clients as well as bringing her ideas to the table too. And she still is absolutely involved.”
While Markle has certainly helped boost Smart Works’ profile, not least by featuring its work in her guest-edited edition of Vogue, she’s far from its only high-profile champion. From fashion industry doyennes Betty Jackson and Jane Shepherdson to Jennifer Saunders, Samantha Cameron and Isabel Spearman, the charity’s roster of patrons and ambassadors reads like a who’s who of Britain’s leading women. Clothes come from fashion partners including Burberry, Hobbs and M&S, while its beauty partner, Bobbi Brown, not only supplies make-up artists to teach clients the tricks they need to look their best, it also produces a product each year from which an unheard of 100 per cent of proceeds go towards supporting the service.
Why does Stephens’ think the initiative connects with such high-flyers? “I think there’s a temptation sometimes to dismiss the importance of the fashion element of the service, but anyone who comes to see us can’t fail to be moved by it, I think. They immediately understand why we do what we do, and I think it’s something that women in particular can relate to.
“You know from your own experience how small things can make a big difference to how you feel about yourself – when you put on that dress, that bracelet or that lipstick and it feels psychologically very important. So, we do everything possible to let people see the service in action, because I think once you’ve seen it, it’s hard to dismiss it.”
That 65 per cent success rate, Stephens says, also makes her organisation hard to ignore – which is especially key now, with warnings of an incoming recession and soaring unemployment in the wake of the coronavirus crisis. “I think everybody knows that it’s so easy to lose your confidence in the workplace. You only need to be out of work for a little bit to suddenly wonder how you ever worked. That’s particularly true at the moment, of course, but I think it’s always been true for women. There’s a more natural tendency to take a career break to look after relatives or have children, and to then find yourself a little bit disenfranchised.
“We deal with women of all ages, some who might never have worked or haven’t worked for a long time, some who are returning after having families, and all of them just need that confidence to return to the workplace. We also deal with quite vulnerable women too who have had difficult or complex lives – women who maybe are returning from prison, leaving the care system or have suffered from domestic abuse. We work with refuges and homelessness charities. Anyone who is running an employment programme to try and get a woman back into work, we are there to support as the last piece of the jigsaw.”
Nonetheless, Stephens admits that the women who come to Smart Works, having been referred on by other charities or employment agencies, often have low expectations of what the service can help them achieve.
“I think so much of it comes back to that big word, confidence. But what we do is about allowing women to have a sense of hope and possibility for the future at a time when life might have been very difficult.
“I always say, it’s really hard to ask for help,” she continues. “People are very proud, and to ask for help about your appearance as a woman is a really difficult thing to do. So, we have the greatest respect for the women who, in coming to see us, are doing something really brave.”
Looking to the future
While the service is continuing online for the moment, Stephens is hopeful that the charity’s eight centres, in London, Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Newcastle and Edinburgh, will be able to open their doors once more come autumn. She is, however, adamant, that online coaching and styling will remain part of Smart Works’ offering moving out of lockdown, allowing women in more remote areas to access its services without the need for travel.
“I suspect we’ll be busier than ever before, and I think that’s where we’ll be able to use our virtual service too, to reach any woman who might need our support. It’s our ambition that any women who needs our help should be able to access Smart Works’ help, and that remains our ambition. It’ll be very nice to get back to working towards that.”
In the meantime, however, Stephens insists that, however the charity reaches its clients, its aims remain resolutely the same. “Our goal is always to really unlock a woman’s confidence, which is a really magical thing to see. Clothes can really help a woman feel like the best version of herself at a really important time in her life, and there’s a moment when she looks in the mirror, and you can see her drop her shoulders and think ‘maybe I can do this’. That moment? It’s just incredible to see.”
Want to help? From HR and business professionals to those with an eye for style, Smart Works is always looking for new volunteers to help provide styling and coaching services, as well as for donations to keep its services going. For more information, or to get involved, visit the charity’s website.