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Suit Able Women

At Dress for Success, clothes open all doors.

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There are a few closets in Memphis that I'd be really interested in seeing: Sister Myotis', for example, or Pat Kerr Tigrett's, or the one at Dress for Success.

Each month, Dress for Success "suits" more than 50 women who are going back to school, changing careers, or looking for a new job, giving them a complete outfit to wear to an interview.

"People think we're just about the suit," says Tiffany Smith, fund-raising coordinator. "We don't just send them out with a suit and be done with them."

After being referred to Dress for Success by one of the group's partner organizations, the clients work one-on-one with a volunteer personal shopper to find a suit. After the women land jobs, Dress for Success then gives them a week's worth of work clothes — what they call second suit looks — and faux pearl earrings or a pearl necklace. (Pearls are the organization's signature accessory.)

Though many of the suits are donated, fund-raisers and monetary donations are just as important to round out the styles and sizes hanging on rolling racks in the Dress for Success closet.

"We provide whatever clothing they have to wear to work," Smith says. "If they get a job at a doctor's office, we need scrubs. If they get a job with a banquet company, they might need to wear black pants and tuxedo shirts. If nobody has donated them, we have to buy them."

Donated clothing not suitable for the Dress for Success closet is either sold at the organization's "Upsale Garage Sale" in October or given to the Neighborhood Christian Center.

But Dress for Success, which aims to help its clients "from suits to self-sufficiency," doesn't stop there.

"Even when the women get back on their feet, we don't let them go," Smith says. "That's why they receive all the perks."

Last week, the perk was a "pamper party" for a dozen members of Dress for Success' Professional Women's Group at True Salon. Members, clad in black drapes, chatted while they snacked on fruit and punch and watched as one another had their hair cut, colored, and conditioned, their brows waxed, or their hands massaged.

The members of the Professional Women's Group, described both as a support group and a sorority, are Dress for Success clients who have obtained employment and want to further their careers.

Clothes may not make the woman, but the group understands how far professional attire can go in making a good impression and having the self-confidence to land a job.

Nicole Gates was helped two years ago after quitting her job teaching at Job Corps and deciding to open her own event-planning business.

"It made a huge difference," she says of the beige pants suit she was given. "I was used to wearing jeans and a T-shirt. It made me understand that as an event planner, there is a certain image you have to portray.

"People take you more seriously when you dress in a suit," Gates says.

Gates joined the Professional Women's Group on the advice of a friend, and, though she didn't originally plan on getting too involved, eventually joined the group's leadership team.

"It grew on me," she says. "Sometimes we get so caught up, like 'they can't teach me anything,' but I learned a lot. It's helped me develop professionally and personally."

At the group's monthly meetings, members learn about financial literacy, the written and unwritten rules of the workplace, how to do interviews, and how to give presentations. At an upcoming meeting, they plan to talk about business etiquette, makeup, and even undergarments.

"You have to be comfortable when you have your suit on," Gates says. "We see women who are uncomfortable, and we see them fidgeting a lot."

In addition to their monthly meetings, the Professional Women's Group also does a community action project. For the past year, they've focused on the area's high rate of infant mortality, trying to educate the community about the link between prenatal care and premature babies.

Community involvement is all part of Dress for Success' plan.

"We don't want the women to go and stay in one position," Smith says. "We want them to move up in the organization."

For more on this and other topics, visit Mary Cashiola's "In the Bluff" blog at memphisflyer.com/blogs/InTheBluff/.

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