Can I borrow your suit, Kate?

It's not such a daft question. LIZ BESTIC on the celebrity donations that are helping jobless women get back to work

You've found the job of your dreams. Better still the letter has arrived inviting you to an interview. Panic sets in. You peer in the wardrobe at all those tired old outfits you have worn to every job interview you have ever had and your heart sinks. You know that first impressions really count, that it's time to turn the piggy bank upside down and blow the lot on a brand new suit. Even before you have bought it you feel better, more confident, more self-possessed.

Now imagine you are living on the streets, or in a shelter for battered women, or even in prison. You can't afford a cup of coffee, let alone a new outfit for an interview. Without work you can't afford a suit and without a decent suit you will never find a job. It's a catch-22 situation.

It is a dilemma that came to preoccupy one young American law graduate. Twenty-seven-year old Nancy Lublin came from a nice middle-class family. A high achiever, she won a scholarship to study in Japan. She graduated with a politics degree, then worked for women's rights in London and South Africa. Money was never a problem. But the day she inherited a small amount of money from her great-grandfather, Nancy realised her destiny was not in law.

"I felt like this money wasn't really mine," she says. "It was also so important for me to use it in a way that was worthy of his memory." Her great-grandfather was a Polish immigrant who stowed away on a ship to New York and slept under Brooklyn Bridge. He found work peddling household goods and clothes from a pushcart. "He let people pay what they could afford to pay," says Nancy. "He had faith in people to repay him and they did. He also passed on the belief that when life smiles on you you should share your good fortune."

Working on the basis that you can't pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you don't have boots, Nancy used her small inheritance to set up Dress for Success, an agency that gives needy women a chance to get a job by providing good-looking clothes to wear to their job interviews. She cajoled generous women she knew to donate spotless business clothes; she asked for donations of new suits, handbags, make-up and shoes from designers. "I knew what it was like for me to get dressed up for a job interview but I could only imagine what it was like for a woman desperate for work, maybe coming from a homeless shelter, a prison or even another country with just the rags on her back," she says.

Nancy used her contacts shamelessly to further her mission.

Celebrities like Gloria Steinem and Oprah Winfrey who had heard of her work were persuaded to "clear out their closets". When she came to Britain last year, she even met up with Cherie Blair and asked her to donate her hardly worn suits. Later she found that ordinary women were also happy to oblige.

Dress for Success started off in a tiny basement in a church in Greenwich Village, New York. "The idea is not about handouts or rewards or charity, although these women do not have to pay a cent for their new suits," says Nancy. Women are referred from agencies such as domestic violence shelters, literacy programmes or immigrant support groups. Each client is assigned a volunteer personal shopper who helps her to choose her outfit, accessories and jewellery. Nancy and her business partner, Holly Rosenthal, look for clothes that are in good condition - no coffee stains, no tears.

Their first client was a woman who had been in prison for killing her abusive husband. Since then the organisation has fitted out women from many different backgrounds: an ex-junkie who had never worn a skirt in her life, a Russian immigrant who arrived in the US with just the clothes she stood up in. To date Dress for Success has helped at least 20,000 disadvantaged women in more than 50 cities across America. Holly will open their first outlet in London this month.

Dress for Success turned 33-year-old Frida Kandova's life around. Four years ago she emigrated to New York from Uzbekistan with her three children. Divorced, penniless and unable to speak English she wondered if she would ever find a job. Back home she had been a respected piano teacher but in the US she had to go on welfare. "I cried every day with shame but I was determined to pay back my debt to America," she says.

She found childcare for her children and enrolled on a course to study English and typing. While her children slept, she studied. She cleaned her neighbours' houses for extra money. Last spring she heard of a job going locally. "I felt sick because I had nothing to wear," she recalls. She was referred to Dress for Success. "I felt like Cinderella. I had a great new outfit and they even gave me pearls and gold earrings." Frida got the job, as an executive secretary at a New York organisation for Jewish immigrants.

Nancy Lublin maintains that Dress for Success is much more than a passport to a new job. "To most of the women, the clothes they choose symbolise what is possible. So often they put on a new outfit, look in the mirror and for the first time in years they see themselves as independent - with power and control over their lives. For us the suits represent our faith in every woman's ability to succeed."

Nancy is well aware that getting your foot on the first rung of the career ladder is more than just about having the right outfit. "We are hoping to expand our remit to do much more than just suiting and booting our clients," she says. "We now run a follow-up programme through which women can network. It's tough for some of our clients to talk about what it is like to have been homeless or in prison or even on welfare when they may now be working as a receptionist at Arthur Andersen or Clifford Chance. It's great for them to be able to get together and share their experiences."

Meanwhile, Holly is in Britain, busy overseeing the opening of the first store in Islington, north London. It has already received funding from the Avon Foundation. "Dress for Success London will depend largely on the generosity of individuals and corporations for donations," she says. Working closely with Business in the Community, Holly has already received donations of clothing from the Arcadia Group, Oasis and Liberty. Some companies are holding employee "suit drives". Holly is keen to get as many people as possible involved. "Anyone out there who has an outfit in good condition that they don't wear any more or have simply got fed up with, think of us!"

Dress for Success London (tel: 0181 387 8853).

SUITED AND BOOTED

Dr Roy Bailey is a clinical psychologist and runs Counselling Solutions, a performance management company.

"Of course first impressions are important. A potential employer usually decides within the first three minutes of meeting you whether you are the right person for the job. Having a smart outfit is important and can enhance your performance, but it is not a recipe for success. You have to take other things into consideration too.

When you choose a suit you need to ask yourself "what sort of statement do I want to make?" and "is this the right suit for me?" What you don't want is a suit that imprisons you and does not allow you to show your real abilities.

Once you have chosen your outfit, you need to talk to someone about the impression you are trying to create. You could find yourself in a position where you are not up to the suit you have chosen and you may then have what we call a "negative performance experience", which would be a tragedy if it was your first time back in the job market for many years. Once you have the opportunity to get back to work, you need to learn a little bit about how to manage yourself."

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