Heels & Picks: Dress for success with the YWCA

Apr. 15, 2014 | 0 Comments


BY ERIN SMITH / Special to the Star-Advertiser

Ensconced on the edge of downtown is one of Honolulu’s architectural gems. Grand and stately, the YWCA of Honolulu opens it’s breezy doors to reveal a diamond inside. High vaulted ceilings beckon you in, decorative tile sweeps along the walkways and a glimmering turquoise pool sits off to the right, ringed in palm fronds and statues.

The pool at the YWCA. (Courtesy Erin Smith)

The pool at the YWCA. (Courtesy Erin Smith)

Diamonds are a girl’s best friend, as the saying goes. But the for women who look to the YWCA for guidance and support, the swoon-worthy facade is not what reaches them and touches their lives. It’s the people who run the programs.

One of those programs currently running at the YWCA is the wildly popular Dress for Success, a national initiative that strives to provide appropriate clothing for women who are reentering the work force.

One of the people working to make this program succeed is my friend Blake Harvey. I met Blake in the breezy entranceway of the YWCA building, and as usual, he was all smiles. I’ve rarely met a more positive person than Blake, and I really do enjoy the moments we get to work together.

The first time I met Blake was at the now defunct thirtyninehotel for the Fashion Front Awards, an event his public relations firm put together. I performed a few songs and judged a fashion show featuring local designers. Fast forward eight months, and we are sitting at Café Julia, talking about the Dress for Success program with YWCW Director of Economic Advancement Programs Kehualani Coleman.

Café Julia is named after architect Julia Morgan who designed the stately Honolulu YWCA building. She was one of the first female architects to rise to prominence in the United States and her YWCA design is the first major architectural undertaking by a woman in Hawaii. It is fitting that a pioneer of women in the workforce built the YWCA; the premise of the organization is to allow women to kick down doors, move beyond obstacles and take the reigns of their lives and become the best person they can be.

An outfit from the Dress for Success collection, as styled by the author. (Courtesy Erin Smith)

An outfit from the Dress for Success collection, as styled by the author. (Courtesy Erin Smith)

“The suiting program has been a happening for 11 years, but the new space we have to facilitate the Dress For Success clients allows us to offer more tools for finding and retaining jobs.” Coleman said.

The new space she refers to is a renovated ceramics studio in the basement of the YWCA. If it sounds like a basement would be stuffy, I assure you, it is anything but. The Dress for Success program headquarters has been set up like a chic boutique; mannequins are styled, high heels are arranged in prim rows, handbags are piled exquisitely in flowing racks of colored leather, blazers lined up crisply next to a rack of flowy blouses. It’s a fashionista haven, with a purpose.

Dress for Success is largely a volunteer-based program, with mentors donating their time to coach women on how to be a professional, sought-after employee with the skills to climb the ladder and reach your goals. Many of the women who come to participate in the program are referrals from caseworkers. Upon landing a job interview, the participant may choose a professional outfit, with all of the accessories, to wear to impress their new potential boss.

After the client is hired, they are given two more outfits to wear to work, to help them along until they are on their feet and thriving. They are also given access to the Professional Women’s Group, designed for those who are newly employed to help with job retention and career development.

Every Tuesday morning at Dress For Success headquarters, you will find the Going Places Network hard at work from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. This nine-week program puts expectations on women to be dressed well, on time, and ready to learn from the employer of the day. On the day I stopped by the YWCA, the employer of the day was Safeway and the subject matter was, “What Employers are Looking For.” Breakfast was provided by Zippy’s, and after the main seminar clients were paired with human resources experts to search the Internet for job opportunities.

An outfit from the Dress for Success collection, as styled by the author. (Courtesy Erin Smith)

An outfit from the Dress for Success collection, as styled by the author. (Courtesy Erin Smith)

During my visit, I saw friends and contemporaries from publicity and marketing firms donating their time as mentors to the women. I saw donations of clothing from retailers Kate Spade and Ann Taylor. I heard about how Ala Moana’s annual Shop-a-Lea event holds clothing drives for the program every year.

Pretty cool, right? I like it when fashion and community come together. But what can you do to help and get involved?

According to Coleman, “The first thing people can give is time. Then monetary donations and then clothing.”

Volunteer as a personal shopper to help put outfits together, or as an expert speaker to motivate and coach women on the path to success. Host a clothing, heels and purse drive in your office or workplace to donate to the program. These are some easy ways to get involved in the program.

Makeup donations are greatly needed, so for those whom are spring-cleaning and ready to pass along their gently used makeup items, this is a great second home for that blush you never seem to wear.

The last Wednesday and Thursday of every month, there is a sale to make room for newly donated clothing. All the money, of course, goes to maintaining the program itself.

For some women, including yours truly, fashion is fun and engaging. It’s a way to blow off steam and express yourself. But let’s face it, we all need to dress for success to make the connections and take steps towards becoming the best version of ourselves. Presentation is key, along with a winning personality and communicating in a way that inspires confidence in those around you.

The YWCA works to present the Oahu workforce with newly minted diamonds, who are ready to contribute to the community and, to be sure, will be arriving dressed to impress.
Erin Smith is a singer and guitarist who performs as a solo artist and with Maui-based Na Hoku Hanohano Award-nominated band The Throwdowns. Born in Canada, she moved to Hawaii in 2004 and now resides in Kailua. Contact her via e-mail or follow her on Twitter.

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