The Wardrobe For Opportunity office on 14th Street in downtown Oakland is on the second floor of a commercial building. A buzzer at the entrance grants access to the office, but don’t expect to see a room filled with desks and computers. Those are in a corner just far enough away so clients are not distracted from the space they just entered. Instead, the boutique is filled with racks of women’s clothing: Dresses, coats, skirts and tops and a space for shoes. The men’s section is almost as large and carries all of the items needed to dress someone in business attire.
The staff of volunteers—some who have been with the organization almost as long as the 17-year old business has been in existence—work to provide an environment that dispels any notion that this space is anything other than a shopping experience, very similar to one offered at high-end boutiques that comes with a personal stylist.
But Wardrobe For Opportunity, or WFO, is not a boutique. It’s a non-profit organization that partners with community organizations to provide wardrobe assistance to men and women in need of professional clothing to wear while searching for employment. The organization was established in 1995 to help those searching for a job, but also provide a resource once a client is employed. All of its clients are referred to WFO by community partners from social service and job-training organizations.
The organization opened in Walnut Creek 17 years ago, before opening a second location in downtown Oakland eight years ago. The staff’s goal is to provide one-on-one attention from a personal stylist who will consult with each client about the job field they are interested in and the type of clothing that is appropriate for a job interview.
“It is amazing how people perceive you just based on whatever outfit you are wearing,” said development and marketing coordinator Emily Bell. “Some people might think, ‘Oh, it’s just clothing. It doesn’t matter what you are wearing, it’s what’s inside that counts.’ That’s true, but what’s inside can come out more when you are confident in what you are wearing, especially for an interview. You are taken much more seriously if you are wearing professional clothes. It helps everyone to be on the same level playing field when going to an interview.”
After retiring from a job in retail, Sue Green read an article in the paper about the group and thought she could combine her retail experience with the work the organization was doing. “I came in during the early years when we just had a little house in Walnut Creek,” said Green, who has been a volunteer for 14 years. “At that time we were just dressing women. Can you imagine? The best thing for me is seeing how the organization has developed over the years. Now we dress as many men as women and we’ve developed marvelous mentoring programs.”
Clothing makes people feel better when they look good, Green said. When people come in, they often don’t look very happy, but after spending time with the stylist and choosing an outfit to wear, they feel better about themselves and gain confidence, which helps during the job interview.
“When we get something like this,” Green said, holding up a brown three-piece pinstriped suit, “I always say this is a ‘You got the job’ suit. It’s appropriate, it’s updated, it’s sharp-looking. We can accessorize this with a shell and some jewelry and a handbag and shoes and that lady is going to go out looking dynamite!”
Clients come for their “initial interview wardrobe,” which means getting an outfit if they have a job interview coming up or if they are applying for an internship. There is a checklist for women and men that indicates each item of clothing the person receives: shoes, blouses, ties, and slacks. This not only helps with future styling appointments for the client, but also helps to determine what items and sizes are used most often so that the staff can maintain a properly stocked inventory.
“We try to make sure we have the same high level quality of clothing for everyone and make sure we have the correct sizes,” Bell said.
Volunteers come into the office throughout the week and sort through hundreds of garments that are donated by private individuals, stores like the T.J. Maxx Foundation and the Men’s Warehouse, as well as corporations that hold clothing drives to help support them. WFO also shops for certain items in bulk, like shell tops that can be worn under a woman’s suit or a blouse.
The volunteers check the clothing to make sure it is work-appropriate, and that it is not damaged or in need of repair or cleaning before it is steam-pressed, tagged and placed on the racks on the floor. Clients can shop the racks as they would at any department store. The volunteer stylists help them select garments to mix and match to create the best look and fit for an interview outfit.
Discretion is also very important when it comes to serving the clients who come into WFO, as there may be instances where a client doesn’t want to talk about their personal or employment backgrounds.
On a morning this week, client Sharelle Owens was in the middle of a consultation with a WFO volunteer. They had already found a pair of black slacks and a lavender shirt. Owens was adjusting her shirt while her partner and Green searched the racks for a tie.
Owens said she has been looking for a job and trying to get her security guard license. Her mentor at the Oakland Private Industry Council, a career placement center, had suggested she try WFO once she realized she didn’t have the right kind of clothes for job interviews. “All the clothes I had were too small,” Owens said. “At first, I thought this was going to be like the Goodwill, but they have better clothes here.”
Owens said she would encourage others in need of assistance to come to WFO. “It’s a great place,” she said. “I feel better now. I have nice clothes on, and I’m smiling.”
Once a client obtains employment, they may contact WFO to set up a working wardrobe appointment where they will have four or five outfits coordinated for them to start them off in their new place of work. The clients do not pay for the clothes; instead, the cost of the outfits is absorbed by WFO’s partners organizations such as the Department of Rehabilitation, Alameda County Social Services, Contra Costa County Social services and Goodwill Industries. These companies pay a fee for the clothing.
Wardrobe stylist Susan Homes works on what she calls “Wonderful Wednesdays.” Her schedule usually includes styling one client every hour. She speaks with each person about style, color and other wardrobe preferences in order to get an idea about what selections to recommend. Then she assists with dressing them from head-to-toe, including coordinating accessories such as shoes, bags and scarves.
Homes decided she wanted to work for an organization like WFO after seeing a segment on 60 Minutes about a non-profit in San Francisco offering a similar service. “I used to call myself a professional volunteer, but I have never received so much as I do from here,” Homes said. “The nice thing about this volunteer opportunity is that you get to see the difference immediately. You actually see the people, the faces.”
WFO served almost 2,000 clients last year and partners with 39 community organizations that send referrals. The men and women come from varying professional backgrounds and life situations that have resulted in the need for assistance in preparing for interviews and new employment opportunities.
“Our clients are talented very skilled people. You have a range of folks,” said Darice Jones, the organization’s new executive director. “We may service someone just getting started in the workforce, or someone who has experienced a major life change but has years of experience. But whatever that shift is, it may have created a gap and we are here to support them.”
They also work with supporters like Safeway that sponsor interview training sessions twice monthly, and maintain an alumni network of clients who have graduated from one of the WFO programs and are now offering support to current program members.
Hank Ramirez has been with the company eight years as the program specialist and liaison for the community partnerships. The staff and volunteers said it was his idea to incorporate styling for men into the program. Ramirez said that after only assisting women for the first eight or nine years, they decided to dress men, too, because more men asked for assistance and more companies wanted to work with an organization that served men as well.
On a weekday morning, Kenneth Bolton sat on a couch waiting to go in for his consultation. He was referred by the Goodwill Industries and is getting ready to go on a job interview next week. He went through a job readiness program and now he just need the clothes to go along with the training, he said.
“I just want to be presentable for the interview,” he said. “I want to look professional.” Once he has met with a consultant and selected his clothing for the interview he will be able to relax, he said.
“I want to look appropriate,” he said. “Once I do, I will feel great.”