Every year, Career Wardrobe offers about 5,000 people throughout the greater Philadelphia area something to get them back to the workforce: an outfit to help nail the job interview.
“It’s not food assistance, it’s not an immediate emergency need,” program manager Jaclyn Schrauger explained of the non-profit (now operating or supervising locations in Philadelphia, Bucks, Chester, Montgomery, Berks, and Delaware counties), but the Career Wardrobe service is essential for people with hurdles to making a living.
“If we can make sure that our clients look just as sharp as someone who hasn’t had their barriers to employment … they’re going to have a better chance of getting a job, and getting a better-paying job,” Schrauger said.
Those barriers vary. If you’re living in poverty, a nice suit might be financially out of reach. Some clients are students looking for a first job; others have taken a break from the job market to care for children or aging family, others are returning citizens looking to restart their lives with stylish, high-quality professional wear. Donated by local supporters, Career Wardrobe can outfit each client in a complete, interview-ready ensemble (including accessories and shoes)—but just as importantly, it offers its clients a confidence boost with the message that they deserve good service, a nice place to shop, a top-notch outfit, and support on their job-hunting journey.
In 2015, Career Wardrobe notes, 67 percent of clients responding to follow-up surveys gained employment and stopped relying on cash assistance within six months of using the program. Ninety percent of clients reported feeling more confident and professional.
Career Wardrobe served women only until 2015 (the group’s 20th anniversary), when its programs expanded to include clothing for men (and women who prefer men’s clothes). Now, men comprise up to 15 percent of the organization’s total client base, and Career Wardrobe also serves non-binary people.
The experience at the boutique is often surprising to clients in need, Schrauger noted. “Folks say, ‘oh, I thought I was going to root through a bag and find an outfit.’ They come with the mindset that they’re going to have a crappy experience or not have good customer service, or something that’s made to help you look good.”
But in the sleek space the non-profit operates along with its main offices at 19th and Spring Garden, it’s an affirmative shopping experience, sometimes tailored by staffers or volunteers who act as personal stylists.
Most Career Wardrobe clients pay nothing for the outfit or the service, and they arrive three ways. Some come through PA WORKWEAR (which encompasses some of the state’s neediest families). Others arrive via a wide roster of referral partners including job-training programs, city agencies and nonprofits that pay a sliding-scale annual fee to Career Wardrobe (as little as $100). And the third option is the Open Access program, which is available to anyone using SNAP, Medicaid, or unemployment benefits (and to students with ID). That service operates on a sliding scale fee of $5-$20, though sometimes that’s waived with the help of partnering sponsors.
And did we mention Philly’s Career Wardrobe boutique welcomes anyone who loves scoring a great deal on clothes? With full-time retail staffers, the boutique is crammed with gently used designer goods at great prices.
The organization also recently launched a new internship program for job experience in partnership with Lutheran Settlement House. All participants are trained and certified in customer service through the National Retail Federation. Career Wardrobe then selects a small cohort to come onboard as paid interns at the boutique. The first class of four, ranging in age from a nineteen-year-old working her first job to a grandmother looking for a new career, just wrapped up its stint last December. And one of them impressed Career Wardrobe staffers so much that she recently accepted a full-time job there in client services.
You can bring donations of clothing to the Spring Garden boutique during all open hours (if you have a large drop-off, best to call ahead). All sizes are needed, from petites to tall or plus-size and maternity wear, along with quality handbags and shoes, plus specialized career wear like scrubs. Career Wardrobe requests up-to-date items suitable for a professional setting, but any clothing it can’t use (such as kids’ clothes or athletic wear) gets re-donated to area partners.
And if you want to volunteer (especially if you’re a fashion fiend), there’s all kinds of ways to pitch in, from working events to sorting donations for the sales floor to dressing clients. Financial donations are welcome, too.
“We try to make it feel fun and affirming,” Schrauger said. “We have feel-good music playing … you’re not feeling like you’re listening to muzak at a department store.” Career Wardrobe clients gain confidence, “so they’re not just leaving with a suit; they’re leaving feeling more prepared.”