Working Wardrobes dresses for success

Men's shoes line the wall of the men's section at Working Wardrobes in Costa Mesa.  The non-profit organization helps dress people who are down on their luck and trying to re-enter the workforce.
Men's shoes line the wall of the men's section at Working Wardrobes in Costa Mesa. The non-profit organization helps dress people who are down on their luck and trying to re-enter the workforce. Susan Valot/KPCC

With California’s unemployment rate hovering above 12 percent, it can be tough to find work — especially when you can’t afford the clothes you need to make the right impression at a job interview.

That’s where the Orange County non-profit, Working Wardrobes, comes in.

Outside, Working Wardrobes looks like a typical industrial building near John Wayne Airport.

But inside, the space opens into something that looks more like a department store. Ties, slacks, blouses and business suits fill racks. Dress shoes line walls. Curtains cover fitting rooms. All of this is to help people down on their luck and out of a job get back into the workforce.

"Most recruiters take about six seconds to make a judgment call on a candidate," says Jerri Rosen, founder and CEO of Working Wardrobes. "And we don’t want the wardrobe to be a barrier. We want them to have that be such a positive experience that they’ll have time to sell their skill set to a recruiter."

And ultimately, says Rosen, land — and keep — a job. The program provides job training, too.

"We’re really about developing confident, successful clients who are on the road to self-sufficiency," says Rosen.

But Rosen says none of this could happen without volunteers.

"They run this organization," Rosen says. "We have a very small staff at Working Wardrobes, but our volunteers are really here to do everything that needs to be done. There’s no way we could accomplish serving 5,000 men, women and young adults a year without volunteers. And as a matter of fact, about 2,000 volunteers work with us during the year."

Sharon Solomon of Costa Mesa is one of those volunteers. Solomon is a personal shopper. The Kansas native helps 23-year-old Sang Kim pick out a business wardrobe he otherwise couldn’t afford.

"For me, it is, it’s humbling because I’ve had members of my own family that could have used the same service in another state," says Solomon, as her voice cracks with emotion. "I’ve only lived in California a year and I’ve been volunteering here for a year. And I feel like I’m helping people here that I can’t help in my own state."

Solomon picks through rows of shoes. Some are new. Others, gently used.

Solomon says there’s a feeling of shopping in a department store. But she says it’s almost like a miracle when a shopper tries things on.

"You can see the transformation on their face," she says. "It’s like they come in in jeans and a T-shirt and they’re not sure what they’re doing in here. And they go out with a suit that fits — at least, sometimes they have to have the pants shortened — shirts, ties, belt everything to go with it. They just really feel better. And they feel more like going and applying for jobs."

Sang Kim asks Cristina Ahluwalia of Working Wardrobes which color of tie he should choose for his new suit. They lay the clothing over a rack, lining up various ties to see which looks best.

Ahluwalia says it’s all about making people feel good about themselves.

"Their confidence is like through the roof and they know they look good," she says. "So it gives them the confidence — they feel good. And it just — it’s a snowball effect."

Sang Kim takes a couple of ties over to mirror to try them on.

"It was kind of overwhelming at first, definitely," Kim says. "But, I mean, they have a great staff here. All the volunteers are great. I mean, anytime you can go somewhere and get something where it’s going to help, you know, your future, then it’s always great, right?"

Kim says someday, he hopes he’ll be able to give back to the organization.

Founder Jerri Rosen says Working Wardrobes is good not just for those who walk away with bags of clothes and new job skills.

"It’s also, I think, an extraordinary opportunity for volunteers to feel they have contributed and touched lives in a most significant way," she says. "And I think, when I look back over 20 years, it’s the volunteers who have been more moved and inspired than sometimes even the clients because you have a chance to see a life transformed just in a few hours"

Rosen says the number of volunteers has grown over the years, but so has the number of people who need Working Wardrobes to get working again.

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