Helping vulnerable men into employment

When it comes to dressing appropriately for a job interview, we all want to look smart, polished and well put together. All men (depending on the job itself) will reach for their beloved suit. The one they wear to a wedding, a funeral or even that Christmas ball they dread every year, but most importantly for that job interview which might just change their life.

Suited and Booted are a charity who are doing just that; changing lives through the power of the suit.

Maria Lenn is the chief executive of the charity, from a brief conversation over the phone it didn’t take long for me to recognise her caring streak, she had this sense of warmness which made our conversation flow. Lenn immediately struck me as a woman who clearly has a passion for helping and caring for others, which explains why she wanted to start something like Suited and Booted.

From having a PhD in politics and dabbling in journalism, she always had a feeling that she was missing something in her life, that she could be doing more: “I’ve always liked helping people and when the opportunity positioned itself that there was a need for a charity that dresses men, I soon set up Suited and Booted as a project and experimented.”

It didn’t take long for her to experience the big demand that came with providing vulnerable men with clothing which has helped many get their lives back on track. The charity first opened its doors back in 2012; “I think we probably saw 800 clients come through the doors that year, now we see 2,000 clients. It could be 40 to 50 clients in a week and 10 to 12 every day, so as you can see we are immensely busy.

“If you haven’t got the correct clothes for a job interview you are extremely disadvantaged, you’re not going to shine, you’re not going to make an impression and people do judge you by impression. If you can walk in the door of a job interview feeling a million dollars, it’s going to make all the difference in the world to your chances of success.”

The charity works closely alongside the London probation service, the NHS and Jobcentre Plus who refer their clients to Suited and Booted where Maria and her volunteers can then help to style them ready for the job world. These men can come from a variety of different backgrounds, the majority are ex-prisoners, military veterans or men recovering from mental health issues, addiction and homelessness.

One of the clients, Wesley, fitted in his suit [Suited and Booted]

When starting a charity or a business, you are always to going to face some challenges, for Maria it was not all the paperwork but it was the circumstances that came with being a new charity on the block.

“We started working in really difficult conditions, we were first set up in a church called St Andrews by The Wardrobe, you really couldn’t make that name up,” she laughs. “It was at the top of St Andrews Hill not far from Blackfriars. The conditions weren’t very good at all, it was very dark and we often had to use a torch to check the correct colours of the suits, also it was such a bitterly cold building. Even though it was difficult at the time it is what helped get us started after all.”

Suited and Booted is now located in the City of London behind Liverpool Street station which is a great central location for their clients and their volunteers. The charity relies solely on donations of suits for their clients. These donations often come from clothing collections from banks and law firms in the areas around the City of London and Canary Wharf, this support helps to provide a variety of different styles of suit and formal wear which fits all different shapes and sizes.

Having a business that relies so heavily on donations is great, but it can also have its drawbacks to what products they have coming through the door. Even though they receive a good amount of basic suits, Maria did make it clear to me that they lack a few crucial elements which can help with completing the overall look, such as shoes, cufflinks and smart warm overcoats for interviews that take place in the winter. “We also have our young Suited and Booted project where we have very few slimmer fitting suits for our younger clients. Many of the suits we have make them look like little birds flapping around because they’re all too big,” Maria chuckles.

The charity doesn’t only provide the appropriate clothing for a job interview, they provide an experience that they hope the men are going to remember positively and take with them. Maria recalls past comments from clients who reminisce about the handful of biscuits and cakes provided for them as well as tea and coffee.

Their main aim as a charity is to not only have the client leaving with an excellent suit and the confidence to get a job, they want to create an experience where people feel comfortable, supported and valued all within a friendly environment.

Just by simply talking to people and listening to them open up, it can make all the difference to a person’s confidence. “I call it styling a life. Talking to clients, asking them about their jobs, you know a lot goes on over the rail talking to people about what their hopes are for the future,” Maria adds.

Elliott Barrowcliffe has been volunteering at the charity for the past two years; he first heard of Suited and Booted when Maria came to his university and gave a lecture, after which he felt really humbled by the work she and her team were doing so decided to work on a project with them.

“After my experience from those three weeks [of working on the project], I had been completely sold on every aspect of the organisation. The volunteers worked tirelessly to help prepare and style these men into any job necessary, and always with a smile on their face, which I think for a lot of these men, is the most important part.”

Elliot ran through his normal day in the life as a volunteer at the charity, it included jobs like sorting through all the stock that has been sent, quality checking [the stock], steaming and putting the clothes ready on the rails. While this was going on, other volunteers would help with styling clients, as well as tailoring suits and offering them interview advice and assisting them with anything they need.

“The thing that I enjoy the most is the memory of the clients when they come in, compared to when they leave. It’s really sad to say, but for a lot of them I think it makes them feel like they exist. It makes them feel like they have an importance; which they absolutely do. The suit gives them that confidence.”

Group of people posing together for a picture

Maria (third from the left) and her volunteers [Suited & Booted]

Once the men have found the right suit for them, it is theirs to keep and use in the future. Something that pleasantly surprised me was that when the client gets a job they are more than welcome to return to Suited and Booted to get a ‘capsule’ wardrobe as well. The charity are not just catering for the interview process itself but are helping in the process afterwards while their clients adjust to their new work life.

These are men who are not bound to own the correct clothing for a day to day job, especially in an office environment, so the charity helps supply them with that as well. “They can come back for a few more shirts, another suit or even ties, if you have been out of work for a long time and you have been struggling, it helps to take the pressure off to know you have the right clothes in your wardrobe.”

When asking Maria how it truly feels to help people in need she told me: “It’s a wonderful feeling [helping people]. It is helping someone change their life around, helping someone get out there and get a job and become economically independent which is very important, to feel different about themselves and have their self-esteem restored and feel confident about the future. It’s a great feeling of joy knowing that you can help to change someone’s life.”

Maria is the one to thank for the success of Suited and Booted; she has created an organisation which allows her to help people in need, something she has always aspired to do. From starting out in a dingy church hall to having the perfect space near Liverpool Street station, her constant passion and positivity is what has kept it running smoothly.

Elliot reminisces about one of his favourite memories, that in his words, “sums up the brilliance of Maria: We had just left Suited and Booted and were on our way to a fundraiser for a pub quiz, we had lots of bags and were looking to hail a taxi. We were walking just near Liverpool St Station past the busy roads keeping an eye out, having absolutely no luck. We’d got to the big roads just next to Sushisamba on Bishopgate, when Maria spotted one across the road. In high heels and flooded traffic, she had managed to sprint across the crossroad, hail the taxi, and get all of her bags in before we even knew she’d left our side. Once myself and Darren [another volunteer] had got in, she turned to us and said ‘Darlings, it’s not my first rodeo’.”

 

 

 

If you would like to donate to the charity or become a volunteer please email:  info@suitedbootedcentre.org.uk


Featured image by M0851 on Unsplash.

Edited by Hiba Hassan & Emma Jepson.