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From cardboard box to tailored suit

Danny, one of the volunteers at Suited and Booted

On a cold autumn morning on the outskirts of London, a young man wakes up on his cardboard box. Today is a big day for him. Leaving the cardboard box behind in the spot he temporarily called home, the young man picks himself up and walks two hours into the City of London, to St. Andrew’s Hill. It’s been a long time since he has been able to afford the bus fare. His two-hour walk this particular morning has one sole purpose: a suit and tie. Seemingly trivial, but for thousands of unemployed Londoners a suit and a tie can be life-changing. 

Towards the end of 2014, the unemployment rates in the UK dropped by 58,000 to 1.91 million, according to the Office for National Statistics.  Along with this decrease, charity organisations targeting unemployment are being established all over London.

Based in Blackfriars, the organisation Suited and Booted figures as a small, but crucial drop in the ocean of charity organisations. “We are a very small organisation, but it would be nice to think that we have helped in some way,” founder Maria Lenn says on the decrease in unemployment rates. 

Lenn started the organisation based on what she calls an “entrepreneurial spirit”, a desire to start something from scratch. She abandoned her finished PhD in politics in order to explore her options and establish a charity helping vulnerable men in London prepare for job interviews, quite simply by “looking the part”.

“I had noticed that there already was an offer in London for women, Smart Works, so there was an obvious need for the same kind of offer for men,” Lenn explains. Since the start-up in 2012 the organisation has grown substantially, with 2,000 men going through the fitting rooms of Suited and Booted in 2014. The amount of staff however has remained at one. “We have one phone, one laptop, and me. Thankfully we have volunteers,” she explains, admitting that it is a challenge. “We are helping people develop their lives, with one-to-one attention.” 

Maria Lenn, of Suited and Booted
Maria Lenn, of Suited and Booted

This attention begins with a client being fitted for a suit, along with a shirt, tie and cufflinks – everything to create a look suitable for a job interview. Lenn describes the transformation she sees in her clients as astonishing. “When they look in the mirror wearing a new suit, they completely change. They say things like, I could run a company now,” she says. She explains that a new suit is not just about looking good, but about building confidence. 

Victoria Tischler, a senior lecturer in psychology at London College of Fashion, refers to a recent study when explaining how clothing affects a first impression at a job interview. She explains that the study indicated that individuals wearing bespoke suits were perceived as more successful and confident than individuals wearing off-the-rack suits.

“What we wear impacts our behaviour and attitude. Feeling the garments on our skin can influence how confident we seem,” she says. In the first few seconds of a job interview, during the initial ‘hello’ and handshake, the interviewer makes his judgement of the interviewee rapidly. “The right clothing will definitely influence how the interviewers rate their interviewees,” Tischler says.

The right suit and the confidence it provides can in fact be the difference between unemployment and a new job. It can be the difference between waking up on a cardboard box, and in a proper home.

Maria Lenn remembers an e-mail she received in the middle of January, from one of her clients, a true success-story. “He thanked me for what we do, saying that his experience made a strong impression. He said he felt pampered, like a celebrity.” Lenn takes a brief pause before continuing. “That is what it’s all about, how we make our clients feel”, she says.

Suited and Booted, and their success stories, are not unique in their form. In Islington, St. Luke’s Community Centre has created its own project to help the unemployed.

John Garces, Business Engagement Manager at the centre, describes unemployment as their most important and pressing issue. In Islington alone, 40.000 people are economically inactive, as the recent report by the Islington Employment Commission shows. John Garces finds that many of these people want to work, but lack the confidence to apply for jobs. “People come to us asking for help, saying that they don’t have a clue how to get started,” he says. 

Job Club
Job Club: a volunteer with a client at St. Lukes Community Centre

With their ‘Job Club’, the centre helps local unemployed men and women build CVs and prepare for job interviews both by dressing and advising them. Just as with Maria Lenn’s clients, confidence is key. “Being out of the work discipline for years and suddenly having to face a job interview can be very intimidating. The things we help them with might seem simple to us, but are a big issue for them. The largest impact that we see is in the confidence they build,” Garces says.  

During 2014, St. Luke’s Community Centre helped 117 local men and women gain some sort of momentum within the work force. 24 people achieved secure employment, 14 people gained work experience, 45 people have attended job interviews and 28 have gone through training to improve their skills. 

The 117 people that received help last year might have left Garces and his only colleague, Jane Spong, slightly exhausted, but ultimately grateful. “They are human beings who are in need of a better life, and although it’s just our job it does give a personal satisfaction.”

For the man who left his cardboard box and walked two hours to prepare for a job interview, a single suit and a bit of confidence turned out to be life-changing (he did not want his name to be used in this article). Now Maria Lenn is looking to expand the charity. “I’d like to develop establishments all over London, wherever it’s necessary, but we must continue to offer one-to-one attention to our clients, as this is a vital part of building up their confidence.”

St Luke's Business Engagement Team
St Luke’s Business Engagement team: Jane Spong and John Garces

Written by Julie Moon

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