“We treat every woman with dignity and give her a real chance at a better life,” says Laurel Spellman Smith, program director of the nonprofit.

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Jeanette walks out of Dress for Success Seattle with bags full of free work clothes, shoes, makeup and a handbag that would cost $275 at Nordstrom down the street.

A survivor of domestic abuse who’s living in a shelter, Jeanette, whose last name has been withheld, is among the 500 women the nonprofit aims to serve this year by providing free professional attire.

She previously held lower-wage food handling, delivery and construction jobs, but she now eagerly awaits starting her new job in retail, buoyed by the professional attire supplied by the nonprofit Dress for Success.

With the help of Dress for Success, Jeannette says she can see a path out of staying in contract jobs that just barely pay the bills, to “career jobs” with upward mobility.

Not being able to afford work attire can hold back women from getting jobs that could change their lives.

“It’s intimidating to go into job interviews when you don’t have the right clothes. Sometimes that was why I didn’t even apply,” Jeannette says, even when she was qualified for a job. “Coming from a low-income life, I didn’t know if I would fit in.”

April Burns, a Dress for Success volunteer who styled Jeanette, says the experience is often transformational for clients.

“These women need to be taken seriously and come into a safe, empowering space like this one,” Burns says. “We don’t just provide clothes, we give them the confidence to succeed at their jobs and lives.”

Although the Dress for Success affiliate in Seattle had been sponsored by YWCA since 2002, its future seemed uncertain last year — it was scheduled to lose its affiliation with and space at the YWCA’s downtown office. A dedicated, all-volunteer team tirelessly worked to save the organization.

“We registered as a separate 501(c)(3), wrote a business plan and negotiated a new lease with the YWCA,” says Laurel Spellman Smith, the current program director and president of the board of directors.

As a result, Dress for Success is slated to stay at its current location for now. It was quite a reprieve — its inventory fills up what was once the YWCA’s fitness area and swimming pool, and moving it would be a momentous task.
Spellman Smith, a documentary filmmaker and volunteer, stepped up to take charge when she learned of the organization’s imminent demise late last year.

“It was unacceptable to me to hear Dress for Success Seattle would shut down,” she says. “We treat every woman with dignity and give her a real chance at a better life.”

“Everyone judges people in their first impression. You’re already at a disadvantage without the right clothes and confidence,” Spellman Smith says. “We’re just leveling the playing field so all deserving women get a chance.”

The nonprofit dresses women of all shapes and sizes. “We’ve had clients who are a double extra-small, right up to 6-feet-tall transgendered women. There’s literally something for everyone here,” she says.

The team of 20 core volunteers now aim to keep growing the program to serve more women. While helping clients and organizing stacks of donated wardrobes, they are also fundraising.

After raising $70,000 this year, the team is finally able to hire its first full-time staff member, who will be joining the organization later this year.

“When I took over the program in February, I never imagined I would still be doing this nearly nine months later. But we really need help,” says Spellman Smith.

The team hopes to learn best practices from Dress for Success Oregon, one of the most successful affiliates of the program. That group raises over $1 million in donations every year, according to Spellman Smith.

Despite having no nonprofit experience and facing an uphill battle to “keep the lights on,” Spellman Smith says she remains motivated by client success stories.

“One client was an out-of-work jazz singer. She literally only started getting gigs after coming to Dress for Success, because she got the right clothes to accompany her beautiful voice,” she says. “Since that time, I’ve always kept a section with glittery clothes.”

Spellman Smith urges Seattleites to donate money and continue referring women to the program: “The growing wealth disparity in Seattle has made our existence even more necessary now than ever before,” she says.