The Suit Works has been helping unemployed men of all ages trying to get into work with styling sessions and smart clothing since 2016. Jill Theobald took a tour of the new Kelham Island HQ and found out about the newly launched women’s service She Works
It’s quite ironic to be writing the success story of a Sheffield organisation which provides unemployed people with interview-appropriate clothing which was set up by its founder because they were … sick of job interviews.
But that’s exactly what happened with image consultant Vanda Kewley and her passion project which became The Suit Works.
“I originally set out to get a job that I enjoyed, was passionate about and, after being made redundant three times, meant no more job interviews!”
Instead of getting a job, Vanda created one via her Charitable Incorporated Organisation, supporting unemployed people of all ages who are trying to get into work by giving them a styling session and smart clothing when they have the offer of a job interview but do not have, or are unable to afford to buy, anything suitable.
“When you are doing something you believe in and are passionate about, it’s easy to commit to it. You don’t even have to think about selling yourself – it has integrity and people enthuse about it. It’s a really simple business model.”
That model was inspired by Vanda’s time volunteering for and working with Dr Maria Lenn who founded Suited and Booted in London – “I was blown away by the model and surprised more people weren’t doing it.”
Trained as an image consultant, Vanda had also worked in ‘lots and lots’ of charities over the years and held various admin, governance and finance roles.
“All those skills built up from those jobs came together to help me do something I was excited about and a role that gave me pleasure.
“I was on Enterprise Allowance and Housing Benefit but I started off with 25 suits, half a dozen shirts and four pairs of shoes and thanks to the good will of friends and colleagues and the people of Sheffield thinking it was a great project it grew and grew from there, building up a client base.”
People did indeed think it was a great project – Vanda pitched The Suit Works at Sheffield Soup, a crowdfunding event run by former unLTD cover star Pennie Raven which supports local people and businesses making a difference in the community, and won.
The Suit Works had a small pot of funding from unLtd (no relation!) Social Entrepreneur Foundation before attracting the attention of Sheffield City Council.
“I was lucky as the Council decided they liked I was doing and gave me a pilot project for a year which enabled me to pay myself a bit of a salary and get a little unit in Kelham Island, I networked my arse off and from that speck of an idea the ball really started rolling.”
As grants and funding followed Vanda was able to take someone on to help one day a week and build a small team of volunteers.
In the first year she styled 77 clients, 120 in the second and has seen growth of 20 per cent a year through referrals from the Job Centre, charities and support organisations.
Donations come from ‘suit drives’ at companies across the Sheffield City Region and nationally – Lloyds Bank run an annual event.
“But every meeting I went to people were asking me why I wasn’t helping women, too. Mostly my experience was styling men, though, and I knew that offering the service to women would need more resources, more staff, more infrastructure, bigger premises…”
Which is where The Suit Works’ new project lead Faye Mellors steps in. Faye is leading on the newly launched She Works service for women from their new bigger HQ in Kelham Island.
“It’s really exciting to be developing this side of the project,” said Faye. “As someone new to the social enterprise and charitable sector it’s amazing how well-connected Vanda is which is great for me as the new girl – it’s like working with a local celebrity!
“I love working with the clients, too. You get young lads come in who are used to wearing skinny jeans.”
“Or faded tracksuit bottoms!” says Vanda.
“And to be able to put them in a suit – first off they’re like ‘It’s a big baggy!’ Then Vanda styles them and gets them looking in the mirror at themselves in a fitted suit and they see the tailoring and they say: ‘I look like James Bond!’
“It’s all about the mindset – giving them more confidence.”
“Some of the young people who come in are vulnerable or NEETs (young people not in education, employment or training), or just don’t have any interview-appropriate clothing,” says Vanda. “Putting on a suit or smart clothing has a real impact. It enables them to have more self-respect and hold themselves better in interviews – and employers pick up on that.
“They say ‘I’m going to get that job’.”
And plenty do, judging by the testimonials on the website.
Supported by her team of trustees – Chair Alex Swallow, Cheryl Plant, Jan Harwood and Steve Ellwood – Vanda looks set to continue helping people dress to impress and get their dream jobs.
“It’s about creating a legacy,” she says. “I love Sheffield and it’s about building something for the city.”