Reinventing Wardrobes and Résumés: An Afternoon at Bottomless Closet
December 21, 2018 | Filed in: Your Brain
MM.LaFleur and Bottomless closet have a special relationship: The organization, founded in 1999 to serve disadvantaged New York City women in need of assistance with finding a job, coaches women on their résumés, assists with interview prep, and provides them with professional clothing to wear to those interviews. Each year, MM.LaFleur donates clothing to their boutique and encourages customers to do the same—a partnership that will continue in 2019 (keep an eye on your inbox!). Recently, we paid a visit to their offices to see their work in action.
When you walk into the Bottomless Closet office in Midtown Manhattan, your overwhelming first impression is one of unceasing activity. Volunteers and employees scurry between the boutique, the area where volunteers work with women on résumés and interview coaching, and the organization’s office. There is hardly a break between appointments—save for the occasional appearance of a client returning to ring a bell that indicates that she got a job.
Since its founding, Bottomless Closet has understood that there’s more to getting hired than filling out an application: your résumé, interview skills, and, of course, what you wear all make an impact. And while all appointments at Bottomless Closet start with outfitting a client, that’s only the beginning.
Melissa Norden, Bottomless Closet’s executive director, moves around the office greeting volunteers, clients, and explaining what everything is and how it works. In order to identify women who need these services, “We work with about 125 agencies across the five boroughs,” she says. A client’s first visit has her leaving with two outfits (the second to wear for a callback interview—an important detail that shows the level of care the organization puts into considering clients’ needs).
The boutique is where everything starts, with garments (dresses, blazers, skirts and slacks) arranged for clients to try on with help from volunteer stylists. The organization aims to have a variety of garments on hand, with sizing that’s as inclusive as possible. “We also try to set aside some more [gender neutral] clothing, Norden says, “because we work with a growing population from the transgender community.”
The appointments’ deliberate structure allows clients and volunteers to build a rapport during the styling session, and then transition to résumé writing and interview coaching, which happens in a classroom-like space connected to the boutique. There, volunteers counsel clients on topics like how to talk about a long period of unemployment, or how to best present their strengths. Many of the volunteers are retired from careers in human resources or recruitment, and have decades of experience with both interviewees and hiring managers.
The volunteers are as enthusiastic about the organization as the staff. Anne Blackman, now the chair of Bottomless Closet’s Board of Directors, had a long career in the corporate world specializing in benefits and human resources, and has been volunteering with the organization for nearly a decade.
“A friend of mine who was on the board of Bottomless Closet approached me and asked if I’d like to do an evening workshop to familiarize clients with benefits packages, as so many of our clients are new to employment and haven’t been faced with those decisions before,” she says. “I found the clients so inspiring, and the questions so interesting and relevant, that I did that workshop several times—and by then I was hooked.”
Hope Roberts, a fellow volunteer stylist, began volunteering with Bottomless Closet after retiring from a career as an executive recruiter. “I’ve told [Norden] many times: ‘Bottomless Closet saved me,'” she says. “It’s been heartwarming [to volunteer here]. At an older age, you don’t think you’re going to make new friends, but I have made some of the most incredible friends here—and we laugh together and cry together and tell our stories.”
The volunteers’ enthusiasm and commitment is reflected in the care and time that they put into both the styling and coaching aspects of each appointment. “Being an executive recruiter [for Fortune 500 companies], I have [worked on] thousands and thousands of résumés,” Roberts says—and she now brings those years of expertise to her clients. Blackman is also enthusiastic about coaching.
“I think my strength when I meet with a client is the résumé,” she says. “Sometimes I have clients who haven’t had traditional careers, and they don’t understand the worth and the value of the life experience that they’ve had, and how that can translate to a résumé. For me, it’s really interesting to chat one on one with the client, and when you have that conversation, you can see their self-confidence immediately increasing.”
Though the clients face serious challenges—including being formerly incarcerated, dealing with homelessness, or fleeing domestic violence—Bottomless Closet is both a refuge and a resource. And it offers much more than appointments: volunteers also host workshops for clients on subjects like personal finance, with the aim of giving them the life skills to succeed once they’ve aced their interviews. Norden sums up the goal like this: “Keeping the job, staying at the job, transitioning smoothly.”
As they grow, they’ve continued to get assistance from other like-minded companies, including MM.LaFleur, which has enabled them to expand their offering. “[Before MM], we had hardly any dresses,” Norden explains. This year alone, they’ve served nearly 2400 women—though if you count repeat visits, the number climbs close to 3500. Next year, they hope it only goes up.
In January 2019, MM.LaFleur cordially invites you to start the year off right by cleaning out your closet—and sending those donations to Bottomless Closet. Keep an eye on your inbox for more details in the new year.
Photographs by Landon Speers.