photo by Kelly Davidson
Dress For Success
NANCY SCHNEIDER AND Enith Levine's clothing boutique, Dress for Success, in Roslindale, is as inviting as
any upscale women's fashion emporium. Designer clothes are neatly displayed, interspersed with tastefully
appointed chairs and mirrors arranged for comfort. Schneider, a former social worker and self-described
clothing maven, and Levine, an architect and interior decorator, stand at the ready, eager to suggest a
pair of brown shoes to match a linen suit and to put finishing touches - a bag, scarf, or piece of
jewelry - on an outfit.
But Dress for Success's customers walk out the door with more than just a new or updated look. They walk
out with outfits that may change their lives.
The boutique's clientele are single mothers, recovering drug addicts, women who've left abusive relationships,
women getting off welfare - all in the process of transitioning from career-training programs into the
workplace. They are referred to Dress for Success by certified job-training programs. Each woman who walks
into the store for a free outfit has completed her job training and is about to go on an interview, in many
cases her first in years.
"The women have done the work and made the commitment," says Schneider. "They just need the final piece of
the puzzle - the suit. All the training skills in the world don't matter if you show up for an interview in
Since it opened in July, Dress for Success, one of 72 Dress for Success franchises worldwide and the only
one in Greater Boston, has served about 30 women. The boutique provides everything from undergarments and
hose to handbags and jewelry. Dress for Success is no thrift shop: DKNY, Liz Claiborne, and Elie Tahari are
just some of the upscale designers whose styles for professional women adorn the store's racks, each item
donated by individuals, social-service agencies, or retail chains such as Talbots or Dockers. The boutique's
costs are covered by corporate and individual donations, and grants.
Schneider recalls one of Dress for Success's first clients, a woman who had been through a series of halfway
houses and shelters for battered women. "She'd arrived in Boston with only the clothes on her back," says
Schneider. "She had a Master's degree, and she was interviewing for a mid-level position in social work.
We dressed her in a black suit with a red scarf. When she stood in front of the mirror and looked at
herself, her eyes filled up. And ours did too. She had the ability, now she looked the part."
The woman, Schneider adds, got the job.
That's where Dress for Success's own role expands. If a woman is hired for a job, she returns to the boutique
for outfits that will get her through at least the first few weeks of work. A business suit is appropriate
for a job interview, whether the job is in computer programming or health care, say Schneider and Levine. But
Dress for Success dresses women with additional clothes - whether professional attire or more casual
ensembles - to fit the job. It's also not uncommon for Levine and Schneider - themselves veterans of the job
market and the field of social work - to do a bit of professional coaching while dispensing fashion advice.
The Dress for Success concept is the brainchild of Nancy Lublin, who opened the first boutique in New York
in 1996, funded with a small family inheritance. In six years, Dress for Success franchises have opened
across the United States and in London, Australia, and Canada. In Massachusetts, there are Dress for Success
branches in Springfield and Fall River. Partnering with social-service agencies and job-training centers
gives Dress for Success the credentials to attract corporate donors; the store's mission is to target
women who've proven themselves committed to a life change.
The biggest obstacle, Schneider and Levine say, is the same one that plagues many women who shop for
designer clothing in malls and boutiques everywhere: not enough plus sizes. Dress for Success seeks donations
of clothing sizes 16 and up, and hopes to create a separate fund for the purchase of larger-size apparel.
Schneider and Levine make no apologies for being picky: they want only clean, gently used, or new clothing
that's in style and in season. Their customers, after all, are looking for nothing less than a transformation.
Dress for Success, at 20 Birch Street, in Roslindale, is open Monday through Thursday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Call (617) 323-7544 or visit www.dressforsuccess.org.
- Loren King