Meet the women elevating New Zealand's job industry one outfit at a time

Jo Prendergast has been a volunteer stylist at Dress For Success Christchurch since 2009.
Stacy Squires

Jo Prendergast has been a volunteer stylist at Dress For Success Christchurch since 2009.

In September 2010, the first of the two major Canterbury earthquakes caused the local branch of not-for-profit Dress For Success to evacuate their Manchester St location.

"We had to shift out into another building," recalls Dress For Success volunteer Jo Prendergast.

"Then we had just shifted back in on the Saturday before the February 2011 earthquake, had spent the week moving everything back in and cleaning it from top to bottom, we were so excited to get back in.

Dress For Success Christchurch volunteer Jo Prendergast puts in between five hours and two days each week and says it's ...
Stacy Squires

Dress For Success Christchurch volunteer Jo Prendergast puts in between five hours and two days each week and says it's as rewarding for her as those she helps.

"We opened the doors on Monday and the earthquake happened on Tuesday.

"It was a bit of a scramble to find another premises, but finally we were fortunate enough to get where we are at the moment."

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Prendergast took some time off after the February earthquake, but says more than six years on, the effects are still being felt and seen.

"Definitely some of the women that come in have been very affected by the earthquakes, their housing situations, insurance, things like that. It has definitely been harder, but it's still getting better."

Dress For Success, which has affiliates around the country and world, says it "empowers women to achieve economic independence by providing a network of support, professional attire and the development tools to help women thrive in work and in life".

Prendergast has been a volunteer since 2009.

"I had some time on my hands and in a previous job I did work with women who were looking to go back into the workforce. When I read about Dress For Success I thought, my gosh, that would have been perfect for them because often it was, 'what do I wear?', especially people on lower incomes, that just don't have the money.

"And I knew from when I was at home with children and going back to work, you don't have that work-appropriate clothing – and it's also sometimes just somebody to guide you."

Whangarei mayor Sheryl Mai with Dress for Success New Zealand-Australia regional director Sue Lewis-O'Halloran during ...

Whangarei mayor Sheryl Mai with Dress for Success New Zealand-Australia regional director Sue Lewis-O'Halloran during the official opening of Dress for Success Northland's offices.

So she took up a guiding role as a Dress For Success personal stylist or "dresser".

"The most important thing we do of course is the dressing of the women," Prendergast says.

"First of all when we meet them, we have a chat, to make them feel comfortable and get to know them a bit, what they like and don't like in the way of clothing. Then we take them through into what we call our showroom and our dressing room and dress them from top to toe.

"We do a complete outfit for them, including shoes, a handbag, accessories, jewellery, sometimes underwear, and if they are interested, makeup too.

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"It's all about listening to them and trying to read how they're feeling and watching their expressions, and you know when you've got it right and they're feeling good because their facials expressions will change, but also they just seem to grow taller.

"And when we get it really right like that, you just start to see the confidence ooze out of them, which is really rewarding, and we often get hugs and tears."

Prendergast says it doesn't happen with every person - "sometimes they're not in the right space" - but when it does it's equally uplifting for the volunteers.

"When they leave they say thank you, thank you so much.​ But I'm like, no, thank you, for letting me be a part of that as well. It gives you the warm fuzzies.

"We are perhaps in a small way helping them to change their lives and the lives of their families by just giving them that boost and the confidence to get out there."

One such life changed for the better by Dress For Success is that of Eseta Nicholls.

After her formerly healthy husband was suddenly diagnosed with motor neuron disease, Nicholls left her job to care for him.

"We were told six months and that turned into 10 years," she says.

"Within that time I was just used to wearing track pants and t-shirts, so after that ten years it was about getting back into the workforce and actually knowing what it was like out in the world. I had a friend who was a volunteer at Dress For Success who suggested I try it.

"I hadn't heard of them, but going to them was the best experience, still, I've ever had, and I just came out feeling like a million dollars," says Nicholls.

"I didn't come away with one outfit, I must have come away with half a wardrobe, and was treated like a VIP. I was just blown away it even existed, and it did a lot for my confidence.

"I ended up getting the job, and a year or two after that I wanted to give back and saw an opportunity as a volunteer, so I did that, and then two or three years after that I also sat on the board."

After serving three terms on the Dress For Success board, Nicholls has continued volunteering "behind the scenes" as well as becoming a public spokesperson for the organisation.

"What I like about it is it's a hand up, and it not only helps us women on the outside but also inside.

"And it helps women from all walks of life - we can all fall into hard times or circumstances and be vulnerable, and Dress For Success caters for all women.

"I've worked with some fantastic women, I no longer feel vulnerable, I've learned so much that's helped me in my own career and in terms of attitude and knowing whatever we're going through someone else is less fortunate. You never know what's behind the way people present themselves, just on first impressions."

Sue Lewis-O'Halloran agrees that Dress For Success is a pretty amazing organisation.

She's worked there since 2009, first running the Auckland branch and then as the regional director for Australia and New Zealand.

"When I started the role, there were no Australian branches, so my job was to open it up, which we've done, so we now have six affiliates in Australia and seven in New Zealand," she says

"It's pretty amazing, we're a very fast-growing charity. And we're now doing so much more than just preparing people for job interviews, we're much more of a transformational wrap-around service than we were then.

"So the clothes are now only about 25 per cent of what we do, we're also helping the women keep the jobs, and that's the key to their future because if we can get a woman to stay employed for a year, she's not going to likely go back on a benefit, she's not going to slip back into that multigenerational social welfare mindset."

But Lewis-O'Halloran says the part they're best known for - outfitting and empowering women - is still crucial.

"That's the very first step, because they have to come in the door, and they are often completely lacking in confidence, beaten down, sometimes literally.

"Nobody's ever really given them a leg up, and our job is to restore their confidence and start them on that journey."

After eight years at Dress For Success, Lewis-O'Halloran is set to step down from her current role, but says she will always be in the not-for-profit sector.

"I think if you're in you're in, it's a pretty exciting place to be, it's always changing and there's always challenges, and if you make a difference, why wouldn't you work there?

"I will still do some work with Dress For Success, but I need to move on since I've been in the role since 2009, and as much as I love it I think it's somebody else's turn.

"I've achieved what I wanted, which was to grow the affiliates in both countries and I'm really really happy with how that has gone.

"My passion will never diminish, it's a wonderful place to work, that's why I'll always have some connection to it, and I'm really excited that we've got this far, but there's still a long way to go."

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