Birmingham & Black Country

Smart Works: 'A free designer suit changed my life'

Saarah with her Burberry suit
Image caption When Saarah tried on the Burberry suit she was told, "if you feel good in it, it's yours"

Going for an interview can be a daunting experience, especially after a period of unemployment. Two women explain how being given free designer clothes by a charity championed by the Duchess of Sussex helped them get new jobs.

Saarah, 24, Solihull, West Midlands

I've always wanted to be an air hostess. I was over the moon when I got an interview but when the letter said I had to wear a pencil skirt and a white shirt I panicked.

I didn't have them and I didn't have the money to buy them. The man at the Job Centre said you can go to Smart Works and they give you interview clothes.

I thought it was going to be embarrassing. I'm the kind of person who never asks for help. Clothes are a big thing for a girl and it felt awful having to ask for them.

I was really nervous when I got there, I just wanted to get the clothes and go home.

Image caption Saarah says the right clothes can make us feel so confident and better about ourselves

Hanna really took the time to get to know me and find outfits that fit my personality. I couldn't believe it when she came back with this Burberry pencil skirt and matching blazer. It was the perfect size.

I looked at myself in the mirror I felt like a millionaire. She said: "If you feel good in it, then it's yours."

I had a huge smile on my face, I couldn't believe it - who gets a Burberry suit?! In that moment I felt like I had two lives, the one before and the one now.

I don't remember much about my childhood at all, it was a blur. My parents' relationship problems meant I didn't want to be at home. It affected my mental health so much that I didn't want to be at school either. I would hide in the toilets for hours until I could leave.

At night I was sleeping in the entrance of hotels, train stations and public toilets. I left school with no GCSEs and was taken into Solihull Children's Services. They put me in a hostel and then a shared house until I turned 18 and I got my own place.

I did so many jobs - cleaning, factory work, waitressing, sales, bakery, stewarding, hairdressing, bar staff. I also did a media apprenticeship. Most of the time I was working, I wasn't well enough to.

Image caption Once they are successful at interview, clients receive a capsule wardrobe to help them to start their role

[Then] I was out of work for over a year and I never thought I would be in this position. My social worker told me I needed to see a therapist to help me get my life back on track.

As I started to feel better I was desperate to get back into work and start chasing my dreams. That's how I came to Smart Works.

The right clothes can make us feel so confident and better about ourselves. They helped me a lot in the interview process, I wrote down everything they said and took it onboard.

When it came to the interview it went really well. I'm waiting to hear back but in the meantime I've got a job as a receptionist at a treatment rooms.

It's really calming and fun. I think it's going to help me to achieve my dream of becoming cabin crew because the job is customer-based.

I think there are so many girls who are in worse situations than me. I want to be a role model to other girls. I would tell them not to be afraid to ask for help.


What is Smart Works?

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Meghan styled women during a visit in her role as royal patron of Smart Works
  • Smart Works is a charity that provides free clothing and interview training to unemployed women in need
  • Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, became the charity's royal patron and recently styled women during one of her first solo patronages
  • It was launched in London in 2013 and has grown, with centres in Reading, Greater Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle, Leeds and Edinburgh
  • Women are referred to Smart Works by agencies like Job Centre Plus
  • Once they are successful at interview, clients receive a capsule wardrobe to help them to start their role
  • Clothes are donated by individuals and brands like Burberry, Hobbs, Whistles, Joseph and Marks & Spencer

Caroline, 37, Birmingham

Image caption Caroline said it was like shopping with her sister

I was a hairdresser and I was going through a really rough time and I knew I needed a change. I had been in the same salon for 14 years. I should have left years ago but you're a creature of habit - you have to break free.

I'd gone to the Job Centre and got an interview for a course to become a carer and they told me about Smart Works.

The last time I went for a job interview was 14 years ago so it was a little bit nerve-wracking. I thought, what the hell do I wear? You want to look professional but you don't want to look like your mum.

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At Smart Works they make you feel so welcome. They gave me a coffee and biscuits and were talking to me like they've known me for years. I'm not used to being treated this nice.

There's something really special about women helping women. I'm usually quite self-conscious but it was like shopping with my sister. I was walking around in my pants.

The dress I've got is Marks & Spencer and the bag is Osprey. I love it. As a normal person, living in a house share, getting the wages I get, I would never have been able to afford something like this. My other dresses are from charity shops.

Image caption Smartworks volunteer Shirley Jones picked out clothes for Caroline to try on

We worked on my interview skills. She told me not to speak so fast, or be nervous making eye contact, and she said "don't twiddle with your hands".

Everything she was saying I was writing down. When I went home that night I read through it. I did the interview and aptitude tests and [started] the four-week intensive course.

Now I'm a healthcare assistant at nursing homes and residential homes all over Birmingham. I'm a lot happier now. I've got my life back. I work 40 hours a week but it's flexible.

I sent [Smart Works volunteer] Cheryl a picture of me in my work uniform, like: "Look at me. I'm in my work top".

Smart Works made me feel wonderful. I would never have picked the dress out for myself but for someone to say "this suits you", it's lovely. It made me feel like I am worth being helped out.

As told to Jennifer Meierhans

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