Boutique offers clothing, training, hope

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Levina Johnson started a new job last Tuesday and she really needed something to wear.

With garments on the brain, Johnson — a slightly weathered, but sturdy-looking middle-aged woman — traveled to a brightly lit midtown Manhattan boutique in hopes of finding the outfit that would make her new boss’s eyes sparkle.

As she waded through the sea of separates, she gingerly selected tasteful pieces with high-end labels: DKNY, Versace and Max Mara. She tried on a black tailored blouse, pausing to ask if it looked too tight in the bust, and inspected herself in the full-length mirror. For a brief instant, she let a thin grin  spread across her face.

“I thinks it’s fine,” Johnson said. “I’m satisfied.”

Johnson left with her arms full of three suits, a burgundy dress, a pair of peep-toe heels, and a floral handbag. The cost to her: $0, courtesy of Bottomless Closet.

Bottomless Closet is a non-profit organization that helps disadvantaged women in New York and other cities with interview skills, career development and, most importantly, clothes.

After being referred to Bottomless Closet by another agency — one can only get in on referral — women are provided with two complete professional outfits from their gently used clothing racks. They are also given one-on-one career counseling and go through a mock interview before heading out into the job market.

“Lives get derailed and this is place where [our clients] can get back on track,” said Marian Rivman, PR director for Bottomless Closet.

Bottomless Closet has been aiding Manhattan women since 1999. Once a woman gets a job, she is eligible to come back to Bottomless Closet to select three more complete outfits. She also receives “points,” the currency of the organization, garnered by attending Bottomless Closet’s professional enrichment seminars. Each point is worth another article of clothing.

As such, they are of more value during the Recession. “That’s the advantage of being a decade old,” Rivman said. “This is a rooted non –profit within this community.”

The timing couldn’t have been better for Johnson. She lost her job a month ago when her brother’s furniture store lost their lease. She had been looking for other jobs since getting the news, and  was just hired as an undercover shopper in a department store.

Kendall Farrell, Executive Director of Bottomless Closet, has seen this story over and over again in recent months. She oversees the small staff of Bottomless Closet and  coordinates with the roughly 200 active volunteers.

Many of the volunteers are in the same position as many of the clients during the economic downturn.

“We’re definitely seeing more volunteers coming through the doors who maybe have been laid off and have a little bit of time on their hands,” Farrell said.

She said that many of the volunteers are in an economic bracket that they normally wouldn’t see.
One volunteer, who did not give her name, was recently laid off from the New York Daily News.

Bottomless Closet is also seeing less of the typical client.

“We thought that with the recession that we would be seeing more clients,” she said. “It turns out that because many companies have hiring freezes right now that people aren’t interviewing. Because many companies aren’t interviewing, we’re not getting as many referrals.”

That’s not to say that they aren’t still seeing clients. They catered to nearly 1,600 women in 2008 and they expect to serve the same amount this year.

“We’ve had an increase since we started,” Farrell said.

Before the Recession, Bottomless Closet catered largely to women on public assistance or with criminal histories.

“We’ve typically received referrals from job developers throughout the city from women that are on public assistance and going off of welfare and back into the workforce,” Rivman said.

Now they are seeing more referrals for educated women that have either been laid off or can’t find work.

“The diversity of the clients we see are really wide-range,” Farrell said. “We’ll have women coming in who have a college degree of higher. We also see women who’s education is less than high school.”

This is partially because companies are requesting more experience and a higher quality of applicants for those jobs they’re interviewing for. As a result, Bottomless Closet is looking to shift the way clients enter the program. They want to help women without job interviews — the first criteria needed to receive a reference to Bottomless Closet — work on the skills necessary to land an interview.

“With this new program it wouldn’t be women coming for clothing, but more for services on how to get a job,” Farrell said. “Clothing would be the incentive.”

As the recession continues, people are starting to get more conservative with their donations, which is how Bottomless Closet survives. But Farrell is optimistic. She’s seen people hard on their luck get jobs — they have a 40 percent job placement rate — soon after visiting the Bottomless Closet boutique, and she thinks that success will keep the agency active much longer.

“Just seeing the women that come in and really the transformation that they make,” Farrell said. “Literally within a half hour of having a volunteer dress them, they’ll flaunt themselves around the office. Their self-confidence is through the roof.”

Johnson proves her right. Back in one of the interview rooms, she is poring over her new wares — visibly excited, almost shaking with anticipation. Knowing about Bottomless Closet makes Johnson want to go to work.

“It makes you feel more secure,” she said. “You don’t have to worry about not having nothing.”

And Johnson thinks other people she knows could benefits from a trip to boutique.

“A lot of people, their whole excuse [to not work]  is ‘I don’t have nothing to wear,’” she said. “With this agency  You don’t have to worry about not having nothing. It’s good to have someone that goes to help you.”


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