“Smart Works gives women that first fundamental piece of confidence in knowing that they look the part and deserve the job,” says Jan Iceton, Chair of Greater Manchester Smart Works, a charity that supports women with job interviews by providing workwear and interview training.

“In normal circumstances, we provide a two hour appointment. The first hour is a dressing appointment where two stylists dress a client - it’s an experience of being with really empathetic women who know how to care for and to uplift a woman,” says Jan. “The second hour is a one-to-one coaching service to help them anticipate the questions that might come up in the interview. They cover the skills and competencies they have despite being unemployed for five years or what they've learnt having been in prison and how they’re on a path to a different type of life.”

Since the Greater Manchester centre opened in 2015, the team and volunteers have delivered 2,250 appointments. Clients range from 18 up to 65, each referred by a Smart Works partner, such as Job Centre Plus, Housing Associations, or HM Prison Service.

In the last year, 88% of women who came to Smart Works had a successful job interview. “When they do get the job, we invite them back for a second dressing with a stylist and they pick another five to seven additional pieces of clothing. All the clothing is free and theirs to keep.”

Promoting sustainable fashion

Clothes donated to Smart Works have a double positive impact, both for the women and for the environment. As a whole, the fashion industry accounts for 10% of annual global carbon emissions. The industry is also incredibly wasteful; 73% of all textiles ended up in landfill or incineration between 2000 and 2014. Through Smart Works, both retail partners and individuals can work together to reduce waste and support women seeking employment.

Donations come through members of the public or retail partners such as Burberry, Hobbs, John Lewis, M&S and Whistles. The same quality of clothing is expected for donations from members of the public. “It needs to be something you yourself would wear to a job interview,” she says. “Anything with a rip or a stain is sorted and handed on to another charity.”

Running a holistic charity

Jan herself first came across Smart Works when she donated some of her own  workwear. “I completely understand what the right outfit does to a woman’s confidence in challenging situations. My whole career was in business development so I was very conscious of dressing for success the whole way through.” She’s been the Chair for Smart Works Greater Manchester since last July.

The Greater Manchester centre is one of eight in the UK; there are also centres in Edinburgh, Newcastle, Leeds, Reading, Birmingham and two in London. The appointments are carried out by volunteer stylists, mostly with backgrounds in retail or fashion, and volunteer coaches, who have experience in HR or recruitment. There are 2 employees and around 30 regular volunteers in the Manchester centre.

Supporting women through lockdown

Like many charities, Smart Works had to adapt its offering during lockdown. “The first hour - all about the clothing - is what we haven't been able to do,” she says. “But we’re still providing the second hour - interview coaching - online.”

The online coaching is available not only for women with interviews lined up but has now adapted to support those women actively looking for jobs. “In the last 12 weeks, Smart Works nationally has done 100 of these new career coaching sessions,” she says. “We’re going into the process earlier by helping people populate CVs and translate their skills so that they give the best representation of themselves on the application.” Sessions include everything from how to format a CV to tips on using Zoom for online interviews.

Getting involved

Much of Jan’s time is spent fundraising and collaborating with the other Smart Works centres. Funds come from sales of clothes that can’t be used as workwear, grants, individual donations and corporate sponsorship. Timetastic has been a supporter since February last year. “Smart Works is a great fit for us - they're local and helping women get back into the workplace,” says our co-founder Gary. Smart Works is one of many charities that we support. Others include City of Trees and Trees for Life.

For anyone who would like to support Smart Works, you can do so by donating time, clothes or money. “Supporters - individuals or companies - can see if there’s a Smart Works centre near them and get in touch via the website,” says Jan. Volunteers without expertise in styling or career coaching can sort stock or organise sales - there’s always something to help with.

Re-opening Smart Works centres

Smart Works plans to re-open its centres this summer. “We’re hoping to maintain our online services until September and re-open face to face dressings in early July,” says Jan. “We can’t wait to re-open our centres and support many more of the thousands of women who will have lost their jobs through this.”

Smart Works is all about transforming the lives of women in need. “We see women with the weight of the world on their shoulders walking in, and happier, more confident women walking out believing they are one step closer to getting the job.”