How the Smart Works Leeds charity gives women the clothes and confidence they need to succeed

As unemployed women’s charity Smart Works Leeds marks its second birthday with a bargain designer fashion sale at the Corn Exchange in Leeds, Stephanie Smith meets just four of the hundreds of Yorkshire women it has helped so far. Pictures by Bruce Rollinson.

Sonia Sarah was about to go for her first formal job interview in 15 years. She was excited, nervous – but she had nothing suitably smart to wear. “In the pandemic, I had been home schooling, living in leggings, jeans and T-shirts, so there was nothing in my wardrobe. I had had a career break for such a long time. I was a single parent on Universal Credit,” she said

Through Barnardo’s, Sonia Sarah was referred to Smart Works Leeds, the charity that dresses and coaches unemployed women in Yorkshire for job interviews.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

With its help, she got the job. “They dressed me in this gorgeous blazer, some nice trousers, and a really lovely handbag, which helped with all the stuff I took to the interview, all my documents. I felt the part,” she said.

Sonia Sarah, from Bradford, in her Jaeger interview suit.

Sonia Sarah is one of more than 300 women helped by Smart Works Leeds since it opened at Mabgate Mills in November 2019. More than 160 now have a job.

Clients have to have a referral from a Job Centre or partner organisation, including the prison service and charities for care leavers, the homeless, refugees, and survivors of addiction and domestic abuse.

It receives donations of clothing and accessories bearing the names of top brands, from individuals, retailers and brands themselves. Retail partners include Burberry, John Lewis & Partners, Marks & Spencer and Hobbs. Its patron is Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, who collaborated on created a fashion collection in aid of the charity, and other ambassadors and patrons include Jennifer Saunders, Emma Barnett, Samantha Cameron and Alexandra Burke.

Not all donations are suitable for interviews, and the national Smart Works charity stages legendary fashion sales. Now Smart Works Leeds is following suit and holding its own fabulous fashion sale at the Corn Exchange in Leeds next month to mark its second birthday.

Client Sally, left, was gifted a Betty Jackson dress for her interview, pictured here with dressing volunteer Rachel, at the Smart Works Leeds centre.

Read More

Read More
Yorkshire auction house Tennants to hold designer fashion sale featuring Hermes,...

There are 43 volunteer dressing and interview coaches at the Leeds centre. Rachel, a visual merchandiser from Sheffield, became a dressing volunteer after having a wardrobe clear-out during lockdown and dropping off clothes at the centre. “I look forward to my two days,” she said. “It could change their life, their opportunities. I love it.”

Master of Wine Philippa, from York, has been a dressing volunteer since 2019. “It is such a brilliant organisation, the way it empowers women,” she said. “It is about observing and listening. It’s very flexible and life-enhancing.” Fellow volunteer Fiona, an event organiser from Harrogate, said: “I love clothes, people, and it has a really nice feel about the whole process, helping women on their journey. I also love the fact that clothes get another life.”

But the biggest challenge still lies in meeting the needs of unemployed women in Yorkshire, said chair of Smart Works Leeds Helen Oldham, adding: “Sadly, this is a situation which is unlikely to improve in the near or mid-term as we slowly pull out of the pandemic.”

Client Esther outside the Leeds centre. She is now an ambassador for Smart Works Leeds.

The Smart Works Leeds Fashion Sale will take place on November 12, from 6pm at the Corn Exchange in Leeds, offering discounted designer and high-end high street fashion, alongside beautiful items donated by Yorkshire brands. Taking part will be Bo Carter, Moon Muse Vintage, The Pod, Katherine Manley, Zara Mia Ava, Glitter Glamour Boutique and Katie & May. Proceeds to Smart Works Leeds. Tickets are £5 and include a glass of fizz, via Ticket Tailor or by emailing [email protected] Email also if you would like to donate quality women's workwear to Smart Works Leeds (there is a particular need for shoes and bags) or if you are a designer or retailer who would like to donate any clothing (all occasion), accessories or lifestyle products for Smart Works Leeds charity sales and raffles. Also if you or your company would like to take part in the Smart Works cycle challenge in March next year.

MEET FOUR SMART WORKS CLIENTS

Esther, from Bradford: Esther is now an ambassador for Smart Works Leeds, as well as a client. She has three children and had been unemployed for most of seven years, having previously worked for McDonald’s, Asda, as a tutor and as a children’s entertainer. She now has a job working for an agency that supplies the NHS.

“Some charities want you to be pathetic and poor, and it’s very patronising,” she said. “I don’t want people to pity me. Yes, I might need help. The lady who dressed me treated me like a person, not like a disadvantaged minority. I felt valued.

Client Karen at the centre. She now has a job visiting people in care homes to help with their wellbeing.

“There are charities that will see you for who you are and can be a bridge, not just a ladder, leading from where you are now to where you want to be. I want people to feel that warmth and that support.”

Karen, from Leeds: Now 63, Karen worked for many years at the Inland Revenue, but had been unemployed for most of the past five years. She was referred to Smart Works Leeds by the Compton Centre in Harehills, and now works for a local care provider, visiting elderly residents.

“I want to work. I have always worked,” she said. “I missed the camaraderie and not feeling productive.

“You can get very disheartened looking for work. I had eight interviews in four weeks and didn’t get any. But this gave my confidence a boost.”

Sonia Sarah, from Bradford: Smart Works clients and single parent Sonia Sarah has been unemployed since taking a career break to have her family. She is now an equality, diversity and inclusion manager for Bradford Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.

“I was welcomed in, and had a coaching exercise before my interview, and it worked wonders. I felt ready, I felt prepared, because I hadn’t had a formal job interview for 15 years, so it was massive for me.

Client Sally among the rails at the centre. She now has a job as a librarian.

“Life is in a better place. I just thought, no one takes your intellectual capacity away. I am going to go for this job. I am going to try my best.”

Sally, from Huddersfield: Sally had been unemployed for 18 months after being a primary school teacher for 30 years, leaving due to stress. She now has a job as a librarian.

“It was during Covid time when I had my interview, so they sent me a big parcel through the post. It was almost like Christmas, opening it up. It was a beautiful black dress with a peach cardigan, some shoes and a necklace.

“I had had quite a few interviews and I had lost a lot of confidence. Every interview I went to, I was just so nervous. I had the coaching and it really worked. My interview at the library lasted over an hour and I got it. They told me I was the highest scoring of the panel.”

Client Sonia Sarah and volunteer dresser Philippa, from York.
Volunteer dresser Fiona, left, from Harrogate, and wardrobe assistant Aisha, who was hired through the Kickstart Scheme this October. She has also been a client of Smart Works herself.
Staff, volunteers and clients at the Smart Works Leeds centre at Mabgate Mills in Leeds city centre.