“What do you think?” Ross dusts a tiny bit of thread from the navy blue waistcoat and steps aside. Mark observes himself in the mirror, looking earnest. He turns around from side to side, never losing sight of the reflection in front of him. He nods and a smile appears on his face. “Quite all right, isn’t it?”
Mark was referred to Suited & Booted by St Giles’ Trust, a charity working to break the cycle of prison, crime and disadvantage. He has a job interview coming up in a couple of days’ time and he wants to look his best. Volunteer stylist Ross searches the clothes racks for accessories to match the suit. He comes back with a couple of ties and asks which colour he prefers. Mark bursts out laughing and calls over his partner, who has accompanied him on the fitting session. “Let me make a pre-selection” she laughs. “He’s colour blind!”
It might not quite be Savile Row, although one professional stylist from there actually volunteers at Suited & Booted. But there is one incredible part of the service that makes Suited & Booted stand out from any other tailor in town: its suits are free. Donated by members of the public as well as big City firms, each item is checked, steamed and sorted by size before being put on display.
In the 30 minutes that Mark is in the room, he is attended by a small army of genuinely friendly and interested volunteers. While Ross matches up the outfit, one of his colleagues takes in the trousers with Wundaweb easy hemming tape and puts a missing button on a shirt. Someone else makes tea and offers cakes. Once Ross has made sure that the trousers fit perfectly, he finds a nice pair of shoes and offers to give them a polish. Mark looks in the mirror once more, as if he can’t quite yet believe his tailored new look. “Thank you”, he says, before offering Ross a firm handshake. “Thank you very much.”
I knew there were unused suits out there and I knew that there were people who really needed them.
While Mark gets changed, Suited & Booted founder Maria Lenn shows me around the aptly named St. Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe church building where the charity is housed. On the balconies, dozens of bags and boxes are piled up, fresh in from a suit drive in one of the nearby offices. Big and small sizes are always in demand, as are shoes, cuff links and overcoats. “As our clients get to keep their suits, we constantly need new supplies”, explains Maria. “And if they come back to us after they got a job, we may be able to help them out with some extra shirts and ties, to keep them going until their first pay check arrives.”
Since its launch less than 2.5 years ago, Suited & Booted has served over 2,000 men. The volunteer-run organisation is completely secular and helps long-term unemployed men, ex-service men and others living in vulnerable circumstances when they have an interview. It gets referrals from homelessness and mental health charities, job centres and other support services. Women are referred to partner organisation Smart Works, who also help Suited & Booted source male clothing.
When Maria took on the project instead of pursuing her post-PhD career, she could not have imagined the mountain of work that lay ahead of her. She blames her entrepreneurial spirit and creative drive to get on with it anyway. “I knew there were unused suits out there and I knew that there were people who really needed them,” she says. “Sometimes clients want to keep on their suit when they leave. They say it gives them a feeling of pride and possibility. Every time I witness the transformational process that takes place here many times a day, I know why we do what we do.”
As Mark and his partner get ready to leave, I comment that the dark overcoat he is wearing will go nice with his new suit. He smiles and starts talking. “Do you know where I got that from?,” he asks. “I found it. Actually, I found all the clothes I’m wearing now, apart from the boots. I got those in a charity shop for a few quid. I am sort of homeless at the moment, and jobs are really hard to come by. It can knock your confidence a bit. I would love to do some freelance writing, but I am ready to do anything: kitchen cleaning work and whatever is there. I have an interview on Friday, so I will make sure to look the part.”
Mark carefully carries his suit bag over his arm as he walks out the door. I really hope he gets the job.