Spreading to 50 cities in three years, a nonprofit group that suits up low-income women for work gets a Richmond address, thanks to two women who know the power of a good first impression. 

Urban Outfitters

Joanna Blauch can't sleep at night.

She's got black Ferragamo pumps on her mind. Boxes of them. But that's not all. There are also the Coach handbags, and hundreds of designer suits in myriad shades and sizes. In her head looms the world's biggest closet, the contents of which she'll never wear. For most women, this would be the ultimate tease, but for Blauch, it's not torture but a dream come true. It's this that keeps Blauch awake and excited as she counts like sheep the pairs of $200 shoes that soon will slip, with the rest of her insomniac obsessions, onto the body of someone who needs them.

For any woman, picking out the right outfit to wear to a job interview can be as daunting as the interview itself. But for the woman who has no money, let alone enough to buy even an average-priced $300 suit, it can be the definitive confidence buster. That's why from New York to Nashville, Cincinnati to Seattle — and starting March 25 in Richmond — offshoots of the New York-based Dress for Success, a not-for-profit organization that outfits low-income women in free, next-to-new career clothes, has cropped up in 50 cities in just three years. Even the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and "60 Minutes" have featured stories on the campaign.

Started in 1997 by Nancy Lublin, 27, Dress for Success has clenched the support of high-profile national companies such as Kellogg's, Estee Lauder, Bank of America and Banana Republic. It's caught the attention of Oprah Winfrey, and Gloria Steinem is on the organization's board of directors. In November, Lublin, along with U.S. Women's Soccer Team goalie Briana Scurry was honored at the Forbes Executive Women's Summit in Washington.

So far, the timing and the contacts have been right for Dress for Success. More important, through individual and corporate donations, it's helped more than 20,000 women show up for job interviews with added confidence. When Dress for Success — which isn't a boutique but looks like one with its donated mirrors, T-stands and rounders of neatly pressed suits — opens this Saturday at 1504 Hull St. in Blackwell, two local women hope the time is right for Richmond.

When Blauch and her partner, Cathy Ferris McPherson, met for lunch a year ago, they didn't know what they were plunging into. Strangers and 14 years apart, Blauch and McPherson were looking for something they hadn't found in their collective careers as legal assistant, retail buyer, teacher and social worker.

Then, separately, each read about the Dress for Success program. Taking only referrals from social service agencies like domestic-violence and homeless shelters and job-training programs, in many cities Dress for Success outfits between 50 and 100 women a week. A client is paired with at least one "personal shopper" volunteer, and together they select everything that's needed — from shoes to suit to hair and makeup advice — to make the client feel she's got the look to land the job. And, when she does, she returns to Dress for Success for a second consultation and another free suit.

Two years ago, an advertisement for Dress for Success in Mode magazine jumped out at McPherson, 43, a Mary Baldwin alumna who teaches marketing and advertising for the college's adult-degree program in Richmond. Haute couture-inspired in a celery-colored suit, with the slightly tousled haircut worn by movie stars like Cate Blanchett, and carrying a cappuccino-colored Kate Spade bag, McPherson looks just like the person you'd want as a personal shopper.

"It feels very self-involved sometimes," McPherson says about the nature of her former work in retail and merchandising. But her approach to Dress for Success is one of logistics. "Let's face it: We all know appearance counts. It's that old adage, 'You only have one chance to make a first impression,'" she says. "Why not control that impression?" McPherson was the first Richmond-area woman to contact the office in New York to ask to start a Dress for Success program in Virginia. "For us to get something before D.C. in Richmond, that's a nice little coup to happen," she laughs. Still, McPherson concedes, "If I had known then what I know now, I probably wouldn't have done it."

The process involved submitting a business plan, hiring a lawyer and filing a 501-C3 application with the IRS. "To see all this legalese and paperwork, I thought: 'Oh my gosh!' so I sat on it."

Ten interviews with potential partners and a year later, she met Joanna Blauch. "She gets me fired up and I temper her," says McPherson about Blauch, whose background in social work and legal assistance adds the right mix to the partnership. "I didn't know her from Adam," says McPherson, "but now every morning the phone rings at 7:30, and it's a sharing of each little success."

Little successes add up big. Just ask Blauch, 29, who's been working three part-time jobs and "working full time for free," and now is losing sleep over the year-long Dress for Success project. "I find myself laying on my back with my arms across my chest, thinking of all the teeny tiny details."

It's these details, some small, others gigantic, that Blauch tends to every day. "I knew how to put on a suit, slap out a proposal and go cold calling," she says to get what was needed for the program to work. "I busted in on the principal over at the Richmond Adult Career Advancement Center. All I needed was five minutes."

Five minutes to convince someone of the free service and outreach Dress for Success could provide if it had a home. "Within three hours we were headed to South Side."

"There's this mystical goodwill happening and it's happening here," says Blauch from the Hull Street storefront donated to Dress for Success by First Baptist Church, which owns the space and rests directly behind it.

"It just fit into our goals and missions," says Tonya Scott, business manager for the 1,600-member Blackwell church led by Del. Dwight Jones. "We had thought about a career-clothes closet," says Scott. "There are a lot of welfare-to-work people in this district." But then came Blauch and McPherson and the Dress for Success proposal. "We keep our eyes and ears to the ground for what the community needs," explains Scott, about what she says is the church's mission to revitalize Hull Street. "And this was a great fit."

At the Dress for Success worldwide office in New York, the sentiment is echoed. "We met both Joanna and Cathy," says Allison Sgroi, affiliate relations director, "and we're thrilled to have them onboard. And excited for Richmond."

Blauch stands on a ladder touching up the paint job in the now dandelion-colored room that will be her office in less than a week. Her long black ponytail swings back and forth over large red letters on the back of her T-shirt reading: "Dress for Success." In the cornflower-blue center room that holds nearly 20 racks of dresses and suits, blouses and blazers, 16 volunteers from Capitol One scrub walls and windows, floorboards and bathrooms. "I fervently believe that nothing happens by accident," says Blauch. "I had this group fall out of the sky," she laughs, delegating chores now between squirts of Windex and quick rubbings on the glass window-front. "I was a sorority sister in college and I never felt like this," she says. "Still, we gotta remember the idea is to get women in suits. Period."

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