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Celebrating 25 Years of Empowering Women

Astrid Levelt (far left) opening the first permanent Dress for Success Vancouver location at 675 West Hastings Street.
Astrid Levelt (far left) opening the first permanent Dress for Success Vancouver location at 675 West Hastings Street.

When Astrid Levelt lost a job in her 20s, her mom took her to Robson Street and bought her three outfits to wear for interviews to begin her new career. “I never forgot how I felt coming home and putting on those three delicious outfits,” shares Astrid. “I felt like I could take on the world and ace any job interview. The clothing gave me the confidence to pursue anything I wanted to.”

A few years later Astrid was working as a marketing consultant when she saw Nancy Lublin, the founder of Dress for Success in Harlem, New York City being interviewed on TV. The crisp feeling of her interview outfits and the confidence that came with them, rushed back. Astrid picked up the phone and called New York.

“In October 1998, Nancy and I chatted for about an hour, and she shared how she started Dress for Success New York in a church basement with a $5000 inheritance she had received from her uncle. I asked her about opening a Dress for Success location in Vancouver. Initially, she said expansion outside of the U.S. wasn’t in their plan, but she was keenly interested in growing the organization; they had already grown to 26 locations in the U.S. To launch Dress for Success Vancouver, I funded the start-up costs or had them donated in kind. A few months later, Nancy offered us $5000 which was notable because that was how much she used to begin her program. By February 1999, the doors were open and we were supporting our first clients.”

Dress for Success Vancouver planning meetings were held in Astrid’s parents’ living room. She rallied a small group of supporters and together they developed the first international Dress for Success affiliate, and the 27th Dress for Success program. They secured four bedrooms in the former nun’s residence at St. Patrick’s Parish on Main Street in East Vancouver. Volunteers painted, ripped carpets out, hauled clothing racks in and sourced donations, creating the first Dress for Success Vancouver boutique.

“We had a single makeshift fitting room with mirrors and two clothing rooms,” remembers Astrid. “We used one cell phone for the whole organization which my mom and her friend shared to manage scheduling with the member agencies. There was no paid staff, we were entirely run by volunteers for the first year. Finally, we were able to hire Deborah Twocock who worked 15 hours a week out of the bedroom of her house, which was unheard of at the time!”

Joi Gordon, the first CEO of Dress for Success Worldwide and Deb Twocock, Dress for Success Vancouver’s first Executive Director.

Deb went on to become Dress for Success Vancouver’s first Executive Director from 2000-2014. Deb is the namesake of the Deb Twocock Volunteer of the Year Award, in recognition of her dedication to the organisation. “Since the beginning, it’s been the amazing people that created this organisation,” says Astrid. “I was so lucky to have the support of my family and some incredible, talented and dedicated volunteers who shared my vision to build women’s confidence and empower them into the workforce.” Board members’ skills spanned from legal governance, volunteer training and funding applications to painting walls and sourcing carpet. “It was all hands on deck,” laughs Astrid.

Initially the organisation only offered dressing services but as U.S. Dress for Success affiliates began offering the Professional Women’s Program and other career and mentorship opportunities, Dress for Success Vancouver kept up.

Since 1999, Dress for Success Vancouver has served over 44,000 women and gender-diverse individuals in the Lower Mainland with dressing services, pre-employment and job-retention training, mentorship, professional networks and a community of support.

“I haven’t been actively involved in Dress for Success for many years but couldn’t be more proud to see the organisation reach its 25 year milestone. When we began, I could never have imagined how much this organisation would contribute to the economy, and how many families’ lives would be changed because women were able to successfully gain entry into the workforce. I don’t think we ever could have envisioned it back then. Many lives – clients, volunteers and staff have been touched,” shares Astrid. “The value of that first impression at a job interview remains important, even in this new work paradigm. A great outfit and the support of a community like Dress for Success is so empowering.”

That $5,000 initial donation by Dress for Success New York (now Dress for Success Worldwide) in 1999 would be worth approximately $10,000 today. To celebrate 25 years of Dress for Success Vancouver, founder Astrid Levelt is challenging her network to pay it forward and donate $5,000 throughout the month of March. 

You can help support the next 25 years of empowering women in Vancouver into employment, financial independence, and personal success by becoming a Success Donor. Your donation today and your ongoing support will fund programming, mentorship programs, dressing services and more, as together, we build community and create support networks that last. 

https://dfsvancouver.ca/donate/ 

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