How one local CEO helps women shine.
In 2007, Vicki Bowen Hewes founded Dress for Success Columbus. Since then she has become the nonprofit's chief executive officer, with a staff that focuses daily on women dressing for the workplace, providing career advice and helping women stay employed. “In 2013, our board of directors voted to add CEO to my title, which many interpret as chief executive officer, but I see as chief empowerment officer,” she says. A nationwide program, this year marks the 10th anniversary for the organization in Columbus.
Tell us about the women who benefit from Dress for Success.Is there a particular success story that has really inspired you?
We've worked with more than 10,000 remarkable women, and each is beautiful in her own unique way. Of course, there are so many stories that have inspired me—truly every day I am awestruck by the courage, resilience and determination of the women I meet who are reentering the workforce and starting anew for myriad reasons.
Recently, I got a call from a woman who we'd been working with for a few months. She had experienced major loss, including her job, her home and then an accident where she broke her leg–—but she remained dedicated to succeeding and [was] so positive. She called to tell me that she had landed a job that she loved and she was crying, saying that if it hadn't been for Dress for Success she never would have made it through.
We are grateful and so humbled to be a part of the journey of this incredibly special lady and so many others, and it's truly an honor to provide them with the tools, resources and sisterhood of support to rebuild. But it's each of these ladies who is doing the hard work of nurturing their families. So every story is touching, every journey is meaningful, every interaction has impact, and each step inspires me to do all I can to have the resources women need to feel dignified, confident and empowered.
Given last fall's presidential election, do you think we're going to see a new pantsuit movement? What affect do you think recent influences will have on how women think about creating a personalized, yet professional, look to suit their body types?
It almost seems frivolous to discuss this with a fashion twist given all we're committed to accomplishing as women. But I do think we will see a pantsuit movement in personal style because the Pantsuit Nation has grown exponentially after the election, and … women are more motivated than ever to make a statement, be seen and heard. And how we style fashion is absolutely a statement.
I think most stylists will tell you that pants are the most challenging article of clothing to find the right fit—the waistline, rise and length are personal to each individual. But whether you pair narrow cigarette pants and a long jacket, or mix flowing palazzo pants and a cropped or belted blazer, you want to feel fabulous and own it. My secret weapon with pants is Spanx footless tights—[there are] no panty lines or mid-thigh telltale ridges and [they offer] great shaping.
What about accessories—what's the best way to add personality without being too flashy?
I love statement necklaces and scarves. A scarf can be worn dozens of ways and can also accessorize your handbag. I also rely on accessory scarves for warmth during the winter months, and love to drape large square scarves over sweaters and suit jackets. And I don't subscribe to the “too-flashy-is-bad” line of thinking, as long as it's not an outfit for a job interview or conservative workplace. If you love piling on bangles, rings, necklaces and earrings, I say go for it. It really depends on your workplace culture when determining what to wear while on the job. But outside of work, color outside the lines if that's what you love. But over and above all the baubles, I believe your most important accessory is confidence. How you carry yourself communicates so much. Know your worth. Shine and help others shine, too.
For someone who doesn't want to break the bank on personal styling, what is one versatile piece of clothing every woman should have in her closet? Why?
I'm going to go a little rogue on this one and say something different than the omni-present black dress and ever-important white shirt and say the one article everyone should have is a shoe you love in a statement color. For women, that's a closed-toe pump with a heel that ranges from a low kitten to a high stiletto—whatever suits your comfort level. For guys, a lace up. You can rock a great pair of shoes several times a week, dressy to casual, throughout the seasons. I have a pair of cobalt blue suede stilettos that have taken me from business lunches to book readings to after-parties with a quick outfit change. And I found them on a discount website, so they bring me double happiness.
Working with so many women at Dress for Success, is there a styling mistake women tend to make often?
The biggest mistake we see is women feeling as if they need to wear a certain style because it's the look of the moment or showcased in magazines. Not every trend looks good on every body. You won't ever see me in an A-line dress for a reason. There are so many fashion ins and outs that are thrown at us that it's hard to decide what to invest in, especially when you're selecting an outfit for an interview or your workplace and forget about the size on the tag—focus on what fits and is flattering. I personally have things in my closet that are three sizes larger and other items that are a couple sizes smaller than what I generally wear, but designers cut differently and I needed to size up or down to get the right fit.
Being CEO for an organization that empowers women to look and feel confident must make you very aware of your own styling habits. What style advice do you live by?
I'm laughing because I go through this on a weekly basis—if it's after hours and I just want to run to the grocery store quickly or pick up a dinner to go and I think “Oh, but what if I run into a client or dress donor? What will they think of me in these tattered yoga pants?” It's important to put your best self forward each day. Even if it's a stressful morning getting my teenage son off to school, the report submitted to the board accurately, arriving on time for my first meeting—when I feel like I look good, everything's a lot easier. Hence, never underestimate the power of a great outfit.
Another phrase is ‘Dress how you want to be addressed.' It is so true, but you don't have to break the bank to put together a fabulous outfit. Some of my most treasured items were found at thrift shops. When I was a teenager and I'd graduated from Garanimals, my parents put me on a monthly clothing allowance and I quickly learned that would buy one pair of expensive jeans or a week's-worth of second-hand finds that were more unique and usually better quality.
Find a good tailor and treat him or her like gold. A seamstress will help you reinvent investment pieces two decades later. And finally, consult an expert and purge regularly. Maybe that consultant is a good (and brutally honest) friend, or one that offers fee-based services such as the wonderful stylists at Wardrobe Therapy and Timeless Chic. And please remember, you can always donate the best items that just don't work for you to a woman moving forward and beginning again with the help of Dress for Success Columbus.