Dressing for Change: How Two Lawrence Organizations Are Transforming Lives Through Clothing

Progress Clothing founder Sabrina Boggio remembers traveling New England when she was younger and noticing the occasional sour looks she received when she told people she was from Lawrence. The negative reaction didn’t sit well with Boggio. “It definitely added fuel to my fire to get things done,” she says. 

Boggio’s desire to help the community was already in evidence when, in 2011, she conceived of the idea of Progress Clothing while enrolled as a student at Merrimack College. This “borrowed closet” was funded by a seed grant from Merrimack Valley Sandbox, now known as EforAll.

Left to right: Kiki Perez, Deyaniera Claudio, Sabrina Boggio and Reneiry Santiago of Progress Clothing. Photo by Kevin Harkins.

What began as a mobile service that provided women with outfits for job interviews has grown into a fully-equipped one-stop shop for men and women in need of a career-focused wardrobe. In January, Progress Clothing relocated from a temporary location to Lawrence’s Island Street Studios, doubling the space of its previous site and establishing a permanent shop to showcase its affordable and professional attire. 

Boggio understands the importance of making a good first impression on a potential employer and how a professional wardrobe can make or break an important interview. “For men and women, having the right clothes changes everything; confidence builds up and you carry that confidence into the interview,” she says. “You feel like you are playing the part. Everything lines up. Now you are able to answer the questions easier, you aren’t worried that you are wearing the wrong thing while you’re in that interview. Even if you’re wearing the right clothes, if they are too tight or too loose, you’re distracted.”

Along with providing a business-appropriate wardrobe, Progress Clothing offers help in writing a resume and cover letter, as well as job search assistance. “I see this as having a ripple effect for single-mother clients and friends,” Boggio says. “If I can help them increase their chances of getting a good, higher-paying job, hopefully that will lessen the burden on the family. … A family that is more [financially] comfortable is more likely to spend locally.”

Boggio is an activist for women’s and workers’ rights, and for environmental justice. She is currently involved in the “Raise Up Massachusetts” campaign, which advocates for a $15 minimum wage and paid medical leave for family members. She promotes the importance of being “anti-fast fashion” because of the impact dangerous dyes and cheaply-made clothes can have on the environment. 

Left: Sabrina Boggio conceived of Progress Clothing while studying at Merrimack College. The nonprofit offers career-focused wardrobes and workshops. Right: The new, permanent location of Progress Clothing at Island Street Studios doubles the space of its previous site. Photos by Kevin Harkins.

Boggio describes how the race to produce cheaper products also results in the mistreatment of workers. She speaks of broken health and environment codes and worse. Reusing clothing reduces the need for the production of new material.

To help young community members develop their sense of professionalism, Boggio will be hosting an “adulting” workshop funded by the Highland Street Foundation’s Youth Philanthropy Initiative. The program was developed by students requesting information about professional life skills. The class will cover topics such as how to use a checkbook, budgeting, couponing, career advice and how to present yourself on social media. 

Susan Kanoff is another person who’s leading an organization that’s trying to make a difference in Lawrence.

Kanoff began her charitable journey 20 years ago as a social worker with the HUD Family Self-Sufficiency Program and as a part-time private fashion stylist. Now, as the executive director of Uncommon Threads, she  uses her fashion skills to empower over 450 low-income women every year. 

In partnership with Family Services of the Merrimack Valley, Uncommon Threads serves local women in need of financial assistance. Many of Kanoff’s clients struggle with poverty, domestic abuse, drug rehabilitation and illness. She and more than 50 volunteers work to give these women the support and compassion they need to see themselves as beautiful, strong individuals.

This type of support sometime leads to a dramatic change in attitude. “We have heard incredible feedback from social workers, telling us that their clients seem happier,” Kanoff says. “They seem more sure of themselves. More self-confident.”

Facing: Kanoff and her staff have opened a once-a-month pop-up shop called Uncommon Closet. Along with the shop, Uncommon Threads recently launched the Women’s Empowerment Center, which offers wellness workshops. Right: Susan Kanoff of Uncommon Threads works with more than 50 volunteers to empower women facing seemingly insurmountable circumstances such as addiction, illness and poverty. Photos by Emily O’Brien.

Women who are referred to the boutique are given a personal styling session with one of its 15 trained style volunteers. The women leave Uncommon Threads with four outfits and a sense of self-worth and respect.

The general public seeking high-quality clothes at affordable prices can support Uncommon Threads’ new pop-up shop once a month, Uncommon Closet. The shop, which debuted in February, features a mix of perfect-condition wardrobe pieces and new designer garments. It is open to the public the first Friday of every month, and by appointment.

“We are extremely selective about what we accept — only new or nearly new items stock our shelves and racks,” Kanoff says.

Groups of women are welcome to schedule private shopping trips to support fundraising efforts. 

Uncommon Threads is also offering a new mentorship program, the Uncommon Friends, which focuses on women helping women. “There is a good energy when you have women working together,” Kanoff says. “A lot of women live in isolation. They have had bad things happen to them, and they feel like they don’t have anyone in their lives they can trust or who really cares. … The love and caring here is unbelievable. It’s about clothes, but it is so much more than clothes.” 

The clients and staff of Uncommon Threads launched the Women’s Empowerment Center in 2017. The center offers workshops on self-care, developing healthy relationships, and fitness.       

Uncommon Threads’ first annual Dress to Impress Gala will be held on May 16 at Salvatore’s in Lawrence. Tickets for the fundraiser are available on www.uncommonthreads.org.

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