This boutique helps Montreal women feel more confident and independent
Dress for Success offers more than an outfit — they support women as they rejoin the workforce
This story is a collaboration between Concordia University's journalism department and CBC Montreal.
As Dounia Belalia slips her arms through the sleeves of her yellow blazer, her memory flashes back to a turning point in her life.
She first walked through the small boutique doors of Dress for Success on St-Denis Street in June 2021.
She had freshly graduated from studying to become an administrative assistant when she received an email from the organization, inviting her to a suiting session.
Her first appointment left a lasting impact.
"I felt full of gratitude and I felt beautiful, something that does not happen often," says Belalia, 32.
A volunteer handed her clothes she would never have imagined wearing — including the yellow blazer.
Under the boutique's warm ceiling light, Belalia's reflection made her shed a tear.
"I felt like I was looking at another woman in the mirror," she says. "I was ready to welcome this new woman."
Belalia returned home that night with a new-found motivation to reconnect with a part of herself she once felt was lost.
Embracing her priorities as a mother made it hard to focus on her own own self care. By "neglecting myself," Belalia says her sense of confidence began to fade.
The yellow blazer that she proudly wears today reminds her of how far she's come and how much further she is driven to go.
Watch | Dress for Success helps women regain their confidence:
A journey of self care and growth
Since 2014, Dress for Success has been empowering women to achieve financial independence by providing them with the development tools, training and professional apparel to help them thrive on their career paths.
The boutique's clients have access to Dress for Success Montreal resources once they are referred by one of their not-for-profit partnering organizations.
Women continue to disproportionately bear the brunt of the pandemic's impacts. Already facing a gender pay gap, women in Canada take on more unpaid work than their male counterparts. The pandemic has exacerbated this issue: mothers were 12 times more likely to sacrifice their income than fathers, according to a 2021 report from the Royal Bank of Canada.
"It's been an economic roller coaster for low-wage women, those in precarious employment, front-facing work and vulnerable sectors," says Katherine Scott, a senior researcher at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. "This is part of the reason why many have left the labour market altogether."
Between 2019 and 2020, the number of women active in the labor market in Quebec fell by 27,000 compared to 17,000 among men, according to published data by Quebec's council on the status of women.
Despite the fact that more people are making their way back to work since the start of the pandemic, a high proportion of women have yet to return. The number of men active in Quebec's labour market increased by 34,000 between 2020 and 2021, compared to 15,000 among women during the same period.
As women's return to work lags behind that of their male counterparts, Scott says that "a much more comprehensive community response is needed … to provide that type of wraparound support."
She says that the non-profit sector is a fundamental piece to achieving gender equality in the labour market.
"A group like Dress for Success is illustrative of a challenge in the community sector and what's needed to make sure that women who have been disproportionately impacted — particularly in marginalized groups — get the support they need to get back on their feet," she says.
Dress for Success is encouraging women with that extra push to reach for economic independence and strengthen their confidence.
"It's a journey where we walk alongside them and see their growth," says Sophie Katz-Milo, executive director of Dress for Success Montreal.
Thanks to clothing and accessory donations, volunteer stylists help clients pick out professional apparel during one-on-one suiting sessions as they prepare to re-enter the workforce.
"The goal is women's independence, because a job equals a salary and a salary equals liberty," explains Celia Ibala, the boutique manager.
'I feel more like a woman'
Tears start to well in Tanya Denis's eyes as she recalls the words of her six-year-old son.
"Mom, you give us the best you can, and we are proud of you," says Denis, 27, as she reaches for a tissue. "To hear your kids [say this], it gets to you."
Denis, a first-time client, is applying for internships in accounting as she completes college.
Trying on a patterned black-and-white dress and a suit jacket, she says she feels good about potentially wearing this outfit to her upcoming job interviews.
Before the pandemic, Denis had worked as a patient attendant for five years. As a single mother to three children, the slew of lockdowns and school closures caused her to leave her job so she could look after her children at home.
While Denis is devoted to her children, she says that motherhood caused her to lose a part of herself that made her feel like a woman.
"Slowly, I am finding this person again," she says.
For some women, self care often gets pushed to the side amid balancing work, family and other components of their lives, says Ibala.
But the moments clients spend at the boutique belong to them.
"For some clients, it is a rediscovery of themselves," she says.
For Denis, making her way to the boutique that snowy morning was a first step in accepting the support that would help her achieve her goals.
"It will show [my kids] that, in life, you should never give up," says Denis. "It's important to me that my children see me accomplish this, to show them that it's never too late."
More than clothes
By the time her two-hour suiting sessions ends, volunteer personal stylist Julie Dubé feels like she could go on for longer. Her time with clients leaves her feeling inspired and grateful for what she gets to do.
"Every time I meet a client, I meet an incredible woman," says Dubé. "The two hours we spend together are more than about clothes."
The connection she fosters with her clients as they share their challenges and aspirations grounds Dubé. Those profound moments remind her why what she does is important to her.
"Some women have had a lot of things to overcome in life and they do it with a lot of courage," says Dubé. "I knew that women were courageous and strong, but I think I discovered this even more here."
While women begin their suiting sessions with volunteers searching for professional clothing, their time at the boutique means much more than that.
"It's not just about walking into the boutique and getting a pair of new pants or getting a new blouse, but it's more about the empowerment that the clients coming into the boutique have," says Katz-Milo.
"The courage that they show in being able to say 'I need support' is more courageous than anything because you're stepping out of your comfort zone," she says.
A key part in moving forward
On a recent visit to the boutique, Belalia's four-year-old daughter came along.
Admiring the racks of clothing surrounding her, she enjoyed passing various pairs of high heels to her mother, Belalia recalls.
"She took on the role of a volunteer, of the stylist," she says.
In the months since her first appointment, Belalia sees a sparkle in her daughter's eyes as she looks up at her. It is a look of admiration and pride.
"She saw me bloom like a flower, having professional and personal aspirations," says Belalia.
"[Dress for Success] gave me the will to move forward, as a woman, not only as a mother."