Amy Robichaud is the Chair of the Dress for Success Canada Foundation and the Executive Director of Dress for Success Vancouver. She spoke with us about her organization’s beneficial programs and world-class stylists. She also talked about the psychological power of fashion, community, and how she found advocacy and activism at a very young age. You’re going to want to get to know her.
Could you talk a little bit about what Dress for Success in Canada is all about?
Our goal at Dress for Success in Canada is to empower women into good jobs, financial independence, and personal success. Our most well-known flagship services are our dressing services—we get women the attire they need for interviews and work. But we also provide free 1-on-1 career coaching for women who are looking for work and need help preparing for interviews, or want to build a better CV, or improve their linkedin profile, or who are trying to access government services. You name it. We also provide free mental health counseling with clinical practitioners for women who need that. We do workshops on everything from financial literacy, to managing your mental health, to balancing family and work, to heart health and taking care of yourself. We also do leadership programs and provide women who have found work with professional development guidance for up to one year free of charge.
We’re working to democratize networking so that the women who come to Dress for Success in Canada have an equal opportunity to build the same professional, business, and peer networks that we all rely on and credit our success to.
“Our goal at Dress for Success in Canada is to empower women into good jobs, financial independence, and personal success.”
Why do you believe in partnerships between nonprofits and brands like H&B? What are some of the benefits of these kinds of relationships?
There is a very strict definition of what charity is, which is important, but there is also a broader concept of just doing good—being a good citizen and showing up for your community. We all have the responsibility to do that. So partnerships like the one Dress for Success Canada has with Hillberg and Berk are important because we work together to broaden the idea of a product. We try to create something that emphasizes what a product can do for a community, and for the people in that community. We work together to help make this concept of “doing good” a more accessible, attainable thing. Being part of a community means you have a responsibility to and for each other. Our partnership with H&B exemplifies that. We take care of each other. That’s community. And when you find the right partnership, it’s like finding the right outfit. It all comes together.
“Being part of a community means you have a responsibility to and for each other. Our partnership with H&B exemplifies that. We take care of each other. That’s community. And when you find the right partnership, it’s like finding the right outfit. It all comes together.”
Has this kind of advocacy work always been something you envisioned yourself doing?
The advocacy that I do for economic inclusion for women, and equity in general, is deeply personal. I grew up with a lot of privilege in some ways, but in other ways, I experienced just how difficult it was for women to succeed. My mother is the strongest, most amazing woman I know. She was our family’s breadwinner for most of my childhood. She had to be a bulldozer. I grew up with a very powerful and present example of what it meant to be a woman who was struggling to provide for her family and succeed in the economy. She did what she needed to do, but it shouldn’t have been so hard for her.
Were there any moments earlier in life that you look back on now as indications you’d be well-suited to this kind of work?
I gave my first advocacy speech before I had words. I stood on the hearth in a nightgown and impassionately intoned something to my family for several minutes. It’s a pretty straight line in my brain from that moment to lecturing adults for littering at age seven, to joining the debate team at 12, to going to university for public policy and political theory. I was raised in a family that made a point of talking about what was going on in the world. A lot of families say that politics and religion are things you should keep away from the dinner table, but that was our dinner table. Those conversations gave me the ability to see injustices and to decide to care about them.
Who are some of your role models?
My mom is always at the top of my list. There’s a lot of women, or people, in their thirties who wake up one day, look in the mirror, and say: “Oh my god I look like my parents.” For me it’s like, “Yup, there’s my mom.” And that’s a great feeling because I admire her and she’s taught me a ton.
Also, Roberta Bondar. I spent a lot of my childhood wanting to be an astronaut before I realized that math was not a strong suit for me. Roberta broke barriers and, while she did, talked about being a woman in a place where it wasn’t considered normal. I saw her doing something that women weren’t doing with grace and determination, and she always spoke about it with eloquence while advocating for other women to get involved. I actually got to meet her as an adult. She was the most gracious human. So that was pretty phenomenal.
“There’s a lot of women, or people, in their thirties who wake up one day, look in the mirror, and say: “Oh my god I look like my parents.” For me it’s like, “Yup, there’s my mom.” And that’s a great feeling because I admire her and she’s taught me a ton.”
Could you share a Dress for Success Vancouver story that has been especially important to you?
A client came in last year who was looking for a second job to cover the cost of school supplies for her kids, and she ended up going through the dressing service process. During the process, she shared her story of becoming a refugee—how she fled her home country to ensure the safety of her children because her husband had broken both of her legs. She told us all this information while trying to find shoes that wouldn’t hurt her, because she never healed properly. It feels like such a small thing for us to be able to say: “We have shoes that will fit and feel great.” That’s such a small thing for us, but for her it was the first time shoes hadn’t hurt her feet in years, and she left feeling confident about getting a second job to help her kids.
We had another client who’d been unemployed since before the pandemic. She’d worked in the tech sector and hadn’t found work in a long time. Ageism was a huge part of her situation. She’s smart and educated and has held senior roles, but after 3 years she was feeling so beaten down with “no’s” (and a global crisis) that she’d completely lost her sense of self. No one had helped her. She was referred to us and we offered her counseling with a clinical psychologist so she could have someone to talk to. After that, she came in for a dressing service, and again, for the first time in years, this was the place where people saw her, acknowledged her, helped her, and believed in her. So, those are two very different clients, but it is as meaningful for both of them to be able to access our services.
“When a client leaves, she leaves with a bag full of new-to-her clothing and a literal arsenal of tools and resources to help her feel better.”
Given that you typically try on clothes with a friend or family member, does the dressing service create a unique intimacy and opportunity to talk about physical and mental health?
There’s this sort of innate trust and vulnerability that comes with trying on clothes and being in a changeroom with other women. Our stylists do so much more than put them in beautiful, confidence-building attire. They listen, they offer other services we have, they commiserate, and empathize. They share their own experiences and they build trust and, when a client leaves, she leaves with a bag full of new-to-her clothing and a literal arsenal of tools and resources to help her feel better.
Styling revolves around the psychological concept of enclothed cognition, which is the meaning and symbolism that we give to clothing. For example, we associate a doctor’s white coat with authority and intelligence. Studies have shown we’ll actually give more trust to somebody in a lab coat than someone who is not. But we also do that with ourselves. We all have a version of our own power suit—the jeans that make us feel the best, the shirt that we stand tallest in, and the shoes that we stand straighter in. It’s hard to pinpoint what it is, but something happens when we style people—the clothes allow their natural confidence to shine through, and it becomes more about the woman than the clothes we put her in. It becomes about how she feels in her body and not her body itself.
“Something happens when we style people—the clothes allow their natural confidence to shine through, and it becomes more about the woman than the clothes we put her in. It becomes about how she feels in her body and not her body itself.”
At H&B we like to talk about women “rising together”. Can you tell us about some of the relationships you’ve formed with other women through this work? How important are those relationships to your outlook and general wellbeing?
In our community at Dress for Success Canada we always talk about “lifting as we rise” and I think that’s one of the reasons our partnership with Hillberg & Berk is such a good fit. There’s a definitive brand alignment there. This organization is the only place I’ve worked in gender advocacy where it’s impossible to tell the clients, volunteers, and staff apart. Part of the reason that’s so difficult is because we have clients who have become volunteers, volunteers who have become clients, clients who have become staff, and staff who have accessed our services. Every last one of us has some way they can learn, be lifted, or rise, and we all have the ability to do that for someone else.
I know it’s really frowned upon in business literature to talk about your staff as a family, but it’s so hard for me not to feel that way with the people I work with because there is this sense of holistic community to what we do. What I felt from the very beginning through Hillberg & Berk and through the branding, through the jewellery, through Share Your Sparkle, was this alignment with Rachel’s vision. She’s built a team that doesn't just talk about this idea of “helping people rise,” but who believe it themselves. This true values alignment made all our conversations about creating and building a partnership publicly as easy as breathing. There’s a magic in it that I don’t know how to describe otherwise.
“Every last one of us has some way they can learn, be lifted, or rise, and we all have the ability to do that for someone else.”
Can you talk a little bit about the styling process at Dress for Success in Vancouver? Have you seen any great looks that you’d like to share?
Some of the best celebrity stylists are located in Vancouver and many of them choose to give their time back to our organization. It’s pretty amazing how someone who has just finished dressing people for the Golden Globes will be here the next day helping style a woman who is trying to get a second job. You see the difference in someone who professionally knows how to build confidence in someone and find pieces that are appropriate for their body and match their personality. Our stylists always show me what a powerful form of self-expression clothing can be. It’s nice to be able to see people receive that gift.
It seems like it would be important to feel confident and ready for anything while doing this crucial advocacy work. Is there any jewellery that helps you feel this way?
I have a gold locket that’s been with my family for generations that my great aunt gave to me. That’s a piece that helps me do this work because I put it on and I feel like I have this lineage of women with me. I also have an M necklace with diamonds in it. Both my mother and grandmother have the same one because we all share the same middle name. We call ourselves the 3 Marlenes. So, when I wear that it makes me feel deeply connected to them and I know they’re with me. There’s something about when I put those pieces on—there’s extra power in it.
Ok, I promise I’m not just saying this because we’re having this conversation for Hillberg & Berk, but I bought the Leopard print Sparkle Balls as soon as they came out, and they’ve landed as part of my wardrobe on the regular. They’re fun. They’re fierce. They’re a little edgy, but they also go with everything and I get compliments on them all the time. They’ve become part of that enclothed cognition where if I need a little extra help one day, one of my family necklaces and the Sparkle Balls are going on.