Smart Works CEO Kate Stephens On Dressing For Success

Smart Works CEO Kate Stephens On Dressing For Success

Few women know more about dressing with confidence than Smart Works CEO Kate Stephens. At the helm of a charity that helps unemployed women prepare for job interviews by providing the right clothes and one-to-one coaching, she knows how integral fashion can be to unlocking the best version of someone. We spoke to her about her role, getting dressed for success and her go-to brands…

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I love my job and I know how fortunate I am to be able to say that. I am surrounded by an inspirational team of staff and volunteers, all connected by a shared sense of purpose to help women succeed in their professional endeavours. Women come to us when they are unemployed and find that they are having difficulty securing work. Being out of work is tough and can destroy your self-esteem. We give each woman a complete outfit of clothes and accessories (chosen by her and hers to keep) and one-to-one coaching to reconnect her to her potential. There’s this magic moment when our clients look in the dressing-room mirror, smile and think: ‘I can do this’. That moment is the golden thread that runs through our charity.

As CEO, there is never a dull moment, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I work out of our London hub (also the national HQ for the eight Smart Works centres around the UK) which means that I see our dressing and coaching service in action every day. As we grow, it is my role to ensure we keep this magic alive and can find the partners who will join our community and power our mission. It is a large and generous community – every item in our wardrobe is donated, and all of our styling and coaching is done by skilled volunteers and, of course, we need funds to grow.  

I have always been aware of how powerful clothes are in dictating how you feel about yourself as well how others see you, of course. For me, this began at an early age. My grandmother was an incredible seamstress with a keen eye for trends and, thanks to her, I had the most immaculate clothes that had been made just for me. There is nothing quite like that feeling and it is akin to what we are aiming to achieve for our clients at Smart Works – above all, we are united by a belief that fashion can be a force for good.

I have always been aware of how POWERFUL clothes are in DICTATING HOW YOU FEEL ABOUT YOURSELF as well how others see you, of course.

I started my professional life in politics where a suit of armour was definitely required. In my thirties, helped by having three children in quick succession, I discovered the power of the dress and have never looked back. Dresses are much simpler and more versatile: one decision, then you can accessorise around it. I love that you can dress it up or down and it's one less thing to think about in the morning – which, in a busy house of five family members all heading in different directions, is a huge advantage. To this day, I tend to overdress rather than underdress, and find refuge in beautifully thought through and well-made clothes.

You have to feel comfortable in the clothes you are wearing, and to do this you need to give yourself permission to look great – that’s our mantra at Smart Works. So much of what you wear is about factors other than the clothes themselves, and so what we are doing is creating a safe space where a woman can express herself through clothes. To achieve this, our stylists create an environment of trust, putting the client in the lead, asking what they would like to wear, then curating an outfit from our wardrobe to best suit them. It sounds simple but it is a complex process, and the results are profound. Stepping out in vivid colours, or wearing a perfectly fitting piece from an aspirational brand, can change a woman’s chance of success. 

The last few years have been a great time to be a dress lover with a social conscience. There has been a wonderful growth in small British independent brands making short runs of beautiful dresses, often using deadstock fabric. Justine Tabak, Seraphina and O Pioneers are all favourites, and I also have Me+Em and Rixo dresses that come out every year and always feel right. I spent most of last summer in a striped dress from Cefinn, which took me from the boardroom to a launch event and children’s parties, and I can’t wait to get it back out again.  

You have to FEEL COMFORTABLE in the clothes you are wearing, and to do this you need to GIVE YOURSELF PERMISSION TO LOOK GREAT.

I love what Isabel Spearman has done with the Daily Dress Edit – she is also a Smart Works ambassador. It has been wonderful to complete the circle and have many of those brands in our wardrobes for our clients. They’ve also donated to our fundraising pop up shopping events at Bicester Village and with the team at Stella magazine. It means a lot to us that small brands donate, as we know they don’t have the same quantities of stock.

One of our most special days at Smart Works was when we launched the Smart Set capsule collection with the Duchess of Sussex in 2019. The focus was on our clients and the brands (John Lewis, M&S, Misha Nonoo and Jigsaw) who had designed the interview-essential pieces for the capsule collection. I needed to complement that without distracting from it; I also needed pockets. The Erdem shirt dress I wore fitted the bill perfectly – I’d bought it in a sample sale a year or so previously, not quite knowing what its moment would be and it played its part brilliantly.

The beauty product I can’t live without? The Bobbi Brown pot rouge in powder pink. I have one within reach at all times for a quick refresh of lips and cheeks. I am also a big fan of the Bobbi Brown face base, which always leaves my skin feeling hydrated. I also usually carry a MZ Wallace bag on busy days as they are perfectly designed for city life and working mums – light, many pockets, space for a laptop, gym kit, kids’ snacks, all the essentials.


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