Spiritual (Midlife) Fashionista, Susan Kanoff of Uncommon Threads
If you've been reading my blog, you know that I recently went to New York for a meet-up with some amazing women from the Forever Fierce Revolution. While I was there, I had a conversation with Susan Kanoff who was also part of the group. During our conversation, Susan told me some of her story, including sharing about her non-profit, Uncommon Threads and her blog, The Midlife Fashionista. I knew then that Susan was a very special person and I wanted to get to know her better. I decided to ask her if she was willing to be interviewed for my blog and she graciously agreed! This prompted me to start of a series of interviews on Crazy Blonde Life, called Spiritual Fashionistas. Susan Kanoff is my first interview and she definitely qualifies as a Spiritual (Midlife) Fashionista!
What exactly does Uncommon Threads do?
Uncommon Threads is an empowerment program for struggling women. We use clothes and style as tools for building self-esteem and self-confidence...it's an outside-in and inside-out approach to empowering women! Our clients are all referred by social service professionals and include domestic violence survivors, female veterans, disabled women, cancer patients and women in recovery. our goal is to make every woman who walks through the door of the boutique feel beautiful, confident and worthy.
Uncommon Threads doesn't look like a typical "clothing program"...it's a beautiful little boutique complete with gorgeous displays, quality clothing and even a dressing room. We treat our clients with dignity and respect and provide them with an "oasis" from life stresses and struggles.
Each client gets an individual styling session with our volunteer stylists and receives up to four complete outfits suitable for her needs and lifestyle. Although some of our clients are working (or interviewing), others may never be able to work due to trauma or disabilities. We can dress a woman for a job, a special event, or for every day! We ask for a $10 donation because the act of paying is empowering in itself, however we will never turn a client away if she cannot afford it. We rely on social workers to let us know if the fee is affordable. We encourage our clients to return seasonally or as a need arises as long as they are referred by a social worker.
We are all about self-esteem building. For when a woman feels good about herself, she can conquer the world. We also believe that by lifting women up, we are positively impacting our community. A confident woman is more apt to pursue a job or educational opportunities and is a strong role model to her children.
Uncommon Threads has only been open for a little over a year, but we've already styled over 400 women! The need is so great, as Lawrence, Massachusetts is one of the poorest cities in the country. In the first six months we were featured in both local and national press incuding Woman's World Magazine, The Boston Globe, and the Boston news (the segment went national!). We've already expanded to offer a "Women's Empowerment Center" where we hold self-esteem focused groups and workshops. Our vision is to provide mentoring, stress management services and health and wellness education.
What inspired you to start Uncommon Threads?
The program actually started out of my social work office several years ago when I was balancing two very different careers. For over 20 years, I ran a federal social service program that moved low-income families out of poverty (I worked mostly with single moms). About ten years ago, I started a wardrobe styling business as a fun "side job". When my private clients were looking to donate their clothes, I offered to pass them on to my social work clients. In addition to counseling, my clients received new outfits along with my styling guidance! It made a huge difference for these women, as most were not able to afford nice clothes for themselves. I also noticed how the clothes boosted their self-esteem and self-confidence.
Eventually, my office became a working closet (it was a mess!) and it was apparent that I needed to start a real program. A little over a year ago, Uncommon Threads was born and I retired from my social work job. It's been a leap into the unknown (a bit scary - no terrifying!), but it's been worth the roller coaster ride. I feel like I'm doing what I was meant to do - my job is incredibly rewarding.
I should also mention that I am a style blogger. My blog, The Midlife Fashionista, has been instrumental to the program through my connections in the fashion world. We receive regular donations of clothing and shoes from amazing companies such as Aventura, Lynn Ritchie, Leota, Soft Surroundings, Yala, Patricia Green Shoes, and most recently Chico's! The boutique is stocked with a mix of brand new items donated by companies, as well as new and gently worn pieces donated from our wonderful community.
My crazy mix of careers actually works!!
Who does Uncommon Threads serve?
We serve low-income women referred by health professionals, therapists, social workers or clergy. Clients must have a referral to get an appointment. Our clients include women who are domestic violence survivors, veterans, disabled, cancer patients, homeless and those in recovery.
What has been your proudest moment so far?
I think it was when I finally realized that my dream to start Uncommon Threads was actually becoming a reality! To SEE my vision take shape and morph into a successful program has been mind-blowing. But honestly, it never could have happened without the help of a village of kind and caring women. Between our amazing volunteers, my wonderful board, and our donors, Uncommon Threads has truly been a community effort.
How many physical spaces do you have?
Well, we started with one room and since (in a little over a year) we now have a cluster of three! One room is for the "boutique" where we see clients, one is to sort donations, and the newest is now a consignment shop called Uncommon Closet, where the public can shop high-end pieces, all to benefit the program. The goal is for the shop to pay the rent each month! We are grateful to the community and local stores for donations.
How can people volunteer or get involved?
Our biggest need right now is funding to keep the program going and growing. Funding is essential to the program's success and will help us serve even more women in need. If you wish, you can donate here.
We have an amazing team of volunteers, but we can always use more We have all types of opportunities from helping at events to key roles like grant writing or fundraising. Volunteers can even work remotely!
We need clothes, shoes, jewelry and bags for both Uncommon Threads and our new shop Uncommon Closet. Here is a list of on-going needs.
Leggings (we run out constantly!)
Handbags (never enough)
Plus size clothing (we always have a shortage)
Comfortable shoes - although some of our clients love heels, most are looking for comfortable shoes
New or gently worn clothes with tags. We love to give our clients new clothes and how many of us have brand new pieces sitting in our closet that we will never wear!
New underwear, bras (new or gently worn), and new socks
Denim jackets (always in demand)
Skinny jeans (most women prefer skinny jeans to flares, although we take all styles)
High-end items to generate funds for the program. That Tory Burch bag, Tiffany bracelet or Michael Kors dress can help us pay the rent.
All donations are tax deductive as we are a program of Family Services of the Merrimack Valley, a 501C3.
Lastly, we need corporate sponsors - businesses that align with our mission to empower women that would like to join forces and become a "part" of the program in a meaningful way We are always looking for connections too! Instagram has been incredibly helpful, as it has linked me to some very influential people in the fashion world.
What's next for you?
Well, first I have to move! My husband Richard and I have displaced for almost a year now. We were supposed to move into a new home last September but had major construction issues. As a result, we've been living like gypsies moving from one place to another! It really has been quite the year between starting the program, moving twice, and having health issues (I was diagnosed with Leukemia several months ago). I'm afraid to ask "what's next?".
As far as the program goes, I would like to expand to offer more space and additional services for women. Someday, I also see the program replicate throughout the U.S. I've had so many women reach out to me on social media asking if they could also start Uncommon Threads in their neck of the woods. My Assistant Director Lysanne and I joke that someday we'll have an Uncommon Threads van, a mobile boutique to reach women who can't get to us!
What women inspire you?
There are so many women in my life who inspire men every day. My amazing volunteers selflessly give of their time and energy. They're incredible humans with huge hearts. I feel surrounded by love, caring and compassion when I'm around them.
Our Uncommon Threads' clients also inspire me. These women have overcome mountains of struggles and persevered when many would have given up. Like Jomary, who came to lawrence from Puerto Rico after losing everything she owned in Hurricane Maria. She was recuperating from a C-section when the hurricane hit and went two months without electricity and water. She is now rebuilding her life and attending a training program. She doesn't complain about her hardships, she is just grateful for everything she has. Or Ana who was dragged around by her hair for fifteen years, until she finally esaped her brutally abusive husband She lives in fear every day, has medical issues and has a child with severe disabilities, yet she offers to volunteer at Uncommon Threads because she wants to give back.
However, the real goddess in my life is my daughter Alyssa. She has overcome major obstacles in her life and lives each day in an honest and authentic way. She is open with her struggle with depression and doesn't sugarcoat her illness. She has become a strong advocate for mental illness and I love her courage to open up and be herself. Alyssa has actually inspired me to start thinking about how I can help others through my own experencies (I've been through it all). Alyssa is also a very compassionate and giving person. She gives of herself without any expectations. She's helped so many people and I admire her for it.
I should also mention that Alyssa left the corporate world several years ago to also become the Executive Dir3ector of a fabulous non-profit called Project Home Again, coincidentally in Lawrence! We're a lot alike, as you might have guessed.
What is the most challenging part of running a non-profit?
Trying to round up funding. When I started Uncommon Threads, I never thought it would be so hard to find funding. It's been a challenge to step out of my comfort zone to ask for money (I hate this part of the job!). I'm also terrible with paperwork - thank goodness for admin support!
I am so inspired by Susan Kanoff and her wonderful work. She is empowering women and changing the world!
Check out this article in Northshore Magazine to read more about Uncommon Threads.
To learn more about Uncommon Threads or to make a donation, visit www.uncommonthreads.org