A local nonprofit brings style and dignity to women in need.
Photo by Sarah Jordan McCaffery
Life hasn’t always been easy for Renee Osborne. The North Andover mom of three lives with neuromyelitis optica, an autoimmune disease that has left her blind at times. She’s endured homelessness and struggles to make ends meet. And although she was thrilled to find a job as an office manager, she worried because business clothes are so expensive. That’s when her social worker referred her to Uncommon Threads, a new, nonprofit “empowerment boutique” in Lawrence for women who’ve experienced abuse, domestic violence, and other trauma. There, Osborne met with the boutique’s founder and executive director, Susan Kanoff, a social worker, stylist, and fashion blogger who lavished her with personal attention. After an intimate styling appointment, Osborne left with several complete outfits as well as a new sense of self-worth.
“It was like having a personal stylist. It was awesome,” Osborne says. “I used to look down all the time. Now I walk with my head up. I’m confident.”
That confidence from clothing is something that Kanoff has seen again and again in her work. As a stylist and a social worker, she’s been combining her two worlds for years on a smaller scale: When her wardrobe styling clients gave Kanoff their old clothing and accessories to donate, Kanoff often gave them to her social work clients.
“I really noticed how impactful great clothes are,” she says, adding that new outfits helped her clients with everything from getting a job to boosting self-esteem. “I knew it needed to evolve into a program of its own.”
That dream came true when Kanoff opened Uncommon Threads in November in a small space on Island Street in Lawrence. Uncommon Threads differs from other clothing programs in many ways. Clients are referred by social workers and are seen by appointment, rather than having shoppers walk in off the street. The clothing isn’t limited to work attire. Instead, clients get outfits to fit their lifestyle, whether they work in an office, need something to wear to a wedding, or need to refresh their everyday wardrobe. If the client is able to, Kanoff asks that they pay $10 for the experience and clothing.
“I feel really strongly that there’s a real empowerment in paying,” she says. Plus, “If someone walks up to you and says, ‘I love your blouse,’ you can say, ‘I bought it at a boutique.’”
Although some of the clothing and accessories are secondhand, everything is in like-new condition, and many of the boutique’s items are actually brand-new, donated by generous companies and local partners, including dresscode and Chic Consignment, both of which are located in Andover.
Amy Finegold, who owns dresscode, knows firsthand about the power that beautiful clothing can have on women. “You can physically see the changes when they feel good about themselves and what they’re wearing,” she says.
In addition to donating, Finegold is also on Uncommon Threads’ board of advisors. So is May Doherty, who owns Chic Consignment. “To me, it made all the sense in the world,” Doherty says. “As a female business owner, it makes sense to help other women.”
Another difference from other programs is the space itself, which feels nothing like a secondhand store and everything like a beautiful, upscale boutique. There are racks of dresses, pretty décor, and styled outfits on hangers. Peluso Painting & Restoration, owned by Tom Peluso, and based in North Reading, painted the walls and created custom-made built-in shelving. Peluso, happily donated his company’s services, and now wants to also donate gift certificates for clients to receive manicures and pedicures after their visit. “Let’s make them feel special,” Peluso says. “I said, ‘Let’s do it right!’”
Making the clients feel special is at the heart of what Uncommon Threads is all about.
“When women walk in the door, we want them to feel like they’re somewhere really special,” Kanoff says. “It’s not just clothes. It’s really lifting a woman up.”
Before they come in, Uncommon Threads’ clients fill out a detailed form—the same form that Kanoff gives to her personal styling clients—asking them about everything from the colors they like to wear to their clothing size to their favorite and least favorite parts of their body and how they want to dress for their lifestyle.
Then they get to the fun part— creating outfits that bring out the best in them. Clients who walk in feeling defeated or hesitant leave feeling beautiful and confident. In fact, Kanoff asks her clients to rate their self-esteem on a scale of 1-5 before and after their appointment, and it always increases afterward.
“They start trying on the clothes and they start to light up,” Kanoff says. “By the end they’re modeling, asking for their pictures to be taken.”
Kanoff says it’s more than just the clothing that helps her clients feel good about themselves. Many of these women rarely feel pretty, get cared for, or hear compliments. Finegold notes that many of them “have been through personal tragedy and violence—they really desperately need a little boost,” Finegold says.
“I tell every client who walks through the door that they’re beautiful, and they are,” Kanoff says. “It’s like a little oasis. It’s a spot to come in and get pampered.”
In the few months since it opened its doors, Uncommon Threads has assembled a large group of collaborators, including Family Services of the Merrimack Valley as its fiscal agent; Closet Classics of Andover, which installed a closet system for their donations; dozens of volunteers; and an advisory board that includes Finegold, Doherty, and Susan Howell, co-owner and marketing director of Lawrence-based Howell Custom Building Group.
“This is North Shore women helping North Shore women,” Howell says, adding that now the boutique is working to fundraise, ensuring that the program can be sustained and grow.
Kanoff wants the program to eventually expand to include mentoring, self-esteem and art workshops, and internships to teach skills like event planning, inventory keeping, and fundraising.
Until then, Kanoff will continue building on Uncommon Threads’ early success and enthusiasm.
“This is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time,” Kanoff says. “This is so much better than I could have imagined.”