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St. Louis Non-Profit Helps Underdressed Men With Free Suits

Suit up! Chris Dixon, co-founder of the Suit Project, provides donated men’s clothing for job interviews and other special occasions.

“We’ve all been underdressed for something,” says Chris Dixon.

The Sunset Hills native works with Page Law Firm in downtown St. Louis. If Dixon didn’t realize the importance of proper attire prior to his hire at the firm, it certainly stood out when he began conducting job interviews with potential employees. Sometimes a wrinkled shirt has more serious implications than feeling underdressed—it can be the difference separating one qualified candidate from another.

Everyone wants to put their best foot forward, but a suit is no longer a daily necessity for men. Dixon sought to help those who lack the resources to buy their own.

Then his office received a visit from Ben Lawler, who sells custom clothing on behalf of Tom James. The two realized that they daily came into contact with men who have need to dispose of old or unwanted attire.

“We decided instead of donating money, it would be better for our long-term well being if we directed our own idea of good,” Dixon explained.

Two years later, the pair (along with some helpers) operates the Suit Project, a non-profit organization that collects new and gently-used suits for donation. The goal of the Suit Project is to “level the playing field” by ensuring that inadequate clothing doesn’t hinder an individual’s chance at getting a job, or looking spiffy on a special occasion.

“We want their minds and personalities and who they are to show. We don’t want something like their wardrobe… to be the determiner.” The organization has handed out more than 500 suits, and hundreds of shirts, ties, belts, and other men’s pieces since their inception, Dixon said.

Collecting items to donate has never been a problem. Lawler has been a “huge contributor” to soliciting donations, Dixon said. He “tells new customers about his charity and they inevitably give him suits” as they trade out their wardrobes. Dixon's grandmother, Joyce Franklin, of Sunset Hills, volunteered her basement for storage. She said the area had swelled with more than 100 suits by the time they awarded their first donations.

The organization first reached out to groups they felt would be in immediate need: parole boards, college graduates, and high school seniors with pending proms and graduations. Some of their first donations went to the Fathers’ Support Center of St. Louis and students of Vashon High School’s 2011 graduating class. 

To the recipients, it’s not just a new piece of clothing. The organization custom fits around 95 percent of their suit donations, and Franklin said that fact alone has a profound effect on confidence levels.

"When Chris came back from Vashon, he said, 'To go there and see the kids in the first suit they ever tried on, their whole personalities changed,'" Franklin said.

But their inventory isn’t relegated to business suits. The group also accepts ties, sport coats, sweat suits, belts, even socks. Dixon said they often offer up sets of shirts and accessories when they provide a group donation, because they don’t want to hold onto items that could be used right away. A recent haul to Concordia Seminary included 83 suits, 41 sport coats, 3 tuxedoes, 12 pairs of pants, 56 shirts, 4 polo shirts, 3 sweaters, 6 pairs of shoes, and 50 ties, according to the Suit Project’s website.

The Suit Project does not accept money for the items. At one point, it asked  recipients to perform an act of kindness or other good deed in exchange for a suit.

“The act does not have to cost a dime. The only requirement is that it is genuine,” their website states. But Dixon said their growing inventory has allowed them to be more relaxed about this requirement.

 “What we found—we’ve been getting so many darn suits, they do no good sitting in our basement,” he said. “If we have the inventory, and you have the reason, we’ll give it to you.”

The group recently began reaching out to returning veterans with the assistance of Franklin. The demographic doesn't always demonstrate the typical financial need for new clothing, but Franklin noted "they don’t always come home the same size."

Dixon said they’ve also received a few women’s pieces, he’s found “women hang on to their stuff a little bit longer.”

Dixon emphasizes that the men do most of their work for the Suit Project in their free time. The organization fields requests to provide or pick up a suit through their website, which allows the men time to tend to their families and full-time jobs.

Dixon said happily that their following is "growing like crazy," especially with groups interested in hosting suit drives on their behalf. Church St. Louis hosted a collection day on July 29.

The decision to register as a non-profit was a no-brainer. Co-founder Stephen Brooks, an accountant at SRB & Associates, oversees the financial components. Dixon said the group intends to “keep a corporate structure so it can continue to grow,” possibly even to a national level. They’re on their way—the Suit Project was recently chosen from 100 applicants for a grant from the Volunteer Service Council of St. Louis

To donate items, or to receive a donation, visit the Suit Project website.

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