"There's nothing like a little retail therapy," Leeza Gibbons exclaims in her best show voice on a recent morning at the Sears store in Torrance. The talk show host and a handful of other celebs and fashion editors are volunteering their time to help women in need shop for work attire as part of the store's Fashion Takes Action program. The beneficiaries of the events are clients of New York-based Dress for Success, a nonprofit organization that provides interview-appropriate clothing for low-income women seeking employment.
Camera crew in tow, Gibbons greets Dress for Success client Annie Dennis with a hug. "It's all about you today," she says with a grin. In a program that concluded in L.A. last week, Sears donated two head-to-toe outfits to Dress for Success clients at 12 shopping events around the country. Working her way through the women's department, Gibbons asks, "What's your style? Is this color too flamboyant?" She has a knack for drawing out her shopping buddy, like only a seasoned interviewer can.
Dennis, 58, came to Dress for Success after the drug store where she worked filed for bankruptcy. Her taste is conservative, despite Gibbons' pleas to add more color. "I think Annie can be a little bolder than she thinks she can be."
They settle on a boxy, red plaid jacket with gold buttons, a below-the-knee navy blue skirt and a two-piece leopard number. Gibbons whispers, "I think she's trying that [last] one on for me."
Dennis proceeds to the dressing room while Gibbons hangs back with her crew. "I never try anything on," she confesses, smoothing her khaki-colored silk mesh sweater. "So I don't shop anywhere that doesn't have a great return policy."
All eyes turn as Dennis emerges modeling a slinky, animal-print skirt. "I feel like I just won the Lotto!" Dennis says, smiling.
"This program is so empowering because it celebrates women's ability to take control of their lives and the role fashion can take in self-esteem," Gibbons says.
Turning to Dennis, she says, "You're a star Annie." To her cameraman, Gibbons adds, "We should have her on the show."
When actress Camryn Manheim begins her shopping trip with Dress for Success client Patricia Tucker, she offers these words of wisdom: "Go for the most expensive stuff because you can always return it later." Picking up a pair of men's silk boxers, Manheimmugs for the crowd. "What do you think? Are they me?"
The award-winning star of "The Practice" has become a poster girl for plus-sized women. Rushing for a rack of pinstriped suits not unlike the one she is wearing, Manheim says, "It's pretty ironic that I [am] volunteering to be a fashion consultant when two years ago all I ever wore was jeans and T-shirts. Fashion was never available to me when I was growing up, so I had an aversion to it." She credits her newfound appreciation for clothes to great stylists and a growing plus-size market. As a board member of Dress for Success, Manheim says one of her goals is to ensure the organization receives donations of larger-sized clothing.
"I'm feeling this one," Tucker purrs, petting a silver blouse. "And what about this?" she asks, presenting Manheim with a mandarin-collared jacket.
"Someone might mistake you for the leader of Saigon," the actress quips.
Like a couple of girlfriends, they head into the dressing room together with armfuls of clothes. "I want to try this on myself," Manheim says, pointing to a black, zipper-front jacket.
The winning outfits are a pinstriped suit and a long, navy knit skirt with matching twin set. "Now you can have lunch at the Harvard Club," Manheim jokes in her best Ivy League accent.
"Everyone should have a personal sense of style that reflects who they are," Manheim says. "The bottom line is, you have to feel confident in what you are wearing. Some people say the clothes make the woman. I say the woman makes the woman--but the clothes help."