Helping people navigate through tough times is what Working Wardrobes does, but last year the Santa Ana nonprofit found itself in a similar situation as the people it serves, facing an unprecedented double whammy of challenges.
A fire last year destroyed everything inside the organization’s 22,000-square-foot Irvine office, donation center and career center.
The Feb. 2 fire forced the organization—which provides skills training, clothing and other resources to help people prepare for the workforce—to temporary offices at Goodwill of Orange County in Santa Ana.
The next month came the pandemic.
“That was just extraordinary in terms of the challenges,” said founder and CEO Jerri Rosen.
Working Wardrobes managed through both sets of obstacles, with a focus on picking things back up after the fire hit the organization, Rosen said.
The impact of the nonprofit’s work was not only felt in the community, but within the organization itself.
Working Wardrobes, with 35 employees, places No. 38 on this week’s Business Journal list of the Best Places to Work among small employers, which ranks those with 15 to 49 U.S. workers.
“So much of the experience for COVID for us is wrapped up in the rebuilding of the organization,” Rosen said. “I do think that this whole opportunity to focus on something bigger than what maybe individuals are going through is part of what got me through this.”
“I mean, we all went through changes. We all went through the challenges of COVID and needing to be a bit more isolated, but we didn’t really feel we had the opportunity to isolate or quarantine. There was so much to do in a very short period of time.”
Working Wardobes is now fully staffed, after reducing its headcount last year to about a dozen, with the team in its new 15,000-square-foot headquarters on McFadden Avenue in Santa Ana along with a 13,000-square-foot donation center on Daimler Street in Irvine.
Technology, via things like Zoom, helped keep the staff in touch, while online workshops allowed Working Wardrobes to continue helping its client base with workforce readiness training.
The virtual trainings had already been in development pre-pandemic and allowed the organization to expand its reach beyond Orange County and the rest of Southern California, Rosen said.
In fact, they’ve reached people from as far as Florida, New York and Chicago.
“We might never have had the opportunity to look at a national footprint,” Rosen said.
Retail’s another area the organization is looking closely at, amid a broader aim to understand what the workplaces of the future will look like.
“We really want to do a deep dive of what is actually going to happen in the world of retail. Are we going to do more bricks-and-mortar or will it be more online,” she said. “We want to also be focused on what are the offerings that we want to provide our customers.”
“There’s been quite a pent-up demand for retail,” she said. “Our stores are really experiencing some record sales, so we’re excited about that because that helps provide more funding for the organization, but that’s a big unknown. I think there’s a lot of work to be done.”
Working Wardrobes currently offers two retail concepts. One is The Hanger Boutique with higher price point designer items, located in Laguna Niguel and Tustin. The other concept, called The Hanger Outlet, with lower price points has stores in Garden Grove and Costa Mesa.
The outlets move three times the volume of the boutiques, but the boutiques see a little more than three times the outlet’s average daily ticket size given the higher price points.
Still, Chief Revenue Officer Stefaan Poortman said the organization’s top boutique and top outlet are performing neck and neck year to date.
“Historically, the boutiques have been sales leaders for the organization, both in overall and obviously their average daily ticket, but also in their annual revenue. We’re starting to see this parity come to play over the last two or three years between the two concepts,” Rosen said.
Poortman said the organization is analyzing the two concepts, and that if the opportunity presents itself, they would look to expand the door count as the resale market and the sharing economy concept continue to gain steam.
“It’s the ‘old is now new again’ and this idea of what I wore in high school is now considered vintage and cool again,” Poortman said of the performance drivers. “So we’re really seeing that in terms of our rebound in retail this year, starting in the fall  and through into the spring , we’re seeing our retail numbers at very high levels.”
It’s a nice trendline for the business, particularly as Rosen readies for her retirement, which was announced last March. A successor has not been announced.
The CEO said there’s still plenty to do in her final six months at Working Wardrobes, including readying for the first on-site fundraising event since COVID, set to take place Oct. 2, along with bringing back tours of the Career Success Center in July, amid what continues to be a shifting and increasingly competitive nonprofit landscape.
“It is very competitive and we all really have to focus on sustainability for the organization,” she said. “How do we keep the doors open and how do we continue to serve more people? We always talk about an equation of more money equals more mission. I think the other change maybe that I have seen—I come from the business world. I don’t come from a background in social work and I do think that’s one of the needs is to welcome more people from the business world into the nonprofit industry cluster.”
Once Rosen officially departs from Working Wardrobes, she said she plans on helping other executives at organizations as a coach with Executive Coaches of Orange County.
She’s also on the advisory council of Lake Forest nonprofit WISE (Women Investing in Security and Education), and she’s in the midst of finishing a book expected to be out by the end of the year.
Otherwise, she said there will be more consulting in the nonprofit space and leisure travel, with Prague and going back to Egypt at the top of her list of places to visit.
“I have a long list of where I’d like to go,” she said, noting “and it doesn’t take me long to pack.”