By Nathalie Bonney @nathaliebonney
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Videographer / director: Adam Gray
Producer: Nathalie Bonney, Ruby Coote
Editor: Ethan Edwards
Putting on a suit doesn’t just make a man feel smart, “it makes them feel amazing” says the founder of non-profit 100 Suits, Kevin Livingstone.
Starting the initiative in 2011, Kevin, 41, came up with the idea after seeing young men in his area unable to afford a suit for job interviews as well as those coming out of prison with no smart clothes in their possession.
Kevin told Barcroft TV: “I care about my community and I got tired of seeing young men in my community being ostracised for the way they wear their pants versus engaging them and so I wanted to do something.
“I know what it feels like to wear a suit and I know what it looks like - and what it feels like to put on a suit and a tie and to feel relevant.”
At first Kevin aimed 100 suits at gang members, but then realised 100 Suits could reach a much broader demographic.
“I initially wanted to buy 100 Suits for 100 gang members but then I noticed that the population that we’re servicing, was just much more than anybody that reps the gangs.”
And for Kevin, the ethos of 100 Suits is about more than giving away free clothes; it’s about a change in mindset and for many young men – the first time they’ve seen themselves differently.
“When a young person receives a suit, a lot of them haven’t been suited or even know the experience of being tailored for one.
“They will get excited that they’re even wearing a suit and it makes them feel amazing.
“We have a mirror in our boutique, and we make sure they go in front of that mirror and then I ask them ‘what do you see?’
“Sometimes they will say, ‘I see myself in a suit’, I ask them again and then it drops home that ‘I see a king, I see a provider, I see somebody different who walked inside that room’.
“They see themselves differently and that is the mission and passion of 100 Suits.”
From ad hoc clothes rails on Harlem’s sidewalks to two boutiques in Jamaica and Harlem, 100 Suits has expanded to offer clothing to women and in 2016, 100 Suits started going into Rikers Island correctional facility once a month and now works there every week, running a book club and mentorship programme.
Kevin said: “We are there on a weekly basis, working with young men who are getting ready to come home, we provide them with suits while they are incarcerated, we help them with DMV applications, school - we just do the whole gamut of re-entry services while they are incarcerated, so when they come home, they are met with one of our mentors, in each borough of New York city, to help them go through the process of reintegrating back into the community.”
While running 100 Suits, Kevin found himself homeless for a brief period of time.
He said: “In 2016 I was homeless, I split from my wife at the time; my contract wasn’t renewed and I didn’t have any means but I was too prideful to tell people what I was a going through, and so I stayed about a month and a half inside of JFK parking lot, inside my car.
“It absolutely changed me. It kept me humble, I stay humble, it kept me hungry. And again, I experienced what the people we serve with, experience on a daily basis. This wasn’t orchestrated, it was handed to me and I had a choice of either crumbling or getting back up.”
Incredibly, Kevin came up with the idea for 100 Suits Academy, mentorship programmes working with at-risk youths, while he was sleeping in his car.
“Our students are learning financial literacy, brand development, entrepreneurism; they’re also learning how to, de-escalate fights through conflict resolution.
“That was birthed inside of my car in the middle of the night as I was sitting there in the middle of my tears, trying to figure out ways to come about and be more effective in my community.”
Right from the outset Kevin has sought to engage his local community in his charitable efforts.
Starting off with a cardboard collection box in a bank lobby, the charity relies entirely on donations, and now has four donation spaces and several storage units across the city. One of its most high-profile donors is former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, but 100 Suits by no means relies on the donations of the rich and famous.
Kevin said: “90 percent of 100 Suits come from people who look like me, just regular community folk who want to do something in their community, I am really humbled by that.”
Thanks to this generosity, 100 Suits has never run out of donations and its popup street stalls are a chance for people walking by – whatever their age or circumstance - to try on and take home a suit.
Kevin said: “We bring good vibes and vibrations to the people in the community. We go to high crime areas and we bring our suits and again mentors, job developer and job access information.”
The Jamaica and Harlem shops meanwhile work on an appointment system, Kevin explained:
“We encourage them to make that first step. When they make that first step, we are walking the rest of the way with them.
“We give our clients a boutique experience. My vision is that when they walk in one way, they leave another, and so we give them a free suit, shirt, tie; they are able to get a haircut, they are also able to receive one-on-one tie-tying session and at the end of their experience they are able to see a job developer to enable them to further along their employment opportunities.”
In the future Kevin would like to see 100 Suits models expanding across the country as well as move into supportive housing.
He said: “I am a really big believer in the role that we create and what we have done in New York City, can be mimicked in terms of supportive housing for the incarcerated men and women.”