A year ago, Patsy Wardally was unemployed, had zero confidence and felt ‘broken’. Now, thanks to Stella’s charity partner Smart Works and its royal patron the Duchess of Sussex, she has started a new chapter in her life.
The first time I met Patsy Wardally she was, in her own words, a little bit broken. It was last spring, and we were sitting down for a cup of tea at Smart Works’ west London centre to talk about how things had got to be the way they were. ‘I had absolutely no confidence,’ she says. ‘I had been at home for 17 years, caring for my daughter, who is autistic. As she’s almost 18 now, I was feeling that I could finally go back to work. I’d got an interview, but I didn’t have a clue what to say, or how to dress for it. I don’t have many clothes and I certainly didn’t have the money to go out and buy any. I arrived at Smart Works wearing black tracksuit bottoms, trainers and a hat to cover my hair.’
Patsy, 55, is one of 11,000 women who have been offered a new lease of life by the charity since it launched in 2013. With a seemingly simple approach – interview coaching and a personal styling session – it helps vulnerable women get back on the career ladder, something many would have thought was impossible, having all but given up hope after rounds of failed job interviews. Patsy had been a plumber before she had her children, but could no longer do such physical work. Straight after her visit to the charity, she got the job she really wanted in customer services at Gatwick Airport.
The next time I saw Patsy, on 10 January this year, I did a double take. She was on the front page of this newspaper with the Duchess of Sussex, as the charity announced its new royal patron. Invited back for another styling session, pictures of Patsy and her famous new dresser were broadcast around the world. She was on the Six O’Clock News, then the News at Ten, and then in seemingly every magazine on the planet for a fortnight after.
‘It was surreal,’ she tells me now over more tea. ‘When I first came through the door I didn’t even notice she was sitting there. She didn’t behave like royalty, she was so normal. I just couldn’t believe that she was there to help me and to bring me stuff to try on.’ Quietly, the Duchess had been visiting Smart Works for months, learning the ins and outs of the charity and finding her way around the enormous wardrobe filled with stock donated by brands, such as Burberry and LK Bennett. As a dresser, she will have learnt how to listen to a woman who may never have given any thought to their personal style, understanding how to give advice without forcing her own taste upon the client.
You need empathy and honesty for the role. It’s a skill, and you will know immediately if you’ve got it right. ‘We laughed at a few things that were a bit too quirky for me,’ Patsy says. ‘She picked out some red earrings to try and we both just looked at each other and said, “Nah!”’ The final outfit was an undeniable hit – Patsy is wearing the eye-catching pearly earrings that they settled on to meet me today, but is keeping her favourite piece, a Hobbs coat, for special occasions only. ‘Meghan didn’t think of brand names,’ Patsy says. ‘She didn’t know the coat was from Hobbs. She just had an eye for the colour and the shape, and what it would look like on me. I love that coat. I have put dry-cleaner plastic over it! That one’s staying in the wardrobe and only coming out on proper occasions, as it’s so special to me.’
Beyond the novelty of possibly being dressed by a Duchess if you pop into a centre, Meghan’s endorsement of Smart Works will prompt greater changes for the women being served here. The charity has huge plans for the year ahead; in December, hundreds of Telegraph readers came to London’s Somerset House for the Big Smart Works x Stella Fashion Sale, raising £64,700 – and nothing slows down from here. ‘We’ve seen a big surge in interest,’ confirms Kate Stephens, the charity’s CEO. ‘The phones have been ringing with women who need our help, potential volunteers, brands offering clothing donations and people wanting to bring Smart Works to their home cities in different parts of the UK. ‘We hope, over time, that more women will find their way to our centres, and that when they get here, we will be able to give them the most beautiful clothes and the best advice to inspire them to succeed at their job interview – and transform their lives.’
On the several occasions that I’ve visited Smart Works, I’ve met women who have been toppled by illness, or domestic violence, lost everything to debt, or sacrificed their independence to care for others. They all experience the same magic effect: a boost to their self-esteem. The first time I met Patsy, I came with a Stella photographer and she was one of many who hadn’t felt confident enough to have her picture taken. She laughs when I remind her of this, knowing how she feels now. ‘I have had some of the most positive experiences in my life thanks to Smart Works,’ she says. ‘Nothing will dishearten me now.’