Project Pinstripe suits up young men for job market

Karen Dybis
Special to The Detroit News

This Saturday, a lineup of fashion advisers, career consultants and professional haberdashers will sit down with a group of Detroit-area teens for a whirlwind job-prep session that would impress Cinderella's Fairy Godmother.

The day-long event known as Project Pinstripe aims to prepare these young men with not only the apparel but also the soft skills they'll need to enter the workforce, organizers say. That includes a free, gently used suit as well as advice on everything from how to tie a Windsor knot to offering a firm handshake during a job interview.

This year, the organization sponsored by custom clothier Tom James Co. and its Metro Detroit partners will celebrate its 10th anniversary with its largest event so far. What began with about 25 local high-school seniors has ballooned into a day-long affair that will have more than 50 volunteers and 137 teen participants, organizers say, all in one jam-packed happening at Don Bosco Hall in Youthville on Woodward in Detroit.

"Looking good is only one part of it; we want to impact these young men and their confidence levels," said local coordinator Rob Wachler, a Tom James professional haberdasher in its Southfield office. "It's about how you deal with people. It's how you speak. It's about when you sit in an interview, how much eye contact should you made. That's as important as how to tie a tie or shine your shoes."

Tom James haberdashers as well as members of the Detroit A.M. Rotary Club and Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity (Gamma Lambda Chapter) volunteer their time to sort and display the clothing to create an atmosphere similar to a fine men's store. The haberdashers work with each Project Pinstripe participant to select an outfit, measure each young man and provide on-the-spot tailoring.

Most of Saturday's participants are in local mentoring programs, organizers say, so they're ready for this next step in their lives. Many are about to graduate from high school and are going to attend college while others may be starting to interview for full-time jobs.

Today's millennial generation seems to be interested in learning how to dress well, emulating their grandparents, who were more formal and thought about the details in their accessories and the like, said John Burton, a Project Pinstripe volunteer and fellow Tom James professional haberdasher.

"You see the students' excitement and enthusiasm. That's the opposite of what you hear about (that generation) and typical 18 year olds," Burton said. "The energy is over the top."

Project Pinstripe began at Tom James in New York City, when a young female employee from Livonia suggested the program as a way for the custom clothier to give back to the more than 125 communities where they have businessess, Wachler said. That woman grew up with second-hand clothing, so she understood the struggle to find appropriate outfits and the importance of making a lasting first impression when finances are tight or non-existent.

Tom James in Southfield has grown its Project Pinstripe into an all-day event. It starts with presentations from local business people from the Rotary and Alpha Phi Alpha, who share their stories of growing up, finding success and the challenges they faced. They are the inspiration for students to see if they reach high they can follow the same path, Wachler said.

The event continues with one-on-one sessions on interviewing, networking and more. In between, students work with Tom James haberdashers and volunteers to find a suit, tie and dress shirt, which are professionally tailored and prepared for the new owner by Huntington Cleaners. Most of the suits, which were donated by Tom James clients, range in value from $400 to $2,000. The event concludes with a catered luncheon from O'Mara's in Berkley, during which students are partnered with the day's speakers and volunteers to continue the conversation.

"This gives them a head start and encourages them to be their best," Wachler said.

Karen Dybis is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.