In 2021, Vinh Le, a master’s student in hotel administration, was selected to present his research at a national conference for the first time. But there was a problem: he didn’t have a suit to wear and couldn’t afford to buy one.
Le, a first-generation student who grew up in Vietnam, found the Wardrobe, a Cornell student group dedicated to providing professional clothing for all students, with the mission of expanding access to opportunity for students in need. Le was able to borrow a high-quality suit at no cost and has used the Wardrobe’s services for three other conferences since.
“It really means a lot to low-income students like me,” Le said. “They really value students and treat us with respect – they honor the students.”
The Wardrobe loans professional attire to hundreds of students each semester and organizes pop-up shops twice a year where students can take home free professional clothing – more than 1,500 items have been given away since the club’s founding in 2018. Housed in the Career Services offices in Barnes Hall, the group’s 223-item inventory includes belts, button-up shirts, blazers, suit sets, blouses, ties and dresses, which have been donated from individuals or through a partnership with Bloomingdale’s, or purchased with money raised through grants and regular crowdfunding. Students borrow clothing for conferences, class presentations, club socials, information sessions and job interviews, for reasons ranging from convenience to financial need.
Cecelia Kane ’23, an electrical and computer engineering major in Cornell Engineering, used the service for a round of high-stakes job interviews for post-graduation positions – which resulted in multiple offers. “I’ve never had to own a suit, and my parents have never worn formal professional clothes, either. I was really getting stressed about it,” she said. “The Wardrobe allowed me to focus on more important things and that was huge. The fact that you can borrow clothes right on campus and you're not paying fees – it really removes a barrier.”
Any Student, Any Opportunity
Founder Fred Kauber ’19, now a tech investor in venture capital, conceived of the Wardrobe during his first few weeks at Cornell – he needed professional attire for a business class presentation but had left his own suit at home. His mother sent the suit, but it was damaged in the mail. Kauber walked an hour to and from a tailor downtown to get it repaired. Still, it occurred to him that he was lucky – he owned a suit. What about those who didn’t?
“You go to college to work and get good grades, to make friends, and to get a job after you graduate, and for all three of those things, you often need professional attire,” said Kauber, who double-majored in applied economics and management (Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management) and information science (Cornell Ann S. Bowers College of Computing and Information Science).
“My presentation grade that day depended partly on how well I dressed, and there are clubs that require you to dress professionally, and obviously on the job market, it’s important,” Kauber said. “For me, the exciting thing about the Wardrobe is that we’re fulfilling Cornell’s ‘any person… any study’ mantra through our mantra, ‘any student, any opportunity.’ We want to make sure that everyone on Cornell’s campus is prepared to chase whatever opportunity they’re interested in.”
Kauber found others who shared his passion and, with support from the Dyson School, spent two years planning, including learning more about students’ needs. In a small survey of about 90 students, they found that 66% of students felt underdressed at an interview or information session for a company or club, a third of students did not attend an event for lack of appropriate attire, and half of students either couldn’t afford or couldn’t bring professional clothes to campus, including international students without room for professional clothing in their luggage.
After a successful crowdfunding campaign raised more than $10,000, Kauber’s team invested in an initial inventory, as well as clothing racks and a dry-cleaning machine. In 2018, they officially launched the Wardrobe with a pop-up shop attended by more than 200 students.
This year, the group hopes to continue to expand access to students in need; members plan to provide first entry to their 2023 spring pop-up shop to first-generation students, low-income students and students of color and have reached out to various campus offices with the help of Career Services, which is part of Student and Campus Life. Another recent emphasis has been expanding the range of sizes and the diversity of styles to make the inventory more inclusive, particularly for nonbinary students.
“We have so many diverse students who use our services,” said Sarah Kim ’23, a fashion design and management major in the College of Human Ecology and the Wardrobe’s current president. “We want everyone to have that feeling of putting on a nice suit and feeling confident for whatever event they want to conquer. I want everyone to experience that if they can.”
Creating a Mindset
In addition to providing clothing, the Wardrobe offers programming that helps students prepare for their professional lives in other ways; they’ve co-hosted an event providing free professional headshots, and led workshops on interview and resume preparation, managing a budget and networking, as well as industry crash courses, where students present on various professions.
“It’s not just professional clothes that we provide,” Kim said. “We want to also help create a mindset that will help students succeed in whatever they’re using the clothes for.”
Helping students define themselves professionally is also an explicit aspect of participating in the club. There are currently 26 members, divided into six functional teams – management, operations, finance, marketing, events and technology. The group invites applications for specific roles within each team, with an emphasis on students using the Wardrobe to advance their professional goals.
“We want our students to use the Wardrobe to practice whatever skills they possess, whatever they want to get better at,” Kim said. “We hope the Wardrobe can be a foundation for them in whatever industry they go into.”
Operations manager Kaelyn Park ’24, a hotel administration major in the Peter and Stephanie Nolan School of Hotel Administration, joined the Wardrobe initially to practice what she’d been learning in the classroom. “I’m really able to do that through the Wardrobe,” she said. “I’m the day-to-day person who is actually communicating with clients, tracking our inventory, and it’s been really incredible, being able to speak to people using the service and seeing the impact we’re making on campus.”
“It’s allowed me to become a better leader,” said Stratton Papakirk ’23, an applied economics and management major (Dyson School) and vice president of the Wardrobe. “I never really fully understood all of the attention to detail that goes into holding a position like this, and now that I have this experience under my belt, I’ll be better equipped to take on a leadership role. Being a part of the group has also really allowed me to gain a greater appreciation for the need we have here on campus and our responsibility to meet that need.”
Kim said she’s particularly proud of the group’s high retention rate; she credited the experience and mentorship the group provides its members as well as the shared mission.
Park agreed. “Every single person within the Wardrobe is working for a mission that we believe in, and that really adds to what we’re doing on a day-to-day basis,” she said.
That shared mission, Kauber said, is also what has made the group sustainable. “I think at the end of the day, what is most special about the Wardrobe is that it’s a group of people getting together to help others, all united by a common goal,” he said. “Seeing people I don’t know personally take it over really gives me a lot of confidence that everyone is passionate, and it’s going to have a long-term future at Cornell.”