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The Clarion

The Student News Site of Bethel University

The Clarion

The Student News Site of Bethel University

The Clarion

Clothed in empowerment

Through nonprofit Dress for Success Twin Cities, Sara Poldrugovac Darst walks the runway toward a future in fashion and sustainability.

Red and green lights illuminated the runway as a model wearing a polka-dot blouse, striped pants, a black leather belt, ruby-red high heels and a pair of red-rimmed sunglasses strutted down the runway at the Sallynoggin College of Further Education’s April 2018 fashion show in Dublin, Ireland. A second model later stepped into the scene sporting a mesh black dress overlaying a dotted skirt, a pair of black combat boots and a fiery red handbag. 

Seated in the audience, fashion student and aspiring stylist Sara Poldrugovac Darst felt excited and proud knowing that she had put her heart and effort into her final college project. She chose the ‘90s era as her inspiration because she “liked the sophisticated, rock style.” Now, her distinct calling in the fashion and styling industry is to help women feel their best in what they wear, so they can believe in themselves and be empowered both in their personal and professional goals. 

Darst’s love for fashion and design was ignited during her early days in the coastal town of Labin, Croatia, where she spent time organizing her sister’s closet, curating outfits and developing an eye for bright colors. During her family’s shopping trips to Italy — an hour away from her town — she found inspiration in the streets. 

After moving to America with her husband in 2019, Darst had a mission: to get a job doing what she loved. She just needed the network and the outfit. Dress for Success Twin Cities, a worldwide organization that assists women in their career advancements, helped Darst get a job as a front desk receptionist at Bell International Laboratories. Today, she continues to follow her dreams in fashion and is inspired by volunteering at DFS events in the Twin Cities, where she uses her stylist skills to help women like herself. 

“A lot of women don’t believe in themselves and don’t do things for themselves, so I want to be the one who shows them how,” Darst said.

So Darst logged onto Canva — a graphic design application — and designed her 2020 vision board. She gathered photos from Google and Canva that showcased where she wanted to travel, what books she wanted to read and themes of a healthy lifestyle. Statements about connection with other professional women, connection to the community and working as a stylist filled the virtual vision board. Among these images was the DFS logo, an organization she had become familiar with while in Ireland. At the time, she was not aware of their U.S. affiliates.

“I really wanted to connect with an organization that is working with clothing and people — women in particular — and work where I can use my social and creative styling skills,” she said. Darst had a background in hospitality and retail but longed to find a purposeful outlet to fuse her passions for female empowerment and styling.

I believe there’s enough food in the world that no one should go hungry. There is enough clothing in the world that no one should go naked. But we still have those problems in the world.

— Juliet Mitchell

About two weeks later, Darst emailed DFS Twin Cities and received a response from Vice President of Strategic Partnerships Megan Meuli. Even during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic with no job or driver’s license, she began to walk down her own professional runway. Volunteer orientation classes. Zoom meetings. Emotional intelligence classes. Walk and talk sessions with program committee member Juliet  “Ms. J” Mitchell around local Minneapolis lakes. According to Darst, they would “chat, network and enjoy peaceful mornings.”

Ms. J says she believes in DFS’ mission and has been passionate about it since her onboarding as a mentor in 2017. 

“I believe there’s enough food in the world that no one should go hungry,” she said. “There is enough clothing in the world that no one should go naked. But we still have those problems in the world.” 

With DFS, she has been able to advance women’s careers and live by this mission. Ms. J spends much of her time as a volunteer teaching mentees etiquette and how to network themselves. Her favorite way to do this is by going on walks with women. 

In 2020, Darst volunteered as a style coach twice a week at the old DFS facility in St. Paul. In 2020, one or two female clients a day would come in to receive style coaching from Darst. She customized business outfits for women. Similar to solving a puzzle, Darst mixed and matched donated professional blazers, slacks and blouses, favoring collared shirts, bright colors and patterns to tie looks together.

“[The clients] get really excited and always want to try more things just to see what [the outfits] look like. They’re really grateful for all that,” Darst said.

During the pandemic, the DFS in-person style coaching subsided and Darst and the program directors decided to brainstorm a method to continue the service throughout the worldwide lockdown. It was during this time that confidence kits — a package complete with professional, customized outfits — were born. 

Clients were offered an online form to clarify their career goals and professional style and offered three different options on how to receive their confidence kit: having it shipped to their homes, having it delivered in-person by a volunteer or allowing the clients to pick it up at the DFS warehouse. Darst led the confidence kit program two winters ago, handpicking professional outfits based on clients’ preferences and career industries.

Many of these clothes were donated by local Minnesota organizations, such as leading agricultural company CHS Inc., which hosted a professional clothing drive. Within 11 days, the Women in Leadership employee resource group packed an entire cubicle with large bags filled with women’s professional clothing.

Employee Volunteerism and Giving Specialist Kathy Swenseth was the primary lead of the initiative and said many women expressed nostalgia as they cleaned out their closets and appreciated that they were educated on where their clothes were going.

“I think for some people, it’s been both a trip down memory lane and also a step toward empowering other women in the community who want to take that next step in their career and have the confidence to do so,” Swenseth said.

The University of Minnesota’s Women in Business group selected DFS as the charity partner for their gala April 6, laying the foundation of female empowerment within Gen Z. Vice President of Philanthropy at UMN’s Women in Business student organization Amber Pietrowski has deeply resonated with DFS’ mission. Soon she will enter the business world, and she sees DFS as a source of inspiration.

“It’s one thing to work or volunteer somewhere, but it’s another to truly be invested in it, and that’s what I see whenever I look at Dress for Success. Women supporting women is everything,” Pietrowski said.

DFS continues to work on its community outreach with their mobile unit, Success Express, a concept that was announced in 2022. The renovated RV is decked out with fitting rooms with full-length mirrors, a coffee area and a stash of clothes, accessories and shoes. It travels to different company partners across the Twin Cities. Darst said that “Success Express” reached over 20% more and served over 1,000 more women last year in Minnesota.

I can’t imagine life without Dress for Success. Honestly, It’s just a part of me.

— Sara Poldrugovac Darst

As Darst continued as a client and style coach at DFS, she was empowered by the leadership team to step up as a leader of the Ulead program in 2022-2023. She said that she began leading online confidence kit sessions, gave her own presentations on style and was helping with other projects. In this role, Darst supported a few different women from all different cultures and backgrounds as they collectively worked toward their own career goals. She recalls being amazed by the women’s strength to quit current jobs to embark on new career paths with confidence, or even explore college classes to further their education.

“These are also women of an older age, you know, they’re not [only] in their 20s or 30s. It was just amazing to see that they have no fear. They just go for it. You know, it’s very motivational and inspiring,” Darst said.

In less than four years, Darst has experienced the value of female empowerment in a work environment and learned to love their mission centered around helping women find jobs, grow their professional wardrobe and gain practical skills to equip them on their career journey. DFS Twin Cities is supporting Darst’s career dream and has even connected her to a professional stylist who closely aligns with her career interests. 

“I can’t imagine life without Dress for Success. Honestly, It’s just a part of me,” said Darst.

A mannequin dressed in a black-and-white collared top, silver-zippered leather mini skirt and black kitten heels stands against a white backdrop decked out in black dots — 24 paper plates painted black with a distinct burgundy plate that represents “diversity.” Crumpled-up paper, plastic bottles and cans were placed on the floor, surrounding the mannequin. Inspired by an Anthropologie window display, Darst had a specific vision.

A sign around the model’s neck declared, “What I stand for is what I stand on.” This was one of Darst’s final projects at Sallynoggin in March 2018. 

Darst noted that the purpose of this project was to “share awareness of today’s fast fashion and the plastic world we live in.”

Nearly six years after this project’s completion, Darst leans into this message through her work at DFS. Monday, March 11 at DFS’ ‘The Power of You’ fundraiser gala, Darst was asked to share about her experiences in front of the audience and testify to DFS’  impact on her life.

DFS has also solidified Darst’s desire to pursue a styling career with a focus on sustainability. 

“Especially here in the U.S., where you have so many secondhand stores and brand new clothes in those stores that are almost never worn … I think I should invest more in secondhand,” Darst said. 

She continues to follow her dreams, looking for a job that combines styling and sustainability. To this day, one of her favorite styled looks was her photo shoot project in college, titled “Sophisticated Artists.” The look featured a sophisticated woman wearing black pants, black tennis shoes and a white button-up shirt with a blue and yellow string around her.

“That was one of my favorites, but what I really enjoy is helping women at Dress for Success with all their outfits when they tell us what they need it for and what they like or dislike. I combine it with what we have because, you know, it’s secondhand … it’s really creative work,” Darst said.

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