Smokey’s Closet works to provide free gently used professional clothing to students at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. The closet, celebrating its fifth anniversary this fall, has helped nearly 2,000 students find professional clothing since it was first established in the spring of 2016.
UT’s Center for Career Development and Academic Exploration recommends that students dress professionally for career fairs and job interviews. But when the center began receiving statements from students questioning why or saying they didn’t have professional clothing, it came to the realization that many students don’t have the money to pay for it.
“Students are here trying to pay for school, pay for food and apartments and other things, so that was just an extra expense that they didn’t have,” said Mary Mahoney, senior assistant director for the center. “We would try to recommend going to somewhere like Knox Area Rescue Ministries (KARM) or Goodwill and watching for sales, but it made us realize that we needed something here.”
The History of Smokey’s Closet
The idea of Smokey’s Closet began with pop-up shops in the center’s office, then in Dunford Hall. In the fall of 2013, the office collected clothing by reaching out to the university community, alumni, and companies like Target. They planned to host an event that spanned two days, allowing students to come in and pick out a professional outfit.
“We publicized it and it started at 11 a.m., but by around 10:30 a.m. we already had a line of students out the door and past the building,” Mahoney said.
The office was out of clothes by 1 p.m.
“That just made us realize how necessary this is and allowed us to host the event for another time or two,” Mahoney said.
Though Mahoney knew the need was ongoing, she wasn’t sure if the office was set up to run pop-up shops throughout the year on their own. In early spring 2016, the Student Government Association offered to collaborate.
“They reached out and said the same thing—that students need professional clothing,” said Mahoney. “This collaboration is what led the pop-ups to be branded Smokey’s Closet, and it’s when we created our symbol.”
SGA worked to find the closet’s permanent home in the Student Union and has since created a position dedicated to helping the closet. Students who hold the position work at the closet during store hours and offer tips to help it be at its best.
“We give feedback by bouncing ideas off of each other and collaborating and just seeing how to make the closet better,” said Vanessa Jackson, a senior retail and consumer sciences major from Nashville, and co-director of Smokey’s Closet for SGA. “Whether it’s decorating the room or figuring out what to do with displays, we always have our hand in things so that we can make things easy and accessible for students who come in.”
After successfully working with SGA, the center decided to reach out to other organizations on campus. They began by contacting Lucy Simpson, senior coordinator for the Retail and Consumer Sciences program.
“She took a class capstone project and had them sit down and meet with us and study the viability of the closet and what it needed,” said Mahoney. “That started a relationship with the National Retail Federation Student Association, and now Smokey’s Closet is a three-way relationship with them, our office, and SGA.”
Growing Its Reach
The project allowed the opportunity for members of NRFSA to present their retail and marketing ideas to the closet and later evolved into a class for retail and consumer science majors.
“We talked to our advisor and she created this class for us just to give us the opportunity to have real-world retail experience,” said Grace Reed, a senior retail and consumer sciences major from Knoxville, and member of NRFSA. “The course also allows us to have Smokey’s Closet open a few more days a week.”
Smokey’s Closet has worked with a number of donors and supporters over the past five years, including 62 individual donors, nearly 100 student volunteers, and roughly 33 organizations.
In the future, Mahoney would like to see more hours, more inclusive sizes, and potentially a larger space to call home.
“We love being in the Student Union,” she said. “The building people are so supportive, and it’s such a great centralized location. We’re just outgrowing it.”
The center is working on offering new services such as dry cleaning and possibly clothing alterations.
“We don’t always think about the impact that clothing has on people,” said Patricia Perry, a senior retail and consumer sciences major from Memphis, and co-director of Smokey’s Closet for SGA. “If you feel you look good, then it helps you carry yourself in a different way. I think that’s helped a lot of students here just feel their best.”
“A lot of people come in saying they don’t know their size or that they don’t know what to look for, so that’s what we’re to help them with,” said Jackson. “If they find something they like and feel good in then that makes us happy.”
The closet is located in Room 376C of the Student Union. For hours and information on how to donate, see the Center for Career Development and Academic Exploration’s professional clothing web page.
Maddie Stephens (865-974-3993, firstname.lastname@example.org)