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Leslie Kwartin and the Power of “Look”

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Leslie Kwartin and the Power of “Look”

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Kwartin in her Oscars-inspired outfit.

I knew it when I saw her leopard spotted planner. Leslie Kwartin has it. It’s a very elusive thing, something my West Coast eyes have only seen a few times in person: Kwartin has “the look”. “The look” originated in New York with women like my grandmother, a Jewish businesswoman in the fashion world when that was unheard of. “The look” is pure grit with a matching handbag. It’s Kwartin’s gold sequined cardigan and black turtleneck and big gold link necklace. “Of course,” she says when I comment on it. “I had to do it to match my Oscars window.” Naturally, she’s referring to the sleek black and gold dressed mannequins she’d outfitted, right on time for the Oscars award show.

Photo courtesy of Kwartin
Kwartin draped in gold once again. I’m sure she’d say “Just to match my Emmy.”

This window, however, isn’t Kwartin’s first experience with award shows. Before she was the retail manager at Bloom in San Rafael or had even left New York, she had a sweep of Emmy wins in the 80s, a fact she fails to mention in our interview. Humble as pie or just caught up in the moment? Either way, Kwartin uses her hands and the word “etcetera” generously as she tells me of her days as a producer on “Guiding Light” and “One Life to Live”, giants in the world of daytime soap operas.

Even then, it was about ‘the look’, she says: “I was second in command, eventually, as a producer. The writers would decide what to write, the executive producer and the network would say ‘okay do this, do that’, and then as the producer, I carried that intent through and communicated from that one head writer to everybody what the intention was, what the view was, what the look was, all that sort of stuff. So, look’s always been important, the scenery, the colors, the jewelry, the makeup, etcetera.”

Now Kwartin has dedicated her life to bringing “the look” to others as the retail manager of Bloom, a secondhand boutique on Fourth Street catering to women’s formal wear. But just like Kwartin, the store is more than meets the eye: “It’s the front of the organization and then the entire non-profit part is behind it and the process for it is a much larger area than what you see walking in from the street.”

When I started at MA, what I saw from the street where Bloom now stands was Image for Success. This name might give you more of a clue as to what they do since it sounds a lot like Dress for Success, the national program. I can assure you though, it’s still the same people with the same mission: “just rebranding; there was a lot of it in 2016,” Kwartin explains. Making this distinction was important for them to make because while Dress for Success only provides one suit and maybe a job fair, Bloom, “uses donated clothing and people with some good advice to provide clients with a two-week wardrobe to help people feel better and be able to go out and the world really transformed.”

But it’s not only the clients that come out changed Kwartin learned shortly after beginning to volunteer with the organization back in 2004. “You just, you can create a feeling and a desire and a belief by giving confidence, just in a minute. That you believe you could go out into the world how you look right now. It can change my life too. [The clients] don’t often tell their stories when they’re getting dressed but sometimes it comes out. It’s the hope. It’s the words on the window.”

The words on the window were an important part of rebranding Kwartin tells me.

“We Grow” on the left side “Help Us Grow” on the right. And grow they certainly have. While the original organization served women and children, just walking through the back of the store gives me an idea of not only the expanded identities they accommodate but also just the magnitude of people that benefit.

After greeting me in the storefront, Kwartin takes me through a door along the back wall next to the dressing rooms where she can’t help but tell the woman looking at herself in a satiny black dress “Oh darling, you look amazing! Theresa, come look at how amazing she looks!”

As we step beyond the door, a row of suits runs the length of the entire storefront we just left behind and it just keeps going. Behind them are stacks of donations; boxes are overflowing with Banana Republic, Talbots, Loft, Eileen Fisher, you name it. We circle around the corner to the offices and Kwartin introduces me to everyone she sees, lulling me into feeling like the top Times reporter rather than a 17-year-old with a paper to write. Next is the children’s section, complete with toys and a reading nook followed by a sea of women’s clothing and then we’re back at Kwartin’s office.

“You’re going to do this type of work, aren’t you? I feel that in you,” I smile, “I hope to.” This is what Kwartin does, suddenly, my overalls are a cocktail dress, regal and shining. I’m up there with her, accepting the gold trophy, waving to the crowd.

“The look” isn’t something she holds selfishly close, it isn’t something she even recognizes in herself. She effortlessly gifts it to those around her letting it shine out from the sequins on her cardigan. And just for that moment in her office talking with her, I had it too.

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