It’s not hard to find organizations that offer free or low-cost clothing, but Susan Kanoff has created a boutique that uses clothes to transform not only the way women look, but how they feel.

A social worker by training, Kanoff made her living helping low-income families move out of poverty. In her spare time, she channeled her love of fashion as a private stylist and style blogger. When her style clients began asking her where to best donate their old clothes, she had an idea.

“I started taking them into my social work office,” said Kanoff, who lives in Methuen. “I had racks set up and (if) one of my clients was having a bad day, we’d put an outfit together; going on a job interview, we’d put an outfit together. And I started to realize how powerful these clothes were and how really important they were to a woman’s self-esteem.”

Partnering with Family Services of the Merrimack Valley, she opened the non-profit “Uncommon Threads” three years ago in downtown Lawrence. In late 2019, the retailer Timberland helped fund the renovation of a larger space with dressing rooms, a sitting area in shades of beige and dark blue and a on the entry-way wall a message that reads: “Self Confidence is the Best Outfit.”

“Our main goal is dignity and respect,” said Kanoff. “We want women to feel like they’re in, they’re shopping in a beautiful place versus getting a handout.”

Kanoff, who previously worked for the North Andover Housing Authority running the family self sufficiency program to help lift people out of poverty, works with a more than a dozen social service agencies who must refer women to be able to shop at the store. Retailers and the public donate clothing.

“We could dress a woman who was maybe a victim of domestic violence and is ashamed to go to their kid’s school conference,” said Kanoff. “Whatever it takes to get that woman to feel strong and powerful through the way she looks.”

Kanoff estimates “ Uncommon Threads” has served more than 2,000 women. Her mission has expanded beyond creating outfits. She offers clients monthly workshops on topics like the power of positive thinking and “Be Your Own Valentine.”

Women first meet with an "Uncommon Threads" volunteer to talk about their clothing needs, as well as their work or life goals. Clients can get up to four outfits and two pairs of shoes in one visit – but they can also get some items not commonly found in donation shops: bras, underwear, pyjamas and even matching jewelry. The meeting looks like one with a personal shopper at a pricey store, but costs just ten-dollars - a fee that can also be waived. Otherwise, the clothes are free.

On a recent day, volunteer Jen Marin sat down for a “styling session” with 19-year-old JJ Ortiz. Shuttled around between group homes and foster care since she was 12, Ortiz said she struggled to find clothes that fit her as she grew and became self-conscious about her weight.

“I was kind of uncomfortable in my skin, who I was, how I would like show myself, like my clothes wasn’t the best,” Ortiz said, “But they didn’t see that. They saw me for who I am."

Marin helped Ortiz try on a jeans jacket and then moved around to take a look.

“That’s really cute,” she said, moving Ortiz’ hair back from her face.

Another volunteer stepped in to put a necklace over Ortiz’ head.

Ortiz smiled, “I look so pretty,” she said.

With shopping finished, Ortiz stayed to sit in on a workshop called “Feminine Rocket Fuel.” She took careful notes as motivational speaker Rosie Dalton explained to the gathering of clients how to use obstacles as “fuel” to move forward.

Social worker Cynthia Claflin sat with a client in the workshop. She said she’d referred many women to “Uncommon Threads.”

“Just being able to have sort of that boutique experience, feel catered to, feeling beautiful, getting clothes that they would never be able to afford on their own," said Claflin. "(They) walk out of here just beaming."

Before she headed out, Ortiz took a selfie in one of her new outfits and Marin came up behind.

“Oh, look at you,” Marin said.

Ortiz giggled and gave her a hug.