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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Local Activist Suits Himself by Suiting Others

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They say that clothes make the man. Kevin Livingston brings that maxim to life. 

When he was 15, New York City cops grabbed Livingston in Queens and arrested him for armed robbery. “Thank God for the principal of my school,” Livingston said. “He came and showed the police that I was in school during the time of the robbery. They had to let me go.”

He dropped out of high school, then learned hardcore selling in a job “pitching stocks” for an investment firm that the Securities and Exchange Commission eventually shuttered. “Most of my co-workers are just getting out of prison now or dead,” he said.

Livingston said his father taught him his most valuable lesson: “My dad taught me how to keep organized, to write down your thoughts and become a people person. He told me that an entrepreneur doesn’t know what 9-to-5 means, and build your own wealth, your own brand.”

Livingston’s brand is business. He wears dark glasses, colorful ties, matching pocket squares, and well-tailored suits. He exudes success and believes that in “looking well, you feel well and you act well.”

With these lessons in mind, he began to pursue his charitable vision in January 2012. He placed this flier above his first donation box, which he installed in January 2012: “In an effort to promote empowerment through employment and partner within South Queens, Kevin Livingston plans to sign up and distribute 100 suits for 100 men, particularly in the age range of 15-23.”

 With that, Kevin Livingston founded 100 Suits for 100 Men, a non-profit that helps young gang members and ex-convicts re-establish themselves in society.

Part entrepreneur and part philanthropist, he planned to help young black men present themselves in a different light. Ultimately, he believed, they would prosper. “I got tired of the community turning their backs or looking at these young men as animals.”

He arranged free haircuts for these young men and encouraged them to work and become legitimate entrepreneurs. His donation boxes, meanwhile, brimmed with shoes, cufflinks and business attire.

One donor, Anthony Lolli, contributed dozens of suits, ties and shirts. 

“My father had done a similar program many years ago,” said Lolli, owner of Brooklyn-based Rapid Realty. “Learning interviewing skills and wearing a new suit is a life-changing moment for some of these people.”

Livingston secured free dry cleaning for these suits. Local retailers then offered back-stocked and discontinued business apparel — for men and women. So, he launched 100 Suits for 100 Women in a female shelter in July 2014. He also established a mentoring and training program for court-involved youth in Harlem.

While working full-time for a bank, raising three children and avoiding government funds, Livingston collected and distributed nearly 7,000 suits for job-seeking young New Yorkers — in less than three years.

Anna Jirves decided to volunteer after watching Livingston contribute about 300 prom dresses in 15 local high schools. “There’s nothing he would not do to help the community,” said Jirves, who works for the New York Board of Education. She helped with pre-prom makeup, jewelry and hair-dos.

“He has really done this out of his own pocket and his own sweat and equity,” said Grant Collins, executive director of Manhattan-based WeCare, which assists welfare recipients. Livingston’s group has served 600 WeCare clients since the two organizations began collaborating last year.  “Our job is to give these participants support and transform their thinking to prepare them for the workplace,” Collins said. “The uniqueness of [100 Suits] is the retail clothing, which is tailored, and the hair services for women and men.”

Many people have been hired, thanks to this holistic approach, he said. “It can help in the participant’s self-view or confidence, and they are able to project that to employers and ultimately get hired.”

          Livingston’s 100 Suits for 100 Men operates from WeCare’s satellite offices in the Bronx and SoHo. 

“I don’t let just anyone cut my hair,” said Daren Furlonge while sitting in the SoHo office’s barber’s chair. Furlonge, 36, worked as a security guard from 1999 to 2008 and provided for his two daughters. But he has been homeless since 2009.

“I’m trying to get some work, trying to get my life back,” said Furlonge, who walked out groomed, carrying a new suit and a gleam of hope.

Yet, Livingston envisions more. He will expand 100 Suits into Queens this month by opening an outreach academy.

With three offices, several employees, and volunteers, Livingston contemplates his creation.

“Amazing,” Livingston said. “All this started from one donation box.”

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