Making a Difference: Clothes Off Our Back

UPDATED: March 11, 2009
PUBLISHED: March 11, 2009

Jane Kaczmarek sat in her bedroom, phone
in hand, and started dialing. The co-star
of Malcolm in the Middle was up for an
Emmy, with the awards ceremony just a
week away. Clothing was what she was
seeking—but not just any clothing, and
not for herself.

In a week, paparazzi would swarm the red
carpet, taking aim at television’s brightest
stars clad in exquisite gowns and tuxedos. The
Emmys provided a marketing frenzy for fashion
designers, to be sure, but from Kaczmarek’s
perspective, it could be so much more.
my time.

Kaczmarek and actor-husband Bradley
Whitford, both Wisconsin natives, grew up
with no-nonsense Midwestern sensibilities and
ingenuity, and as the Emmy Awards approached
in 2002, they saw a way to tap their celebrity
while applying their resourcefulness, creating
the Clothes Off Our Back Foundation to
benefit children around the globe.

“I grew up in a Polish family,”
Kaczmarek says. “Wasting anything
was just not done in our house. We
ate leftovers until they were gone.
We had hand-me-downs. When
we carpeted the house, any leftover
carpeting would go into the garage to
catch the snow when it melted from under
the car.”

She and Whitford had long since traded
the harsh, 35-below winters in Wisconsin for California’s sunnier disposition. In 2002, their
careers took off simultaneously, with her success
as mom Lois on Malcolm in the Middle and his
as Josh on The West Wing.

“We started getting what was truly an
embarrassment of riches arriving at our
doorstep,” she recalls. “Designers send you
so many things that they want you to wear
because it is advertising for them. They
wanted a celebrity to be seen wearing
an article of their clothing.”

She bristled at the notion that the
life span of these sequined gowns
and perfectly tailored tuxedos would
expire after an evening’s photo-op. So
one week before the 2002 Emmys,
Kaczmarek pressed those numbers
and asked people she knew in television
for their clothes.

Brad, on the other hand, was
busy hanging around the set of
Friends, waiting for the opportunity to talk to
the cast about donations. “We knew Jennifer
Aniston a little bit, and he asked her for her
Emmy dress and she said, ‘Yes,’ ” Kaczmarek
tells SUCCESS.

The deal was simple and it resonated with
other celebrities. Stars donated their Emmy
attire and Clothes Off Our Back auctioned it
online for charity—children’s charities. The
foundation took aim to impact the welfare of
as many children as possible with the charities
it supported.

As it turns out, that
first Clothes Off Our Back
auction, thrown together
in just a week, netted
an impressive $87,200
for children’s charities. Jennifer Aniston won the Emmy that year, edging out Kaczmarek. “It was disappointing
to lose, but what was OK was that I would get the dress for charity,”
Kaczmarek says. “That dress sold for $50,000, and it was a real surprise. I had no idea
that it would go that well.”

The sale of Aniston’s dress funded immunizations for 50,000 African children. That
was exactly the kind of impact both Kaczmarek and Whitford were looking for. Each
year since, Clothes Off Our Back selects three children’s charities—one international,
one national and one local to the Los Angeles area—to which they can deliver the
most impact. The 2009 beneficiaries are Hope North, a rehabilitation center for
Uganda’s child soldiers; Feeding America (previously Second Harvest), a U.S. food
bank; and The Art of Elysium, an L.A.-based program for critically ill children.

Michel Schneider, Clothes Off Our
Back executive director, has worked
with Kaczmarek and Whitford since
the foundation’s inception to build a
brand whose popularity with celebrities is
ever-increasing and includes far more than
formal wear.

While Aniston’s dress still holds the
foundation’s record, Keira Knightley’s beautiful
green gown worn in the motion picture
Atonement was donated by the studio and
sold for $35,000. Kaczmarek jokingly
wonders aloud, “I don’t know who’s going to
fit in Keira Knightley’s dress because she’s
so slender.”

Clothes Off Our Back auctions aren’t
exclusively for evening gowns; male ensembles
and tuxedos are also popular auction
items. Clay Aiken’s Emmy suit brought
$28,000 at auction, and a white suit worn
by Barry Manilow sold for $13,000.

Kaczmarek says there’s an old saying in
Los Angeles: “There are three seasons here:
fires, mudslides and awards shows.” For the
first few years, the Emmys were the foundation’s
focus. But when the tsunami tragedy
struck a few years ago, Kaczmarek says,
“Everyone was trying to figure out ways to
raise money for those victims, and it was
right around the Golden Globes so we
decided to do an auction to help.”

Clothes Off Our Back
worked with In Style magazine
for that auction, and
since then the partnership has
offered the foundation many
opportunities to diversify and
broaden its reach beyond those
who can spend $50,000 on
a gown.

Kaczmarek says she
learned a long time ago
not to turn up her nose
at any donated item. The
simplest things, like
a white shirt worn to
the Golden Globes by
Matthew McConaughey,
sell for $1,000. “A lot
of times, if you don’t
know what to get somebody
as a gift and you
know that they have a
celebrity who they’re passionate about, come to Clothes Off Our Back,
because you’re likely to find something,” she says.

When Kaczmarek spotted a Jordin Sparks autographed
cereal bowl benefiting Feeding America on
the Web site this winter, she leapt at the chance to
buy it for her little 9-year-old son. “He is just crazy
for Jordin Sparks!” she says, and something signed
by her was a perfect Christmas gift.

Modestly priced, “little black dresses” owned
by celebrities are often up for auction, as are autographed
bottles of wine. Recently, women’s apparel
retailer White House/Black Market, where first lady
Michelle Obama has been known to shop, auctioned
four inaugural gowns, accompanied by design
sketches and store gift certificates.

Celebrities like Jennifer Garner of Alias and
Patricia Heaton of Everybody Loves Raymond
have donated from the beginning, Schneider
says, and “Ellen DeGeneres has
cleaned out her closet for us a
few times as well.” Clothes Off
Our Back also encourages celebrity-
specific auctions, like those
recently run for Natalie Portman
and Lisa Loeb.

“Ninety percent of the
who bid on items wear or
use them,” Schneider says.
“Bidders come back to us
over and over, because
once you get the bug,
there’s literally
for every size
and pocketbook.”

As the Clothes Off
Our Back Foundation
grows, so does the
good fortune of children
around the
with auctions bringing
in almost $3 million
so far. “After this year,
we’re pushing on
$4 million,” Kaczmarek
says. Admittedly,
she and
Whitford had no specific monetary
goals in mind when
they began the
foundation, but
wholeheartedly agrees with Marian Wright Edelman, head of the Children’s
Defense Fund, when she said, “Service is the rent we pay for
living. The higher your financial or intellectual gifts, the higher
your rent.” With a beautiful family, including three healthy
children, as well as successful acting careers, Kaczmarek and
Whitford gladly offer up their rent.