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MM.LaFleur CEO Unpacks its Strategy to Take the ‘Angst’ Out of Dressing for Work

With minimalist designs and personal stylists, the direct-to-consumer brand is broadening its offerings for professional women.

By: Barbara Thau, Senior Features Editor
 Sarah Lafleur Headshot
Sarah LaFleur, co-founder and CEO of direct-to-consumer brand MM.LaFleur, aims to take the stress out of clothes shopping for busy, working women. — MM.LaFleur

MM.LaFleur’s clothes, admittedly, look rather unremarkable on a hanger, says Sarah LaFleur, co-founder and CEO of the workwear brand.

But that’s kind of the point. They’re not meant to be in-store eye candy.

The seemingly nondescript garments are crafted to shine a spotlight on the professional women they’re designed to dress — and bring an effortless polish to workwear that’s sorely missing from the clothing racks at retail stores, she told CO—.

“Effortless” being the operative word, as LaFleur aims to take the “angst” out of dressing for work with a direct-to-consumer model that pairs simplicity with bespoke service.

Since the company launched in 2013, LaFleur has been on a quest to fill the void in the affordable luxury apparel market with minimalist designs and personal stylists: Shoppers take a quick online survey and an MM stylist creates a Bento Box of customized wardrobe items, or works one-on-one with a stylist in one of MM.LaFleur’s nine showrooms and its revolving pop-up shops.

The concept of personal styling for women with better things to do than shop, has found a following: Sales are 50 times what they were five years ago, LaFleur said.

MM.LaFleur is now extending its hassle-free workwear brand promise beyond professional women on the coasts to their counterparts across the rest of America – from Middle America to the South – with clothing that addresses regional differences, while also giving Silicon Valley’s tech females an “ath-suitable” collection of alternatives to the hoodie and sweatpant look.

Analysts say the brand reflects the new demands of the luxury market. MM.LaFleur is among the 350 digital-first brands ranging from Dollar Shave and Warby Parker to Brooklinen and Peloton that are cultivating loyalty among a critical cohort of younger shoppers. It’s what retail consultancy firm, Traub, calls “The New Davids.” These brands, which span fashion and beauty to home and wellness, are distinguished by their niche focus, offering luxury and high-quality products at lower wholesale prices than some of their larger, more established counterparts.

“Luxury sure has changed; it’s about doing more with less,” Marshall Cohen, chief industry advisor of market research firm the NPD Group, told CO—.

And career dressing is a white space that MM.LaFleur is tapping into in a modern way, added Jane Hali, CEO of investment retail and consumer research firm Jane Hali & Associates, LLC. “Their apparel assortment offers flexible styles of dressing for today’s changing working environment, at affordable luxury prices. Positives for the company include personalized service and strong messaging to empower women in their careers, and the company creates a community for women in addition to a shopping destination.”

The concept of personal styling for women with better things to do than shop, has found a following: Sales are 50 times what they were five years ago.

Sarah LaFleur, founder and CEO of MM.LaFleur

A business born of frustration

LaFleur got her first inkling of MM.LaFleur while working in the finance sector, facing her closet full of blah work duds. “I was so sick of paying $150 for a dress that was so uninspired,” she said.

By contrast, the craftsmanship and detailing of the high-fashion clothes she swooned over in luxury department stores triggered sticker shock. “The kind of beautiful pieces Barneys and Bergdorf’s were selling for $1,500 were not possible for the everyday woman who had to go to work — you had to be a hedge fund manager to afford these clothes.”

LaFleur teamed up with Miyako Nakamura, the former head designer of Zac Posen, who’s also whipped up Oscar gowns for Natalie Portman, to design the collection and serves as co-founder and creative director today.

“MM.LaFleur is for women who don’t want to spend their free time poring over the pages of Vogue… who are very short on time, and don’t have the energy at the end of the day to shop,” LaFleur said. “We offer the benefit of working with a stylist to navigate that journey and do the work for you.”

The result is timeless, understated sophisticated pieces with a high-fashion pedigree: MM.LaFleur works with the best fabric mills in Germany, Italy and Japan and the team is staffed with a “who’s who” from the fashion design world veterans of Stella McCartney and Calvin Klein to the Row, LaFleur said.

Under Nakamura’s creative direction, MM.LaFleur’s minimalist aesthetic is informed, in part by Nakamura and LaFleur’s shared Japanese roots: It draws from the art of Japanese gift wrapping, which enhances the gift, not the package, she said. “It’s not about the dress; it’s about the person wearing the dress.”

The brand is often compared to direct-to-consumer brethren, such as Stitch Fix. But while Stitch Fix sells other brands, MM.LaFleur is itself the brand, and it’s not for everyone. “We don’t do East Coast prepster or West Coast boho chic,” LaFleur said. “We personalize within the brand.”

 bento box, mm.lafleur
Personal stylists at MM.LaFleur curate custom Bento Boxes containing work-savvy wardrobe items for shoppers. — MM.LaFleur

An ‘angst’-driven opportunity

MM.LaFleur is tapping into the “angst” professional women often face when dressing for work, one that raises sartorial doubts like, “’If I wear this shirt or sweater, is it sending the right message?’” LaFleur said.

It’s a quandary exacerbated by the exodus of workwear brands that left a huge gap in the market, she said. “The bulk of contemporary brands instead invested in weekend wear, which is fun to design and much flashier. As a result, workwear offerings are suffering.”

Admittedly, “Suiting and work dresses are hard to keep fresh,” she said. “And brands don’t feel that inspired or energized to keep them fresh —but that’s what our designers are really good at.”

MM.LaFleur’s service element is the companion piece to de-stressing the workwear hunt. The items in its stylist hand-selected Bento Boxes are based on shoppers’ style and fit preferences. “It’s so refreshing not to have to comb through racks of clothing to find things that work for you,” she said.

When launching the company, LaFleur tried going the wholesale route, but department stores said, “thanks, but no thanks,” to the brand. “They didn’t get it,” she said. The reaction: “‘What’s so exciting about this?’ Our dresses don’t look good on a hanger, but on a real body. They’re only exciting when you put them on.”

The rebuff was fortuitous. Avoiding department stores’ price markups allows MM to pass the savings along to its customers. “If we sold through a Nordstrom or Barneys, a $200 dress would have to retail for $600,” she said. MM.LaFleur prices range from $110 for a worktop to $325 for a statement dress.

 showroom, MM.LaFleur
In addition to ordering customizable Bento Boxes online, shoppers can also visit one of the brand's showrooms and work with a personal stylist one-on-one. — MM.LaFleur

Reaching out to Middle America, Silicon Valley

It’s precisely a hyper-focus on workwear and nothing else that LaFleur says is the brand’s strength. “We’re not messing with anything else; we’re not doing kids’, menswear, weddings.”

But while MM.LaFleur is sticking to workwear, it’s pivoting to embrace a broader swath of the nation’s professional women, expanding its wardrobe solutions to de-stress more female shoppers, whether they’re Coloradoans or coders in Silicon Valley.

“Mayako went out to San Francisco about a year and a half ago, and we had a chance to meet with our customers — who are even more confused than their East Coast counterparts,” she said. These women working in tech didn’t want to don the jeans-and-a-hoodie look, she said. “They don’t see themselves as representative of the culture of masculinity.”

They instead longed for sporty, casual yet polished wardrobe pieces, which birthed the brand’s new category of movement and performance-enhanced workwear, dubbed, “ath-suitable,” which launched this month (February 2019).

Meanwhile, shoppers in the Washington, D.C. and Texas markets have more conservative workwear needs, so MM.LaFleur is expanding its mix of skirt suits, for one, to meet their sartorial demands.

LaFleur sees the brand gaining popularity across the country. Denver and Minneapolis, for example, are some of MM.LaFleur’s fastest growing markets. "There's a lot of need coming from these cities,” LaFleur said. “Many of the workwear brands like J. Crew and Hugo Boss compete within the bi-coastal cities, but they’re not as big a presence in cities in the middle of the country," she said. "We're coming back to Minneapolis, Dallas and Denver to test for month-long pop-ups," she said.

“As a company, our goals continue to be to expand to new product areas … as well as move into new markets and territories throughout the U.S. to reach even more women.

“As a brand, our strategic initiatives and focus for this year ladder up to MM.LaFleur's broader mission of helping women harness the power of self-presentation, propel their success in whatever it is they put their minds to and build communities that support growth and self-confidence,” LaFleur said.

“We want to be the biggest workwear brand out there.”

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

MM.LaFleur co-founder and CEO, Sarah LaFleur, interviewed by Suzanne Clark, U.S. Chamber Senior Executive VP, about the rewards and challenges of running a innovative startup.
Published February 26, 2019

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