In 2013, former financial consultant Sarah LaFleur teamed up with co-founders Narie Foster and Miyako Nakamura to launch M.M.LaFleur, a clothing company designed to alleviate the stress of shopping for busy, working women. The brand continues to thrive, having recently launched their Up Up & Away Fall Collection, with an emphasis on travel-savvy and functional wardrobe items such as the wrinkle-resistant packable suit. I had the privilege of speaking with LaFleur to discuss her journey building the brand.
You began working your career in finance, what inspired you to change paths and launch M.M.LaFleur?
Early on in my career, I was working in management consulting and then in private equity and buying work clothes that I didn’t particularly love or find flattering. When I got home from a long day at the office, the last thing I wanted to do was browse for blazers online. There’s this myth that all women love to shop, which just isn’t the case. And even if spending time buying clothes isn’t a top priority, that doesn’t mean they don’t care about good style or looking elegant.
My mother worked in high fashion throughout my childhood. She really opened my eyes to the power of costume and how much wearing the right clothes can not only change the way others see you but the way you feel about yourself each day. At 27, I quit my full-time job to start M.M.LaFleur because I wanted to make women’s lives easier. Instead of considering getting dressed for work a chore, I wanted to reframe it as a secret weapon that can transform the way we feel be helping us feel our best.
What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve faced in building your brand?
About a year into launching our site, our sales were still lagging. One day, I walked into our inventory room and saw that it was packed to the brim with product we were struggling to sell. I thought, “We are going to die under a mountain of dresses.”
In an act of desperation, my six-person team and I decided we needed to be more proactive about getting the customer to give us a try. We emailed them saying, “Can we send you a box of styles to try, and you can keep the ones you like and return the ones you don’t? You don’t have to pay anything upfront.” A surprising percentage of customers responded “yes” to that email, and we made more money in that one week than we ever had in one month.
Since our brand is so much better known now, our customers are more open to shopping our website and stores directly and paying for things upfront, but our goal remains the same: to make the shopping experience as seamless as possible and take the work out of dressing for work. Most of our customers are too busy to spend hours shopping!
What aspect of M.M.LaFleur most excites you?
At M.M.LaFleur, we like to say that when women succeed at work, the world is a better place. That’s certainly a lofty mission, but our specific contribution to women’s success is to help them look and feel their best by designing amazing clothes that are beautiful and stylish, but also incredibly easy and convenient. Working women have so many decisions to make and challenges to face on any given day—figuring out what to wear shouldn’t be one of them! Did you know the average woman spends 15 more days per year getting ready than men? Can you imagine what you’d do if you had 15 extra days? When it comes to workwear, our goal is to help get women out the door as quickly as possible. We want to make our customers’ lives easier, and that continues to inspire me.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
For about seven years—from the time I neared graduation to a year into deciding to start M.M.—I spent hours thinking, searching, and even crying about what I should do with my life and career. When I was 25, I actually made an Excel spreadsheet of “Life Scenarios” where I laid out eight different potential career paths for the next ten years. Surprise, surprise: None of those scenarios came to pass. This is not to say you should just go with the flow and let your career plan itself. My advice for how to manage—and make the most of—those years when you’re questioning, envisioning, and planning, is to get philosophical. Read a lot. You are not alone in this journey to lead a meaningful life, but rather than scroll through Instagram, go offline and be inspired by true thinkers. Philosophers have struggled with this question for ages, and they know a thing or two. Take walks alone. Get comfortable with “sitting in your dark place.”
What advice do you have for female entrepreneurs?
Challenge yourself to stop over-analyzing, over-thinking, and over-preparing. Give yourself permission to be more daring, take action and try new things. But often, just “showing up” is the difference. Showing up is the holy grail of professional wisdom. There’s nothing I appreciate more than someone who’s consistent. In the context of baseball – the batter who gets to base ten out of ten times is more valuable than the occasional home-run hitter because the problem with the latter is you never know if this is the one time they’ll strike out!
What’s your proudest moment yet?
Having the opportunity to both dress and highlight some of our country’s most inspiring working women has been such an honor. We have our own digital magazine called The M Dash where we feature smart, passionate, hardworking women making an impact in their respective fields. The M Dash’s subscriber list has grown to 1 million people, and every day we receive a number of emails expressing pure excitement and support for our featured ‘Woman of the Week’. At the beginning of this year, we also launched our What Are You Made Of campaign, where we featured Amy Sherald, Catt Sadler, Ana Navaro, and Cecile Richards. Seeing these powerful, incredibly talented women not only dressed in M.M. but sharing their stories to support our mission has been a dream come true.