Sarah LaFleur is the founder of M.M. LaFleur, a sophisticated womenswear line dedicated to creating perfect workwear for stylish professionals. Prior to starting her own business, LaFleur worked for a management consulting firm and a private equity firm, when she joined forces with former Zac Posen and Jason Wu designer Miyako Nakamura to create chic yet purposeful clothing for modern working women. The luxe line of fashion forward, office-appropriate apparel launched in 2011.
Where did you shop for professional clothing before launching M.M. LaFleur?
When I first graduated from college, my two go-to’s were J. Crew and Banana Republic. As I started earning a bit more, I started shopping at Theory and Theory Luxe (a Theory line that is only carried in Japan). There was always some Zara mixed in there.
Was it difficult to curate a personal style between work clothes and non-work clothes?
Extremely difficult. Truthfully, I don’t think I even thought about “personal style” because I spent 90 percent of my waking hours, Monday through Friday, in work clothes. (The remaining 10 percent was spent in sweatpants.) I remember one Saturday night, in the midst of my management consulting days, when I decided to go out with my girlfriends and began rummaging through my closet. All I wanted was one stylish something, but the only items I could find were dark, drab, conservative. Downright dumpy. I was shocked–dismayed, really–by how much I had spent on pieces of clothes I didn’t love.
How daunting was it at first to launch this business with no fashion design experience?
In retrospect, it feels audacious and even foolish to have started this business without any fashion experience, but I would like to think my absolute clueless-ness let me approach the industry with a fresh pair of eyes. I questioned the status quo and pointed out inefficiencies because I frankly didn’t know any better. That said, this business would be nowhere without the presence of Miyako, our designer, who was the former head designer of Zac Posen. She taught me Fashion Industry 101, and opened doors to many suppliers and factories that would not have been comfortable working with us if Miyako hadn’t been part of the team.
Most fashion designers launch first, and figure out the business later. Do you think you have a leg up in the market because you have such a strong business background?
I think my business background has helped in terms of the basics–being able to devise a strategy, build a financial model…even my darn Power Point skills have come in handy–but what has helped me the most in building this brand, by far, is that I am the customer. I know who she is, what she likes, how she likes to shop. A good businessperson is, I think, someone who is able to answer those questions for her business. Those answer happen to come naturally to me because I am my customer.
How did you meet your designer Miyako?
Through a wonderful headhunter. I owe him my firstborn.
Why did you decide to launch e-commerce right away?
We actually started by selling our products through trunk shows, and that ended up being a smart move. It allowed us to see which products were working (and which weren’t) and get first-hand feedback from the customer. I highly recommend starting offline before moving online to anyone thinking of launching his/her own brand.
M.M. LaFleur also has revolutionized the online shopping experience–can you describe your thought process behind the three steps?
Sure. What we learned through trunk shows is that many women weren’t necessarily buying the first dress that they liked on the hanger. They would try on that piece, and then try on several more before deciding which one worked best for her. We wanted to recreate that experience of being in a dressing room in the comfort of your home, which is how we came up with our online Dressing Room model: We ship four dresses to you, and you have seven days to decide what you want to keep. We cover shipping both ways, including all the return shipping materials, and most importantly, we don’t charge your credit card until we receive your return. It’s a risk-free way to shop that our customers have really embraced.
When clients go through the dressing room process, do they have the luxury of consulting with your staff? Are home visits ever offered?
Michaella, who runs our customer experience, answers every single style question that comes our way, and if you place an order, she will check in with you during your seven day trial period to make sure that you’re happy with your styles and sizes. She knows our products in and out, and has an amazing ability to understand what styles work for which body types.
What has been the most surprising part of being involved in the fashion industry?
That manufacturing in New York is very much alive! Being able to work directly with the people who sew our clothes is one of the greatest gifts of starting this business. I will work very hard to contribute to the success and growth of the Garment District. It is my new home, and I am grateful to it for helping me get my business off the ground.