For The Purposeful Woman X The Purposeful Woman
Our Conversation with Sarah LaFleur
On a warm evening in May, we gathered in MM.LaFleur’s stylish Bryant Park showroom to meet their CEO and Founder, Sarah LaFleur, for an intimate Changemaker Chat. Candid and poised, Sarah shared her journey from leaving a job where she was one of the few women on staff to starting MM.LaFleur, a professional womenswear brand that helps women harness the power of self-presentation.
With $70,000 and a vision, Sarah launched MM.LaFleur in 2013, at 29 years old. Today, MM.LaFleur is a vertically-integrated womenswear brand that provides a complete wardrobe and styling service for the busy professional woman. In just five years, the company has grown to over 200 employees, with a booming online business, and 7+ retail locations. Taking on retail isn’t easy, and we were eager to hear what Sarah LaFleur has learned throughout her five years building MM.LaFleur from the ground up.
The Importance of the First Follower
Everyone wants to be a leader, but nobody mentions the importance of being the first follower (see ‘How to Start a Movement’ Ted Talk). As Sarah shared, “The first follower is the one that transforms you from a person with a crazy idea into a person with a legitimate business.” Coming from the consulting industry, Sarah wasn’t familiar with textile mills, fabric production timelines, or the retail space in general. So the idea that she wanted to disrupt the fashion industry might have seemed crazy if it weren’t for her co-founders and first followers. Sarah cited one of her best moves as hiring a headhunter to connect her with Co-Founder and Creative Director Miyako Nakamura. Miyako came from high fashion (think Zac Posen and Jason Wu), and was able to both complement Sarah’s skills and legitimize the brand in the industry. Then, when Sarah’s former colleague from Bain Consulting, Narie Foster, joined her team as co-founder and COO, it comforted Sarah to know that someone she respected believed in the business as much as she did. Having Miyako and Narie onboard as the first followers is what turned Sarah’s “crazy” idea into a real business.
Just Keep Swimming
“Working on a startup is like swimming to an island,” Sarah often says. Once you’re in the water, you have to continually decide: Do you look ahead and keep swimming toward your destination, even though it’s going to take a lot of effort? Or do you turn around and swim back to the place you know? Sarah reflected on the challenge of uncertainty and how there were many moments when she thought it would be a wiser choice to swim back and give up on her plan. While the first year might have been the hardest, challenges still exist as the company continues to grow and scale. Sarah noted that there are times when she felt she had reached the island, only to realize she needed to swim to a different island altogether. To keep herself motivated, Sarah emphasized the importance of self-care: running, eating well, and sleeping a full eight hours. She also takes 10-minute morning baths—a ritual we can definitely get behind!
Listen and Learn
After a year of perfecting the first collection of dresses, Sarah expected customers to swarm the website once it launched. However, they were met with crickets. Sarah knew from trunk shows that women loved the dresses; she just needed to find a way to get the product into their hands. In her NYC studio apartment filled with dresses, Sarah and her team decided to forgo the traditional ad-buys and go directly to customers with a new proposal: MM.LaFleur would send a curated box of clothing at no charge, and customers would later pay only for what they kept. A very high percentage of customers immediately said yes, and the Bento Box program was born. Not only did it triple revenue overnight, but it also taught MM.LaFleur a key insight about their clients: Not all women have the time or energy to shop for themselves.
Making Working Women Aspirational
Growing up in Japan, Sarah consumed all kinds of pop culture. One message that stuck with her was around how working women, like her mother, were celebrated. In the United States, Martha Stewart reinvented the image of the housewife, and Sarah intends to do the same for professional women. When she first started approaching VCs for funding, she was often told: “Oh, what an interesting niche business”—as if professional women were a “niche.” Though Sarah’s own experience highlighted plenty of gender parity issues, she knew that the purposeful woman is not niche, and one of the best ways to support her is to make her feel confident and powerful at work.
Power Piece and SuperpowersAs a founder, Sarah is often at events with other entrepreneurs and is no stranger to the stereotypical male founders’ uniform: a hoodie and jeans. When others dress down for events, Sarah dresses up. At our Chat, she wore her power piece uniform: the Woolf Jardigan (jacket-cardigan) with the Harlem skirt and Peggy top, which is Sarah’s way of saying, “I’m here and I’m ready.” Now that she’s got her power piece, it’s all about Sarah’s superpower: helping others find their own voice, talent, and superpower. One of Sarah’s work philosophies is “employees first,” and she takes pride in working with her team to figure out where everyone is best suited (pun intended!) so they can thrive.
Thank you, Sarah, for sharing your story and helping so many women find their power piece and their confidence.