Sarah LaFleur, Founder and CEO of M.M. LAFLEUR, talks to TheLadders about dressing for success and her mission to rid the world of the pantsuit and replace it with beautiful attire for purposeful women.
Sarah, what is M.M. LAFLEUR’s mission? Why did you decide to start your own business?
The mission of our company is simple: to create beautiful clothing for the purposeful woman.
Originally we had said “professional woman” instead of “purposeful woman,” but I quickly realized that the former felt too narrow in scope for the women we are dressing. Let me explain: growing up I watched my mother, who was a PR executive at a luxury fashion brand, get ready for work every morning. Her sense of style is and has been the inspiration behind this company. She always managed to look sexy and professional, stylish and effortless. She wasn’t just a “professional woman,” she was that and much more: a professional and a mother, a friend and a wife. You get the idea.
I think that’s the way most women live these days. I’m so inspired by our customers, who we call our “Ampersand Women,” because they embrace the “and” lifestyle and lead very fulfilling, even passionate, lives. Our aim is to create clothes that fit the Ampersand lifestyle.
I think the fashion industry today doesn’t cater to the Ampersand Woman. Mass-market brands are redundant and uninspiring, and so many luxury brands don’t even pretend to care about or understand this customer. That’s why I wanted to create a brand that did.
Prior to creating M.M. LAFLEUR you worked in a variety of fields, from nonprofit management groups to private equity firms. How have these experience shaped the way you run your business?
Before launching this company, I worked in Paris and New York for a private equity firm where I managed its luxury goods portfolio and at Bain & Co. in New York. I also spent a year in South Africa with agricultural entrepreneurs (yes, farmers can be entrepreneurs too!), trying to understand the impact they could have on the country’s food security. When I write them side by side, I realize how disparate these jobs must sound, but to me they’ve been part of one big journey: understanding how to make beautiful things responsibly, while reducing waste and finding opportunities for growth.
I hate waste. This is probably largely a result of having a mother who grew up in post-WWII Japan, but Japan is obsessed with “muda ni shinai” (“not wasting”) whether it be food or space, and I think that has had a massive impact on how I view business opportunities.
There is a big amount of waste in fashion, both in terms of money and actual materials, which means there is a major opportunity to eradicate that waste, and fuel that into growth. One way we’re doing that is through selling our clothes directly to the customer, instead of selling through a department store. It means that department stores don’t mark up our clothes by another two to four times, and we pass those savings onto the customer. We also only produce and sell clothes for which our customers have expressed clear demand. If no one wants it, we don’t make it. It may sound simple, but that’s a disruptive concept in fashion.
What is the greatest challenge you’ve encountered while starting your company? What advice would you give to someone who’d like to turn their passion for fashion into a career?
Entrepreneurship is so trendy these days, but no one talks about the other side of the coin. You might find newfound strength in pursuing your passion, but if you’re starting something on your own, initially, most likely, you are entirely on your own. There were a lot of long, quiet days in my apartment when I was refining my idea, before Miyako and Narie (my co-founders) joined. It’s a particular kind of solitude; one that forces a lot of introspection, and creates a lot of self-doubt. To this day, that is the most difficult thing I’ve had to do in starting this business.
To someone wanting to turn their passion into a career, I would say, the first step is the hardest, and I would actually urge you be quite practical about it. The slogan of “just do it” is only so powerful if you have a place to sleep, eat, and yes, even relax. When you are starting out, don’t be afraid to take a part-time job or do something on the side to support yourself while you get your business up and running.
We often talk about dressing for success. What mistakes do professionals often make choosing their outfits for the office?
It's a great question, but one we as a company don't always feel comfortable answering, because the implication is that professional women are doing something wrong. There are already so many stresses when you work a demanding job; it's unfortunate that clothing is another opportunity for criticism.
There's an unwritten and very subtle rulebook for what women should wear to work, and it can vary widely between offices. Only through keen observation while living within a particular office can you learn how it responds to differences in things like jewelry boldness, skirt length, and amount of self-expression. Often respected female leaders will silently define the code for other women in an office, so if you want to play it safe, you can work within the boundaries that those senior leaders have set by example [tweet this].
At M.M. LAFLEUR, we believe that professional wear can be sexy. Not the skin-tight, revealing kind of sexy, but the confidence-boosting, respect-demanding sexy. Don't feel like you have to dress like one of the boys to fit in, but do have the perspective to know what others think of what you're wearing.
What are some easy ways to update your professional wardrobe without breaking the bank? Do you recommend investing in any particular staple items?
Our designer, Miyako, often says that an updated wardrobe starts with a refresh of the mind. She recommends something that makes you feel happy and refreshed (i.e. a colorful or ridiculously soft scarf, a unique belt, etc.). It doesn't necessarily have to be expensive. However, in general when building your wardrobe, I would recommend pursuing quality over quantity. Take time to find something you can cherish and take good care of for years to come. And it's even better if you have an emotional connection to it. Miyako purchased her first pair of luxury high-heels with her first senior role paycheck, and they are still the beautiful and powerful pair of heels that she wears to her "important" meetings.
Any fashion tips for job seekers who are searching on the sly? How can they dress for lunchtime interviews without raising red flags at work?
The beauty of a great work dress is that it can easily be repurposed. Wear a simple dark-colored dress like this one or this one, dressed up or down to the required level in your office. When you step out for your "doctor appointment", throw on a secretly stashed blazer and a simple pair of not-too-high-heels. Even the most formal interview environments allow for the suit to be replaced by the dress-plus-blazer combination. When you get back to the office, put back on your scarf, flats, and cardigan—or whatever it is that brings you back to inconspicuousness.
Sarah Miyazawa Lafleur is the Founder and CEO of women's wear brand M.M.LAFLEUR. Follow M.M. LAFLEUR on Twitter at @MMLAFLEUR to learn more.
Amanda Augustine is the Job Search Expert for TheLadders. She provides job search and career guidance for professionals looking to make their next career move. Have a question for Amanda? Submit your question here for a chance to have it answered in her weekly column, and be sure to follow @JobSearchAmanda on Twitter and “Like” her on Facebook for up-to-the-minute job-search advice.