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Breaking the Fashion Mold with MM.LaFleur’s Sarah LaFleur

Sarah LaFleur never thought she would start a fashion company. Little did she know she’d end up founding MM.LaFleur, a luxury apparel company focused on creating wardrobe solutions for professional women. Sarah founded MM.LaFleur out of necessity—as a working woman herself, she saw a gap in the market for professional women who wanted clothes to wear to work that were easy, versatile and didn’t break the bank, so she did something to change that.

We sat down with Sarah to learn more about what it takes to cultivate great employees, why she doesn’t strive to achieve work-life balance and why uncertainty is a good thing.

What was your “aha moment” with MM.LaFleur? How did you know this was something you should devote yourself to?

It was more of a gradual realization that there was a huge unmet need when it came to how women shop and dress for work. Growing up, I never thought I would start a fashion company. When I graduated from college, I worked in management consulting and then private equity and the idea for MM.LaFleur came from my own frustration shopping for workwear as a young professional. I had a vision of what I wanted to look like at work, but I quickly found that the workwear options at the price point I could afford fell far short of that vision. All my colleagues were wearing clothes from the same handful of brands, and the options were boring, ill-fitting, and uncomfortable. I struggled to get dressed every morning, and I never really felt like myself in those clothes.

On top of that, the shopping experience was such a chore—I didn’t want to spend my precious nights and weekends sifting through racks of pantsuits under fluorescent lighting. I always used to say to my co-workers, “You know, someone should really solve this problem for women!” When I was 27, I finally came around to the idea that I could be that person. I still say, “I am my customer,” because I lived that life. I remember how desperate I was for office-appropriate, stylish, easy-to-care-for, travel-friendly clothing.

When I was first getting MM.LaFleur off the ground, I spoke to a lot of people who said, “Oh, what an interesting niche business.” I was always shocked. How are professional women niche? We make up half the workforce! No one would ever call working men a niche group. I realized that this double-standard was part of the reason why most brands weren’t designing for professional women. So I started MM.LaFleur to help meet that need.

What is the hardest part of running a company?

The hardest part is also the most rewarding part: ensuring that every employee feels his or her unique voice is heard. I follow the philosophy that restaurateur Danny Meyer outlined in his book Setting the Table: “Employees first, customers second.” That might be surprising given how much thought we put into the MM.LaFleur customer experience, but to me, you can’t have happy customers without first creating happy employees.

As we scale, I want to maintain a company culture where every employee feels comfortable speaking up and being heard. When you’re growing as fast as we are, it’s difficult to maintain the right balance and make sure you’re drawing the best from everyone, but I see that as the most important part of my job.

What’s your method for work-life balance?

Simple: I don’t try to achieve work-life balance on a daily (or even weekly) basis. Maybe it’s the finance person in me, but I try to think of my life in quarters. I’m kind of an all-or-nothing person, so for the most part, my day-to-day revolves around my business. (I realize this is a luxury that most of my mommy and daddy friends don’t have.)

I start most days working from home for a couple of hours, then going on a run, and then coming into the office at 10:30 am. When I get in, I’m usually in back-to-back meetings until 6 pm. I try to leave by 7 pm to have dinner with my husband at home and walk and play with my adorable puppy, Ruggles. Every few months, I make it a priority to travel with my husband. Being with him in a remote location is my happy place, and I try to really disconnect from work while I’m there.

Besides running your business, what’s another way that you #BreakTheMold and stray away from the conventional?

In addition to building a great business, I also want to have a social impact. For the past few years, I’ve been on the junior board of the International Rescue Committee (IRC). Long before they were at the center of the news cycle, refugee rights were important to me. When I was in college, I volunteered at a refugee camp in Zambia, and it was a huge wake-up call. Many people assume that once refugees make it to a camp, they are safe. But the truth is, refugee camps are often uncomfortable and dangerous places—especially for women. Many people end up living there for years, even generations, often with very little to do.

What really struck me about my experience in Zambia was that the many refugees in the camp were desperately seeking a sense of purpose, despite the pain and monotony of their circumstances. They were motivated, capable (some had advanced degrees), and ambitious—but without resources and opportunities, they were stuck. The experience made me realize how important it is, for all of us, to feel that we have a sense of purpose as we go about our days. That knowledge informs both my work at MM and my work with the IRC.

What’s one thing that people would be surprised to know about you?

I’m an American, but I didn’t grow up in the United States. My father worked for the State Department and I was born in Paris, and then raised mostly in Japan. I think America is truly one of the greatest countries, and despite the recent political challenges, I am so proud to be an American and to have started a business in America. I’m grateful for how easy it was to start a new business here. Having friends who have tried to start companies in other parts of the world makes me realize how lucky I was to not have to bribe officials or wait a year for the LLC paperwork to go through. (It took 30 minutes on the internet!)

What piece of advice do you have for women just starting out in their career?

“A certain amount of career uncertainty is normal. Don’t just tolerate it; learn how to thrive on it!”

From before I graduated college right up to when I founded MM, I spent hours thinking about what I should do with my life. I spent my twenties in search of “the perfect career”—but really, I was seeking a sense of purpose. I considered being a refugee camp logistics officer, a doctor, a city planner, a strategist for an insurance company for the poor, a bar owner, a bookstore owner, a private equity investor. 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. Launching a fashion company was not even on my radar at age 25, but I started MM.LaFleur just two years later, when I was 27. Know that it’s okay to feel unclear about your future, but be deliberate about how you manage that fear: Take the time to reflect on and explore what you truly want. And then go for it.

Once you find your passion, stop over-preparing. I get a lot of questions from women about what steps they should take to ready themselves to start a business. Many assume they need to have a degree in a certain field, have worked at a specific job, or have secured an exact amount of funding—not true! I’d never worked a single day in fashion before founding MM, and I actually think it helped me. I asked questions and challenged assumptions that an industry veteran might not have. Yes, I made plenty of mistakes and learned a few lessons the hard way. But I’m a big proponent of just diving in and learning on the job.

What quotation or saying inspires and motivates you to be yourself and #BreakTheMold?

“It’s not about the dress. It’s about the life you’re living in the dress.” — Diana Vreeland

What’s next for MM.LaFleur?

Our next big initiative is to extend our size range to accommodate women who wear up to a 22W so that we can serve a broader range of professionals who are in need of elegant, comfortable, tailored workwear. Those new sizes launch at the end of May.

We also just opened a permanent showroom in D.C. (we call the space “Out of Office” because we want it to feel like a mini-vacation for our customers), and we’re opening others in Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco later this year. As for our collection, we’re developing our first-ever shoes and bags, which will bring us a step closer to achieving my vision of outfitting our customer from head to toe.

Extra Credit

What is the most-used app on your phone — and why?

Email, for obvious reasons.

What’s the first thing you do every morning?

Take my puppy out and make myself a cup of coffee.

What book could you re-read over and over?

The last 15 pages of Ian McEwan’s “On Chesil Beach.”

What is your go-to bra style?

ThirdLove’s 24/7 Classic T-shirt Bra in Naked 2.

Finish the sentence: I #BreakTheMold by _____.

I #BreakTheMold by taking the work out of dressing for work—so my customers can focus on what really matters to them.

This post is part of our #BreakTheMold series, where we celebrate the lives and work of trailblazing women. Check out the rest of the series here.

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