The New Business Casual

A Conversation with Sarah LaFleur, Queen of the Workday Wardrobe

M.M.LaFleur's mission to "take the work out of dressing for work" resonated with enough Houston women to warrant a showroom here.

By Abby Ledoux January 16, 2019

Tucked away amongst the lighting showrooms and closet designers at the Decorative Center of Houston is a cozy corner space. It's got soft lighting, burning candles, and pretty rugs; you're offered a glass of sparkling wine upon entry. It feels as though it could be your girlfriend's apartment—you know the one, the high-powered 9-to-5-er who has great taste and, it seems, everything perpetually together.

She does live here, in a way, because it's this woman that M.M.LaFleur—the real tenant of this seventh-floor showroom—was built for. The women's apparel company was born in 2013 from a partnership between three professional women—Sarah LaFleur, Narie Foster, and Miyako Nakamura—with one primary goal: to help women succeed at work.

For so many of us, that starts with figuring out what to wear, which is where M.M.LaFleur comes in. Nakamura, former head designer at Zac Posen, designed the collection of comfortable, wearable pieces meant to elevate a working woman's confidence and simplify the process of building a corporate wardrobe that goes beyond the ubiquitous pantsuit.

Part of that means "taking the work out of dressing through work," accomplished via nine showrooms (and three pop-ups) staffed with personal stylists in 11 cities, including Houston, or through a mail-order "bento box" packed with potential outfits tailored to your taste and needs.

We talked with co-founder and CEO Sarah LaFleur ahead of her recent trip to Houston about her inspiration and what the future holds for her eponymous brand.

You have a background in finance, but what's your relationship to fashion?

My mother worked in high fashion throughout my childhood. She’s still, to this day, the best-dressed woman I know. 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. Rather than considering it a chore, could we actually consider it this secret weapon and really transform the way we feel by putting on the clothes that make us feel the best?

How much of your personal experience informed your company's mission to help women succeed in the workplace?

It is entirely driven by that. Both the joys and the pains of being a working woman are very close to my heart. I just remember having a night that would end past midnight and I couldn’t get into bed until 2 or 3 a.m., and the next morning you have to wake up and get to the office at a certain time and you’re standing in front of your closet thinking, oh my God, I have absolutely nothing to wear even though you seemingly have a never-ending wardrobe. I just thought to myself, why is getting dressed so hard?

There are other concepts similar to M.M.LaFleur, from subscription box services to personal stylists working in department stores. What sets your brand apart?

We have this incredibly close relationship with our customers. I know all retailers say that, but I kind of hear that and I think, bologna. The way in which we are close to our customer is we know whether someone is just coming out of, for example, a breast cancer treatment and had a mastectomy and that’s why she’s looking for a new wardrobe; or someone had a baby recently and they’re trying to get comfortable with their post-baby body. It’s not just about selling clothing; it’s really understanding where she is in her life and thinking with her about what her wardrobe should look like.

What are your favorite pieces?

The Harlem skirt and the Woolf jacket. It's made out of this viscose stretch material, and it feels like you're wearing pajamas all day even though it's meant to look like a suit. After we would have these really grueling days where we were pitching investors hour after hour, I would say that kept me going. I have a soft spot for that outfit. 

Why did you decide to open a Houston location?

I didn’t actually have much of a network in Houston, but we saw all these orders coming in from the Houston area and we were like, what is going on here? It was kind of to our delight and surprise. A lot of them said they heard about us from friend that they had in the D.C. area—that was kind of a lightbulb moment for us, the style similarities between Houston and D.C. This was truly a city of happy coincidences where we found a pocket of customers who were very much looking for something like M.M.LaFleur. Houston really grew organically.

What should people know about the M.M.LaFleur experience?

We take a lot of pride in how we set up the store experience. You’re getting one-on-one with a stylist, and they are the least pushy person on the planet because they’re not paid on commission. It’s not in their interest at all to up-sell you a piece just for the sake of selling you a piece. You come in and you’re drinking Prosecco, or cappuccino if that’s more your speed, and it’s the most productive 60 minutes of your life. We’re only showing you clothing we think will work great on you.

What's next for the Houston showroom?

We really want to get to know our customers better, so we’re launching a variety of events and workshops at our showroom. Up until recently it’s been really focused on the shopping experience, but we’re hoping to do more community-oriented events, book tours—we’ve got some great authors coming through, and they’ll be stopping by our showroom. Even if you’re not in the mood to shop, you can just stop by and enjoy some of the events.

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