Have you found your superpower? Do you listen to your clients and the zeitgeist? Sarah M. LaFleur, founder and CEO of MM.LaFleur clothing company, believes every successful entrepreneur must address these questions.
Founded in 2013, MM.LaFleur clothing rose to prominence among executive women just in time for the 2016 election. Despite the curveball of a COVID pandemic that made work-from-home casual the new norm, Sarah’s gift for perseverance and out-of-the-box thinking led the way to marketing campaigns that went viral.
MM.LaFleur’s mission, and Sarah’s founding vision, was to help working women take the work out of dressing for work. She succeeded. In the process, making office attire so elegant yet comfortable—you won’t want to take it off.
LadyDrinks sat down with Sarah for a fireside chat to glean her leadership style and marketing savvy.
No. 1: First, let your dreams guide you. Next, be persistent.
In 2011 Sarah LaFleur, a Harvard graduate and New York Japanese-American, had landed what she thought was her dream job. Within four months, it started feeling more like a nightmare. She began having panic attacks, dreading going to work. The only other woman there, a doctor, told her point blank, “’This is a terrible place for women.’ And she was right… those four months felt like an eternity.”
After quitting, unsure and fearful, in the back of her mind Sarah’s dream was gnawing on her: Why can’t women’s office clothing be affordable, durable and stylish? She knew women, like herself, were willing to pay $100 or $200 for nice clothes—just not $1,200. “Why doesn’t this kind of clothing exist for people like me?” she thought. Her mother had worked in high-end fashion, so Sarah knew what better fabrics and tailored cuts could mean. Using a headhunter, she found high-end designer Miyako Nakamura and began making history—and affordable, work-appropriate designer apparel.
No. 2: Having a great product isn’t enough. Make your marketing fluid and intuitive.
Despite successful trunk-shows featuring her well-made clothing line, her online advertising was getting zero traction. “It was impossible. It was crickets,” Sarah says. But she understood her customers—women and mothers, exhausted after work, with little time for online shopping.
Drowning in inventory, Sarah thought: “What if we sent a box of these products to our existing customers, to see if they’ll keep anything.” Tapping women on her mailing list, she asked if they wanted a stylist to mail them clothing to try on. Their response? “Sure! Send them to me.” MM.LaFleur took off. “We launched that model in October of 2014 and our revenue tripled overnight,” she recalls.
No. 3: Recipe for a successful PR campaign? Strive to connect, giving back as much as you get.
When Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton, the “pant-suit email” MM.LaFleur had planned to send clients got scrapped. Instead, they opened up a conversation with women asking what they, as a brand, could do. MM.LaFleur began drowning in responses. “I think there were a lot of raw emotions,” Sarah recalls. “But the number one thing we heard is, ‘We need more women in politics, Republican or Democrat. So how are you going to help with that?’”
How? They launched a PR campaign promising to lend clothing to any female running for public office. “We will dress you for your campaign trail.” It went viral. “AOC tweeted about it, Hillary tweeted about it,” Sarah recalls, just as more women began running for public office. Sarah even got to meet the notorious RBG. Continuing to connect and give back, MM.LaFleur offers a 20% discount to “veterans, medical professionals, first responders, government and public service workers, and teachers.”
No. 4: See a wave? Don’t drown. Ride it.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, businesses globally were shattered. How was a dress and suit maker to survive when women were now wearing pajama bottoms to Zoom meetings? MM.LaFleur shot its spring campaign in Hawaii. “We called it, ‘Mentally, I’m here,’” says Sarah. She understood that working mothers now faced little escape, yet still needed to feel grounded and inspired.
Next came a paradigm-shift in clothing: creating ultra-comfortable office clothes. “We already saw the casualization of the workplace happening even back in 2017, 2018. So we ‘d already started developing into that.” Their revenue from suits dropped, as sales of gorgeous T-shirts and tops soared to 60% of their business. “Our brand has always been about practicality and comfort,” says Sarah. So, they invented the Jardigan: “It looks like a jacket but feels like a cardigan. It’s stretchy and it never wrinkles.” Then the Ginas: pants made of soft terrycloth and sweat-pant material, but with a tailored, zip-up fit. “So, they look like pants, but they definitely feel like sweatpants.” What’s next, comfortable stilettos?
No. 5: Know your superpower.
When asked about ‘impostor syndrome’ and feelings of inadequacy, Sarah shared how she’s turned this to her advantage. “I’m constantly fighting it,” she says. “But I think that maybe my superpower is that I have a pretty high BS meter.” She makes it a point to be honest about what she knows or doesn’t know. This gives others the chance to do the same. “I hope that is my superpower,” Sarah says, thus “breaking down that aura of people who gave us impostor syndrome.” That’s leadership.