M.M.LaFleur CEO on the opportunity to rewrite the rules of workwear

Workwear was different when CEO Sarah LaFleur launched M.M.LaFleur, her fashion brand targeting working women.

“Dresses were the majority of our business [in 2013],” she said on the Glossy Podcast. “We didn’t even have pants until 2016.” 

But now that working from home has become the norm, the brand has fully embraced casual wear. “The Power Casual category [that includes joggers, hoodies and tees] was probably 15-20% of our business going into 2020. But Covid hit, and — boom. It’s now over 50%,” she said. 

Tackling change is a growing trend for the brand. In late February, it will introduce M.M. Second Act, a peer-to-peer resale program that’s been on the backburner for years. 

“I always saw M.M.’s purpose in the clothing world as being not just about selling, but also about showing women how to wear it. And actually teaching women how to take care of their clothing. The final piece in clothing’s journey is retiring that piece, if you’re not wearing it,” said LaFleur. “It wasn’t until recently, when the technology really caught up with this brand value, that we’ve been able to lean into [resale].”

LaFleur also discussed how Slack is fueling the brand’s community and why now is the time to redefine the workwear dress code. 

Here are a few highlights from the conversation, which have been lightly edited for clarity.

The fall of business formal
“We started with seven dresses, and dresses were the majority of our business; we didn’t even have pants until 2016. And I think now they’re probably less than 20% of our business.… [In 2017] we had a bunch of customers in San Francisco — San Francisco was our third-biggest market. And they would come to us saying, ‘Hey, I love your clothes, but I need something slightly more dressed-down. And it’s not like I can wear hoodies and jeans to work, because that’s what all the engineering bros are wearing. And that’s not my style. But if I dress up too much, it looks like I’m interviewing. So can you help me strike the right tone?’ And so [M.M. LaFleur co-founder] Miyako [Nakamura] and I flew out to San Francisco, we interviewed a bunch of women who worked in the tech space, and Miyako said, ‘I can do something stylish for you. It doesn’t have to be like this.’ And we came out with the collection; we define the category as Power Casual. It was probably 15-20% of our business going into 2020. But Covid hit, and — boom. It’s now over 50%.”

Redefining workwear
“One of the things that we’re most excited about is just saying: This is the new way to dress. And we very much want to lead there. For so long, women have been told, ‘This is what professional workwear looks like.’ And honestly, it was a huge riff off of men’s suiting. We have this opportunity to rewrite the rules and say, ‘OK, women are juggling so much, but they want to feel good about themselves.’ And clothing, at the end of the day, it brings joy. Of course, there’s a practical element to it, but it brings joy. And so, what does that new dress code look like? Comfort, I think, is never going away; that’s going to be at the base of everything we create. Practicality and things being machine-washable and wrinkle-resistant, that’s [all] going to continue to be important. And then this idea of: I come home, and then I get out of my work clothes and get into my … whatever it is — home clothes, if you’re going to stay home, or dress-up clothes, if you’re going to go out. Those boundaries are going to continue to disappear. And what we’re excited to do is to continue dressing that woman who is going to be going everywhere in one piece.”

Slack as a community builder
“[Our Slack group] started because, when Covid first happened, I think there was this moment where we were like, ‘Wait a minute, who am I going to talk to during the day? Where’s my work wife? Where’s my work husband?’ And so we kicked off this Slack channel, and the customers just kind of took off and ran it on their own. When some of our customers got laid off in the initial wave of Covid, we had other customers saying, ‘Well, let’s start a job posting site.’ And so they were sharing jobs with each other. And there’s a Slack channel called Child Care Tips, where they’re sharing what they’re doing to take care of their kids. And so, yes, of course, we see customers upselling products to each other from time to time, and sometimes criticizing, of course. But what’s been most exciting is that it’s been embraced as its own community that is way beyond the clothing we sell.”

Tackling fundraising
We haven’t really talked about fundraising a ton, even though we have raised VC funding. Part of that is because I never wanted us to be known as a brand with you know, X million raised. I don’t think it is as true today, but even five years ago, there was definitely this excitement or badge of honor around, ‘Oh my gosh, can you believe it? X company raised X million at Y valuation.’ And in my head, I was just like, ‘Oh, you just gave up part of your company. So I’m not quite sure why this is cause for celebration.’ … That, to me, was not the press I want to be getting. And so we’ve been purposely on the down-low with any fundraising that we’ve done. But I’m very happy to share that we have raised money. I’ve talked about the difficulty of raising money for a women’s clothing brand, as a female entrepreneur. The market has gotten, if not easier, then just significantly more aware of the challenges. But, gosh, trying to raise money in 2013? It would probably be less painful to pick up a chopstick and stab it into my eyeball. It was torture.”

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