Woman wearing sunglasses & a blazer standing in a NYC street

How M.M. LaFleur is redefining workwear with Power Casual

Jan 10, 2024

We are excited to welcome the Founder and CEO of M.M. LaFleur, Sarah LaFleur, to The Style That Binds Us podcast! M.M. LaFleur is a New York-based clothing brand celebrating women through thoughtfully designed pieces, personal styling, and engaging content. They offer comfortable yet polished pieces for on-duty, off-duty, and everything in between. *Scroll down to discover/shop our favorite pieces from M.M. LaFleur’s latest collection!

Prior to founding M.M. LaFleur in 2013, Sarah attended Harvard University, where she graduated with a degree in Social Studies, and pursued a career in international development before moving into management consulting. Sarah recently became a mom of 3.

M.M. LaFleur has been featured in Forbes, Inc., WWD, Glossy, The Washington Post, The Cut & many more. We can’t wait to get the scoop on where she got the idea for M.M. LaFleur, how she went about making that a reality, how M.M. LaFleur has evolved since its founding, and what she’s learned along the way. They recently were featured in a New York Times article introducing the concept of Power Casual. *Use code STYLETHATBINDS20 for 20% off on your first purchase on M.M. LaFleur’s website

We can’t wait to get the scoop on where she got the idea for M.M. LaFleur, how she went about making that a reality, how the company has evolved since its founding, and what she’s learned along the way. Thank you, Sarah.

It’s my absolute pleasure, and I can’t think of a better way to start my day. It’s 10 AM right now, than with a mother-daughter dynamic duo. Thank you.

We have heard that you are very close with your mother, we can’t wait to get into that and now you are a mother yourself. Let’s start right away by talking about what led you to start M.M. LaFleur.

Yes, the theme of mother runs strong. I never thought I would go into fashion. Even today, I still don’t feel like I work in fashion. My mother was the only person in my family who worked in fashion, everyone else worked in government or public service. That’s just for some reason, that’s what my family did.

My mother was kind of the lone wolf, the black sheep of the family. She had gone into personal relations at Estee Lauder in the 70s and then kind of made the transition over to the high-end luxury space, representing a very prominent Japanese designer. Through her, my mother still loves fashion, loves fashion.

For the past 30 years, she has been running her own company, selling jewelry. She’s always been in that sphere, and it has taught me a lot through her. She would bring pieces home, show me how things were constructed, certain fabrics were better than others, and how to accessorize all of this. I always had her as my guide.

Fast forward to college, I landed my first job in New York. I ended up at a management consulting firm, which is pretty formal in terms of the corporate environment. Suddenly, you have to dress the part of a professional responsible adult, and I found myself struggling to find clothing that I thought was up to the task. I don’t mean it looks good, it’s cut well, but it fits well, and it’s practical.

A lot of the pieces that I ended up picking up at your run-of-the-mill contemporary store, like the fabrics would be pretty poor quality. A lot of things were machine washable, which meant that I also had to spend an arm and a leg on dry cleaning. I had a dress that I had saved up for. I purchased this, it was like $320. I calculated that after five years of owning it, I had spent $1,000 fry cleaning that dress.

It’s just crazy if you think about the amount of money it spends to care for these dry-clean-only fabrics, also things were always wrinkling. I just felt like I always had to take out my ironing board. From a practical standpoint, in the morning, you wake up and you’re rushing. Back then, I didn’t have kids and I still felt like I was rushing.

There’s a statistic that we share with our customers that women, on average, spend two more weeks per year getting ready in the morning versus men, which is just kind of an astronomical number if you think about it. Imagine what you would do with those two weeks if you could get out of the door faster, and if you could get ready faster. All of these things I thought were swirling in my head, “Could someone make better, more beautiful, more tailored, practical clothing?”

I never actually thought that I would be the one to do this, I would say it was kind of the result of ending up in another job that I was so miserable in. I left without another plan. I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do with myself. I was like, “Well, I’ve always had this idea that clothing for working women could be better. Is this my moment to start it?” It wasn’t some sort of plan thing. It just kind of came about.

That makes so much sense, especially for me as a Wardrobe consultant and as a Personal stylist. It’s what I go through every day and why I keep coming back to your brand because all of that is true. The ironing, the care, even just the time – the dry cleaning, to take it, and pick it up. “Is it going to be ready this morning?” I thought, “Oh, there’s a pair of pants that I need to wear for Saturday night.”

I realized, “Oh gosh, they need to be dry-cleaned.” Hopefully, I can find a dry cleaner to do it before Saturday night because I have to have that pants. You just got a lot of time, right? This is crazy, we’re thrilled that you decided to create this lovely brand.

I wanted to ask you all since I am a mom, and now you’re a mom. Your mother – you seem to have that close relationship. Tell us more about how she inspired you and taught you a lot of things as you were in the past years. Now, how do you all work together? How does she help?

Merge work, play, and socializing into one outfit—no need for separate wardrobes

Well, the way that we work together is that she supplies the jewelry to my company. That is the way we work together, but I will say, she drives me up the wall when we work together. Unlike the two of you and Alison, you seem to have a very lovely working relationship.

My mother and I know that we butt heads, we’re both kind of hot-headed, and we only work through someone at my company. I never actually talk directly through my mother when it comes to something related to work. I need some tips from you guys about how to keep even the family dynamic professional.

I love it. That’s great, especially since she’s at your house right now with the kids. What you just said that you have figured out it’s good to have someone sort of in the middle there to help the conversation go smoothly is smart.

I think that we hear that all the time. We either hear, “I would love to work with my mother” or, “There’s no way we could work together”. It’s usually the mother saying they want to work with the daughter and the daughter saying, “Not a chance.”

The main thing is knowing your personality, knowing your mother’s personality, not expecting something different, and respecting each other. We do get along well. Just a few minutes before you came on, I was already in Zoom with Delia and I guess I was moving my phone or something and she started laughing. I said, “What are you laughing at?” She said, “It’s funny watching you with technology.” She has to be patient with me. I know, it’s a major frustration because it’s a major frustration for me.

There are things that I know, and I try much harder now to figure them out by myself depending on how much time I have before I reach out to her and say, “Where are the Google Docs, and what is that?” All those questions that I know just make her want to scream, I’m sure.

It’s knowing each other? Yeah, that’s a good tip.

Yeah, not expecting anything different.

I wholeheartedly agree with that. What is also interesting is in other aspects of our lives, we’re much better partners. Like you just said, my mother is here right now from Japan helping me with our kids over the past month while we were relocating and moving, and just in chaos.

In that aspect, she’s like my dream partner, we’re gonna just focus on that aspect of the mother-daughter relationship. I have to say she’s also right. She’s an entrepreneur herself, and that is another way of talking about the things that bind us. She uniquely understands the emotional exhaustion that comes with being an entrepreneur.

She was the one who I saw when I was growing up and she was running her own business. I knew how hard running a business could be, and in that sense, she’s always been my role model. I respect her tremendously.

That makes sense. I think too, it sounds to me like this is something that goes on with you too, as well. Usually, it seems like when Delia is going through frustration or doubt, then I am saying, “No. We’ve got to set it up”, and then vice versa. Your mother knows exactly where you are, with children, with your own business, and everything like that. She is a good person who believes in you.

Yes, and that’s also a scary thought. She believes in me more than anyone in the world. I don’t want to get morbid, but I think about what life might be like without her, and the thought is unbearable. She’s like the person who is your number one fan, and I think about that a lot, what it must feel like to not have that.

That’s something I’m thinking through a lot right now, as I’ve had kids. I realized this kind of moment in my life when I got to have both my kids and my mother. I hope she lives for much longer, but I’m trying to treasure these moments that I have with her, especially because we don’t live in the same country.

Right, exactly. You’re feeling that way, especially now because of these children. It’s an emotional thing. When you become a mom, you start thinking, “Wow, she did so much. I never thanked her at all for driving back and forth to ballet class.” Just everything, I start realizing what they sacrifice for you. Because you’re doing it now, too. That’s something that’ll come and go in your life right now. It’s probably high gear about, “What would I do without her?” It’s very tender, it’s very sweet.

We could talk about that all day. I know what we need to talk about, your wonderful brand.

Miyako Nakamura and Sarah LaFleur

It is my firstborn, very happy to talk about it. We are coming up on our 10th anniversary, which is crazy. But I started working on it back in 2011 with my co-founder, I have two co-founders. One who is my Chief Creative Officer, Miyako Nakamura, she was formerly the head designer at Zac Posen and she’s such a talent, I don’t know how else to put it.

She could have gone and worked for any luxury fashion house, but somehow, I convinced her to work with me. People always say like, “How on earth did you pull that off?” A lot of it was circumstance, right after The Recession in 2008. She saw a lot of fashion houses and closed doors, and she was questioning a lot of what was happening in the luxury fashion world. What is the point of pulling off these million-dollar runways? Ultimately, those clothes don’t end up on the backs of anyone.

She felt like everything that needed to be designed had already been designed. That’s what she tells me, not to put words in her mouth. I came along with this very naive perspective, but with like a really clear understanding of who my customer was, and what is it that she wanted. I remember her saying to me, “What do you mean she doesn’t have clothes to wear?” I was like, If you go to Bloomingdale’s, you pick up a white shirt, and you think, “Oh, this could work for the office.” Then you turn it around and you see a big gaping hole in the back. This happens way more often than one thinks. I was like, “All I want is a functional white shirt that doesn’t wrinkle and that I can wash in the machine. Is that too much to ask?”

She thought it was surprising that first of all, I remember her saying to me, “You want to make sure you don’t want to show your bra strap in a more kind of conservative or professional setting?” She was like, “Interesting, I thought you would want to come across as sexy in a meeting.” I was like, “No.” That was a moment where we understood the disconnect between what your consumer wants and what the fashion world thinks of the consumer. 

Right, that’s important. But at the same time, the thing that I love about your clothes is sort of minimalist design, but it’s very elevated, it’s very sort of feminine in a tailored way. They reminded me a lot of old-school Hollywood, but they were very refined. I feel like it makes sense, the design, and bringing together of the two of you. It’s perfect for me. 

Thank you so much for noticing that. One of the things we haven’t talked about as much is our design team, which is a collection of “The Who’s” designers. Miyako, having been at Jason Wu. We’ve got other designers on our team who were at Proenza Schouler, Calvin Klein, The Row, you name it. Those were the places that they used to work at. For one reason or another, they all came to M.M. LaFleur.

It’s been the same team for the past five to six years, and they are such an amazing group of talented people. They are designers and artists at heart, but they want to design for this woman. They understand what it is that her life entails now, just how busy she is, and how many demands there are on her.

They’re thinking about that every single step of the way. Even through fittings, they’re saying, “Well, can you stretch?” Like, “Do you have enough room?”, “Do you have enough comfort in your arms?”, “Do you feel supported but not too tight?”, “Do the pants stick to you in just the right amount?”

But hopefully, if you have a big launch, you won’t feel like you’re bursting at the seams afterward. They’re thinking about her life, in addition to making sure that the design is as sophisticated as we want it to be.

That’s wonderful to hear that your team has been there for so long. I was with two dear college friends this weekend. When I’m with friends, women, and people, I’m always trying to ask them questions so I can better understand their needs and fulfill those needs with The Style That Binds Us.

They would say things like, “Oh, I used to like this brand but then they completely changed. I no longer liked it. I didn’t like the design anymore.” Often, it’s crazy how these tried and true brands go through designer after designer and it completely changes both with quality and aesthetic. The consumer gets super confused and frustrated, and then they lose that client.

One thing that has also been a business lesson for me is you may be tired of it, but the customer is not. You run your company, you see the same assets all the time, you see the same product all the time, and you’re like, “Oh my god, can we please move on to the next?” But there’s a reason a best seller is a best seller.

Discover your strengths, acknowledge your limitations, and watch how they benefit your business in the long run.

Of course, you want to balance that with the need to keep evolving as a brand, which I could talk all day long about because we’ve been through a bit of an evolution ourselves during Covid. As a brand preserving, the true north, really understanding your customers and not deviating from that is important but takes a lot of discipline. 

I know but please do it, please do it. For someone like me shopping, to have brands that I always can go to that I can count on, and that doesn’t change. I kind of think about Elton John, “How many times has he sung those songs? Every single time the emotional reaction that comes out?” I mean, what if he changed and went in a whole different direction?

It is harder and harder to find brands like yours, and that’s good for you. You’re not like a print-heavy, garden party, cutout brand. It’s like all those clothes people buy and then they still have nothing to wear in their life. Then when I send them something, viewers are like, “Wow, that’s gorgeous.” It’s not like it’s basic. It’s not basic, it’s functional. But at the same time, it’s very chic. It’s not trendy, thank God. It’s very chic. 

That’s such high praise coming from you. 

I desperately want you to hear it. Because I know on the other end, people keep coming to me because they can’t find anything. Well, if they can’t find it, I can’t find it. It’s getting harder and harder, you just keep toeing that line and knowing that you are really where you need to be.

Thank you, that means so much to me. I think this especially because as a brand, we’ve gone through a lot in the past two years, the pandemic hit us hard. You can imagine it. Pre-pandemic, we were focused on dressing women going to the office, and everyone stopped going to the office. We had to do a lot of soul-searching about what is the point of M.M. What is our reason for being? It was an existential moment for the brand.

Thankfully, we answered it which I can talk more about. But it was terrifying when it first started and it’s interesting because I’m sure you’re seeing this as well with your clients. What we found is it doesn’t matter if she’s still going to the office or she’s not going to the office.

Maybe it’s a different setting, maybe you’re not in a cubicle anymore, God-willing, but then it still doesn’t deter from the fact that there are moments where you have to show up. Either you want to be perceived a certain way or you want to present yourself in a certain way, and you’re looking for your clothes to deliver a little bit of that magic.

Exactly. The problem too is, that this too shall pass. What happened was all the people pivoted, now when I shop for clients, this is another example, besides the party dresses, everything is sweatpants and slippers. In all the stores everywhere, we’re not comfortable going back to work even in a more casual type of office situation with a fuzzy slide or a backless shoe.

You stay the course weather the storm, and now all the other people that pivoted, it’s all coming out. It didn’t come out then, it’s all coming now and it’s too late. Now they’re not selling again. It was scary, I know. But staying the course helped you in more ways than you knew at the time.

That’s true. The evolution we had in the brand was just enough and not too far. Pre-pandemic, we were focused on dressing women who were working in a business casual environment, and we also did some suiting, and we still do suiting. But we are calling this new phase of dressing Power Casual.

We are saying this is this new way of dressing, we’re calling it Power Casual™. It’s in between business casual and pure casual wear. Ideally, it’s an outfit that you can feel like you can go to a meeting in, where you can meet your clients. But then, you can also pick up your kids and then you can go out with your girlfriends for dinner. It’s an outfit that kind of translates the hours. 

Yeah, I know what you’re talking about.

It can take you one moment to the next, I find what our customers are increasingly looking for. I know you know, you’re both such connoisseurs of fashion. I think a lot about the moment in the 1920s when Coco Chanel introduced pants and suddenly told society women that you don’t have to have seven outfits a day.

You can have one outfit. Not to compare ourselves to the great Coco Chanel, but that is so much of what we’re trying to propose a hundred years later – don’t feel like you have to have your work clothes and separately have an outfit to play with your kids or go out with your girlfriends’. It can be one outfit.

I will tell you this. Many of my clients are looking for suiting again, it’s amazing. They are. They’re like, “No, we’re back. We are wearing this so do not get rid of the suit.” It’s interesting because I’ll tell you this, in New York City this past winter, I could not find one black pant that wasn’t on your website. I’m not kidding, where I live, I walk up and down Madison Avenue to every store from one end of the spectrum to the other. “Oh, we’re not doing black pants this year. There are no black pants.” No, there’s not.

I love the idea of Power Casual, but since you didn’t go all to Power Casual, we still have you as an option for suiting. You can wear it a million different ways. That’s great about your brand as well.

Thank you.

Of course, style icons are always a forever thing that people go to. We were kind of thinking like, “Oh my gosh, it’s done again and again, it’s kind of a cop-out.” But recently, we decided to focus on it. There’s a reason that there are these style icons that are perennial and we watched Anatomy of a Scandal and fell in love. 

Oh, with the Sienna Miller one? I’ve been dying to watch it.

This is how we and our audience want to dress, and you’re very aligned in this as well. It’s so much easier to get dressed in this timeless, chic, not-printed way. I know you do have some prints. When I was going through your website, I was like, “Oh, I could see Sienna wearing this.” You have many timeless pieces that are exactly aligned with this new way of dressing that our audience is responding to.

We’ve been craving it because you can’t find it, it’s insane. Anyways, that’s a good point Delia, and that’s true about your brand.

Thank you. It is appreciated. I will tell Miyako and she stayed the course, I have her to thank for that. She did not deviate, did not go Bridgerton. I love that show. 

Many brands speak to that. What were you going to say about suiting?

Even though I never wear a full suit anymore, I wear my jacket a lot. I’m wearing my jacket now more than ever and that is because a jacket lets you dress comfortably elsewhere, right? I end up often wearing a knit top, and pants look tailored, but I have an elastic waistband. I throw on my jacket, and I feel like I’m out to get the world. I feel like I’m in a place of power. That jacket to me, I almost can’t believe how much I’m wearing it now. I only wear it four out of five days because I just start with the outfit-making itself.

That’s right. Also, the women that I work with around her age, are doing amazing things in their careers. They are in their late 20s and early 30s, and these apartments don’t have huge closets. If you do buy suits, you might wear them together.

If you put a silk camisole under it, you can in a strappy heel, you can wear it. For a cocktail type of business meeting type thing, also you can wear the jacket all the time. You can wear the pants separately, it doesn’t take up as much room but it can be the basis for so many looks. That’s why I think it’s a go-to thing in people’s closets. 

I agree. A hundred percent, and wear it with a pair of denim.

Who is the M.M. in M.M. LaFleur?

It is my mother. In Japanese, her nickname is “Meme” which is like a kid’s way of saying eyes. She has really big eyes and initially, I called the brand Meme LaFleur. LaFleur which is my last name in French means ‘the flower’ and Meme is French for ‘granny’ I was like, “Huh?”

Granny Flower doesn’t quite have the ring that I was hoping for. We were like, “What are we going to do? and we just were like, “Let’s just take the initials!” That’s how it became M.M. LaFleur. It is the most random story. A lot of people are like, “Is it McDonnell? Then I’m like, “None of the above.”

That’s funny, that’s great. I love the name.

Once you had the idea that you wanted to start this company, how did you go about making it a reality?

The first thing I did was I incorporated in Delaware. Because I read somewhere, I want to say that your website was a good idea. Actually, we still have that. We registered at this place, and I think we’re still registered with them 12 years later.

I can’t believe I’m saying this. I rented a WeWork office when we were still had only two buildings. I rented an office because I was like, “Oh, that’s what I need.” I wanted to get out of my house. I was depressed leaving this last job that I had. I was spending my days kind of crying into my pillow and feeling very unwell. I was like, “I need to get out of the house.” I rented this, WeWork and I paid $500 for a small room. We were just talking about being entrepreneurs, basically, three months in, I was like, “I can’t be spending $500 on this. I need to spend those $500 on something else.” I ended up saving those dollars and started working from home again.

The first important business decision I made was, I decided to work with a headhunter to find my dream designer. I had a girlfriend from college who had gone to the interior design school after college. She was the one person I knew who worked in, let’s just call it the arts. I was like, “She must know someone in fashion because I didn’t know a single fashion designer.” She hasn’t gotten to RISD, but did know one fashion designer.

She introduced me to her and this woman introduced me to five different headhunters. I called them all and most of them were like, “Honey, that’s cute. But we don’t have time for you. I have Calvin Klein on the other line. This was not a good use of my time.” That was pretty discouraging.

But one headhunter who I still work with and adore said to me, “You know, I hear this direct-to-consumer thing, this e-commerce thing is going to be big.” Like, “Sure, I’ll take a chance on you. Let me see if I can find someone for you.” He delivered, I don’t know how else to put it. He introduced me to many amazing designers, who were all at the time kind of flooding the market post-recession not knowing where fashion was going.

I was going to go with a designer, I’d already set my heart on someone. Then he called me and said, “There’s someone else I want you to meet.” I said, “Well, I’m already going to go with this other person. I feel pretty good about my decision.” He’s like, “Yeah. Just trust me, meet her. See what happens.” I met her and I still remember this meeting 12 years ago now, we met at a cafe.

Having a great product is just the start; success comes from knowing how to sell it effectively. It’s often the key difference between thriving and falling short in business.

From her name, I had guessed that she was Japanese. We didn’t know each other, there was no Japanese connection in New York. We met and somehow we just hit it off and even though she didn’t know what the customer was talking about, she understood the aesthetic that I wanted. I don’t want to compare my sensibilities to Miyako, hers are more refined. We have similar tastes, or mine being a lot more commercial than hers but we have similar tastes. We just hit it off, right away.

She has been my longtime, decade-long business partner now. I always tell my husband, “She’s my other partner, she’s my life partner, and we’ve built this brand together since 2011.” That’s probably the most important kind of business decision I made. A lot of merchant fashion experts said to me, “Why don’t you just be your designer?” Like, “Why don’t you take an existing style, and you can copy it? Add a sleeve, take off a sleeve.” I was very adamant, that was not what I wanted.

I felt the fashion world needed a shake-up. If we were going to do that, I needed someone who understood construction and fabrics. That wasn’t me, I think of myself as my customer, but I’m not the designer. The broader story here is knowing where your strengths are and also knowing what you don’t know that ends up serving the business in the long run.

What I love about that too is we hear this all the time and we’ve been in this place too. It’s like “Okay, we have this amount of money, and there are a million different places where we could put it.” But what would be the smartest place? How do you figure that out?

I know headhunters are not inexpensive, but for you to decide that that was the leap you are going to take and how it made the company, that’s amazing. How did you come about deciding that was the way to go?

I started with $70,000 of capital roughly. I had $37,000 saved up and called this youth because I dared to do it. I emptied my entire savings account and put it right into the business. Then my parents said, “Okay, we’ll lend you $37,000.” They lent me the same amount and I also put that in a bank account.

I had $74,000, which is a lot of money, but not a ton of money when you want to start a business. I kind of did the math and I said, “Okay, I think I can spend $10,000 on a top-notch designer to have me and I want her to design a collection of dresses.” I think that was kind of a laughable figure for Miyako. She found it intriguing enough that she was willing to do it and she was like “Seven dresses, I can sketch those in my sleep. I’ll do it.”

But clearly, she could have charged a lot more, and my headhunter who was truly an angel said, “I charge 20% of every annual salary.” I was like, “Well, she’s not gonna be making a salary. I’m gonna give her 10,000.” He very kindly said, “Then your fee is $2,000.” It is the best $2,000 I’ve spent.

Hopefully, he feels he got something out of it too, because we continue to work with him. We continue to send him a lot of business, it is continuing to pay off. I was kind of counting pennies. I will say, I negotiated a lot. I’m pretty shameless about negotiating and as an entrepreneur, you do have to ask for favors. I have found that a lot of people are pretty friendly to small businesses and they want small businesses. They don’t want to see the world flooded with Amazons and Walmarts.

I remember we once did a photo shoot in Greenpoint. The landlord told me that typically he charges $50,000 a day for a studio to do something there and he let us use it for free. I don’t share that all the time because that’s not your average day. But I do find that by being kind, approaching it kindly, and explaining your situation, you can win a lot of supporters along the way. 

There are so many lessons in what you just said. That’s all wonderful. Did you start with these dresses? Did you say seven dresses?

We started with seven dresses. We said, “A dress for every day of the week”. We started with some dresses. We just realized that none of them are in production, but we sold every single one except for one, which was my favorite. The one that I thought was going to be my favorite. It was my favorite, I thought was gonna be the best seller was like a failure out of the gates.

I’m unlike Delia, not a good merchant. I like this dress, and I was like “This is gonna be a runaway bestseller.” We sold two of those but the six others actually, we got a fair number of orders from just doing trunk shows. I think we did seven trunk shows that first year, and it was all made to order because I was terrified of carrying inventory.

I ordered rolls of fabric and I just carried that, and then everything was made to order in a factory in New York. All six of those styles, we launched in 2011, until last year or maybe two years ago, we were carrying almost every single one of them. They stood the test of time, and I think we might bring some of them back because they don’t feel outdated at all. They feel like classics but that’s where we first got started.

I love hearing that. I also love hearing that you and your team design the dresses, you think that you’re going to put it online, and they’re just going to sell like crazy. But that didn’t necessarily happen. Will you talk about that and the Bento Box idea?

M.M. LaFleur’s BentoBox campaign launched in 2013

After we did these trunk shows, we went out and did a round of fundraising. We raised about $400,000. We said, “Okay” with that, “Let’s go start our e-commerce site.” We did and we launched that, it took another year but it launched in 2013. Just having so much success through the trunk shows, we thought, “Well.”

Now it’s an opportunity to scale anyone and everyone can come by on our site. We launched our site and it was total crickets. We just could not sell a dress to save our lives, I think the Achilles heel for any retailer is inventory. We could see it was physically a room we had added to our office, we could just see the volume of dresses growing and growing. We’re like, “Oh my gosh, what are we going to do? We need to move this inventory somehow.”

Having had these customers shop through our structures, we said, “Well, why don’t we just email them again?” and say, like, “If we send you a box of dresses, can you try them on at your home, and you can keep whatever you like and return whatever you don’t like? What do you think about that?” A surprising number of customers said, “Yes.”

We got the best response rate of any email we had ever sent out to that date. A lot of what we heard was like, “Oh, I’m glad you are offering the service, I didn’t have time to decide what I wanted on your site. But I’d be more than happy to try” or “I didn’t know what size I would be. But if you want to pick for me, I’m happy to try it on.”

We decided to use the same kind of tactic with customers who have never tried this before. They were lurking on our mailing list, we had somehow gotten access to their emails, but they had never shopped with us before. We said, “If you tell us a little bit about yourself, I think we could send you the right dress. Would you be willing to give us some information?” That email also did surprisingly well, we ended up making more money doing that one initiative in one week than we had in any month leading up to that point.

It was a make-or-break moment for the company, Things could have easily gone sideways. Thankfully, the strategy makes it sound way fancier than what it is that we were doing, but this idea worked. We ended up operationally figuring out the complexities of it, and officially launched it under the name “Bento”.

Because the box that these dresses and these accessories came in looked like a bento box, my lunch box that my mom used to pack me when I was a little kid. We called it Bento, and we launched it officially in October 2014. The business skyrocketed.

As a result of that, it was just interesting because nothing about the product had changed – the same dress, the same price point, the same branding, all of that. The only thing that changed was how we were selling it to the customer.

That continues to this day, and it continues to remain the lesson, which is having a good product is not enough, you need to know how to sell your product. That often determines the businesses that succeed from those that don’t. That’s the story behind the Bento, which by the way we don’t even offer anymore.

E-commerce has changed a lot, we found that at a certain point, we didn’t need it anymore. It was operationally incredibly intensive. Now, we have our e-commerce site, we’ve got our showrooms, and we’ve got our stylists online. We’ve also seen that customers are much more comfortable shopping online in a way that they weren’t back in 2013 and 2014. A lot has changed in the world, and we’re always trying to adapt to that.

I love hearing the stories of businesses in the beginning, especially ones that are today very successful because it helps all entrepreneurs to hear that and to keep going.

Thank you for saying that. That struggle never ends, right? I just talked about Covid being incredibly hard on the business. It’s not as if you reach some level of success and then suddenly the problem stops, the problems are ongoing.

I don’t want to but ideally, you make a really good point because I don’t want to diminish that kind of initial breakthrough that we had. That gave us a lot of wind behind our sails, and it was a pivotal moment for the business. Finding that one kind of moment that can shift your business into a different gear is all that entrepreneurs are working towards. The hardest part of running a business or starting a business is finding product market fit, in startup or tech speak, it can be painful. I don’t want to minimize it at all, it is a challenge for sure.

What we should talk about is where they can find you. Can they come to the showroom? Anything like that, that gives them the information of how to get to view.

Wonderful. Thank you for letting me pitch that. You are Alison, my publicist would be terrified if she knew that I didn’t say yes. M.M. LaFleur, for those of you who are outside of the New York City or Washington, D.C. area, the easiest way to find us is online and mmlafleur.com. Email NYC Stylist Alison Bruhn at alison@thestylethatbindsus.com to book an appointment to shop together at one of M.M. LaFleur’s showrooms!

That’s exciting. You did a phenomenal thing about women running for office. Do you want to tell us about that? 

Sure. That was a really fun campaign, although I think politics now was anything but fun. Way back in 2016, when Donald Trump got elected regardless of which side you were on or who you voted for, everyone was surprised by the outcome. Everyone thought that Hillary Clinton was going to win, but that did not happen.

We ended up sending an email the following day to our customers because it kind of felt like the mood was strange. We felt weird sending out a typical newsletter saying, like, “Here’s our favorite pair of pants.” We ended up sending an email to our customers saying, “Hey, this is just a call for conversation. We would love to hear what you think, and then could play a role in supporting women in politics.”

We heard from both sides of the aisle, it was fascinating. We got 1200 emails. Some of them, of course, was like, “Stay out of politics, you have no business talking about politics.” But the feeling was different back then.

Brands weren’t wading as much into politics the way we are now, we just thought it was a call for conversation. But what we heard from both sides was that it would be great to just see more women elected period up and down the ballot. Over the next four years between 2016 and 2020, what we saw was congresswomen who were wearing our clothes and senators who were wearing our clothes.

Kind of the fun story I like to tell is Miyako and I were sitting in a cafe in NoHo, New York, and walked in Cynthia Nixon of Sex and the City. She just announced her gubernatorial campaign, she was running for New York governor. I muster all the courage I have, I walk up to her and say, “I just want you to know, I have always been a Miranda fan, and I would love to dress you for your campaign.” She was very kind and she said, “Get in touch with my stylist, and let’s see if we could work together.” We did, and she ended up wearing M.M., I want to say like nine out of 10 times on the campaign trail. That was the first time where we were like, “Ha! Wow.” There’s something about M.M. clothes that seemed to work for the campaign trail.

As 2020 came along, we launched this campaign called #ReadytoRun and we said, “We’d love to dress you if you’re running for office. Email in, and we’ll send you some clothes for you to borrow. We’ll donate them at the very end to a nonprofit that is very near and dear to our hearts, Bottomless Closet.” Wrote in, and I thought it was just going to be this small initiative, but it ended up going viral.

We had over 1400 women write in for clothes to wear on the campaign trail. Hillary Clinton and AOC tweeted about it, totally unbeknownst to us. Every major news outlet covered it, and a news outlet in Croatia covered it.

It was kind of this wild moment, but I would say on a meaningful front, it was a very meaningful campaign to me personally. Because we heard from a lot of women who were running saying, “I could never afford these clothes. Thank you for doing this for me”.

I had one mother running from Rhode Island saying, “I am a woman running for office. I live on the poverty line. I have two boys. People need to hear from women like me, and that’s why I’m running. Thank you for just taking this concern out of all the other things that I have to worry about.”

Being on the campaign trail is incredibly demanding, and it’s also an expensive endeavor. In this day and age where it seems like only millionaires and billionaires are allowed to run for office. It gave me some hope that we were at least just helping ease that barrier, obviously not removing the barrier, but I think just making a small contribution in the way we can, making it easier, for all types of people to run.

Unfortunately, your clothes and what you’re wearing are going to be a topic. Either you’re threatening, or you’re tacky. They’re going to come after you for that because they’re looking for something.

As far as these women, they’re not going to be talking necessarily about what the tie the man was wearing. But they’re certainly going to talk about what the woman was wearing. Your clothes are elegant.

It’s a good example of, “It’s not the clothes, but it’s a woman who wears them because your clothes aren’t distracting.” They’re very deceivingly simple, but they’re just like, “How did she do that?” Because of your clothes, that was such a bigger gift than just dressing them.

Thank you. It did feel like probably the most meaningful thing we had ever done as a brand. I’m proud of that initiative. A lot of the questions or criticisms that we get around price point, it’s true, our clothes are not cheap.

They’re a great price point.

They’re not designer brands and obviously, they’re not meant for wholesale. We try to pass on the margin savings to the customer. But they’re not cheap.

Through initiatives like this, we also run an upcycling program on our site so customers can sell their gentle pieces to other customers, that’s a peer-to-peer program. Usually, the prices are a third to 50 percent. Sometimes if it’s like a special edition piece, it can be even more expensive than its original price. But usually, it’s less than the original. We have donated tens of thousands of pieces now to partners like Bottomless Closet, we work with women in New York City who are trying to get back into the workforce. 

Alison always tells her styling clients to be thoughtful with their purchases, and your clothes make it easy to do that because they are so functional!

Thank you. That’s what we always tell our customers. “Think about it. This is not a seasonal purchase, this is going to be for years. It’s an investment and hopefully one that’s well worth it.”

You’ve even gotten to meet RBG.

That was fun. Yes, Justice Ginsburg. Her clerks for her 20th anniversary on the court and I believe it was her 80th birthday, I decided to design a custom jabot for her. She was very well known for her custom jabots, the necklaces that she was wearing.

We went down to Washington, D.C. and Miyako designed three-tiered jabots. One layer represents her family, and her children, one layer represents her husband, and one layer represents herself, her husband said this when she was asked how it felt to be Martin Ginsburg. He said, “I’m happy to do it. It’s not sacrifice, it’s family.”

Custom Jabot made by M.M.LaFleur for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

We got that written into the jabot and her clerks presented it to her as part of this anniversary party that they had. It was just an incredible moment for Miyako, and myself. We went to DC, got to meet her, and spent an hour with her. Miyako fitted her twice. The jabot itself was captured for a magazine spread in National Geographic and it was a really big moment, I would say from Miyako, just to have something that she’s created is very special. Learn more in “The Collars of Rbg: A Portrait of Justice.”

That’s a life moment right there for sure. Both of you.

Thank you, Sarah. This has been wonderful and we’re proud of everything that you’ve done especially this latest pivot, becoming a mother, and there’s just so much in store for you. We can’t wait to watch.

Thank you, Delia and Alison. I love that you do this together, you make the mother-daughter business look easy. It was a pleasure talking to you both. 

You too. Take care, and have fun with those babies.

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