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Business for Good: M.M.LaFleur

The New York-based retailer’s new Center City shop brings stylish slow fashion to working women — just in time for city workers to return to the office. The company is also helping women run for office, get jobs and save the planet

Business for Good: M.M.LaFleur

The New York-based retailer’s new Center City shop brings stylish slow fashion to working women — just in time for city workers to return to the office. The company is also helping women run for office, get jobs and save the planet

For years, when Sarah LaFleur worked in finance in New York City, she struggled with what should have been the easiest part of the job: Dressing for work.

Every day, it felt like an ordeal. Would people take her more seriously if she wore heels or flats? Tights or no tights? “I was spending so much of my money buying clothing that I didn’t particularly like or think were good quality, and they would fall apart after a few years,” she says.

She felt jealous of the men in her office who could just throw on a suit in the morning and call it a day. On average, women spend 2 hours and 40 minutes more than men per week getting ready and generally enhancing their appearance.

Since she couldn’t find clothes she wanted to wear to work, LaFleur decided to start making them. In 2013, alongside two partners, Narie Foster and Miyako Nakamura, she launched M.M.LaFleur, a women’s clothing boutique that designs long-lasting clothes for professional women. They’ve dressed women ranging from Ruth Bader Ginsberg to the players on New York Liberty. Their first location: a concept store in NYC’s Financial District.

Now, almost 11 years since its founding, LaFleur is taking the brand’s mission of empowering women a few steps further: by doubling down on sustainability, donating clothes to the nonprofit Bottomless Closet and dressing women who are running for office free of charge. This month, the New York-based brand opened a store in Center City — just in time for City of Philadelphia employees’ mandatory return to the office.

Photos courtesy M.M.LaFleur.

From badass businesswoman to fashionista

Before founding her clothing empire, LaFleur didn’t expect to have a career in fashion. After college, she worked in management consulting and private equity — the kinds of jobs she held when she was complaining to Foster and other colleagues about how she didn’t know what to wear to work.

“I was like: Someone really needs to do something to address this gap … but I didn’t actually think I would do it,” LaFleur says. “I never in a million years thought I would go work in fashion. It was not a particular area of passion for me. It still feels strange sometimes saying I work in fashion.”

It took a career crisis for her to pivot. She was working at a private equity firm, having a horrible time and quit after four months. Then, she wasn’t accepted to the business school she wanted to attend. She thought no one would hire her. All she had was her idea for a clothing company. The problem: She didn’t know anything about fashion or design.

“I was surprised by how many women wrote in saying clothing was actually kind of a barrier for them thinking about being on the campaign trail.” — Sarah LaFleur

So she emailed an old friend from college who was studying interior textiles at Rhode Island School of Design, asking if she knew anyone at all who worked in fashion. That friend put LaFleur in touch with someone who worked in fashion design, who then connected her with five headhunters. Most of them reacted similarly, says LaFleur: “Who the hell are you? You’ve never worked in fashion. You don’t even have a company. Please call me back when you’re serious.

But one decided to take a risk on her. He started introducing her to people in the industry. That’s how she met Nakamura, former head designer for Zac Posen. Like LaFleur, Nakamura was at an inflection point in her career. By all measures, she’d achieved great success — designing dresses for runways, galas and even the Oscars. She didn’t ever get to see her clothes on real people, however.

Photos courtesy of M.M.LaFleur.

“She was like, Everything in the world that needs to be designed has already been designed,” LaFleur recalls. So, when LaFleur came to her with a problem that needed solving — one that would allow her to see her beautiful clothes on women walking around New York — she wanted to be a part of the solution.

LaFleur and Nakamura co-founded M.M.LaFleur with Foster, a friend of LaFleur’s who served as COO until she left to pursue acting. They started with a line of seven dresses — chosen because a dress can be a complete outfit on its own. A year later, in 2013, they launched their website and began selling clothes online.

Professional clothes for professional women

In M.M.LaFleur’s Philly store at 1700 Sansom St., orchid blazers and hummingbird-printed dresses and suit separates hang from the racks. Folded on the tables are dark wash jeans made of a soft, stretchy material LaFleur calls better-than-denim. The clothes are sleek, with clean lines and chic tailoring that wouldn’t be out-of-place in any office building.

T-shirts start at $70; dresses cost around $300. LaFleur tries to set prices that “most professional women would find attainable,” she says, but that also allow her to make quality clothes that will last a long time. They’re designed for the busy lives of professional women, something LaFleur is quite familiar with as a mother of three three-year-olds.

“When we’ve got sleepless nights with the kids, I still need to roll out of bed at least an hour before my husband, if not more, and get myself ready,” LaFleur says. “One big goal with the brand is just making getting dressed and looking stylish, easy for you.”

To that end, most of M.M.LaFleur’s clothes are machine washable, and many are made with a wrinkle resistant fabric called OrigamiTech. They have a line of “jardigans” — a portmanteau of jacket and cardigan — that is meant to transition seamlessly from professional to casual situations.

“I really love our customers. I have the best team in the world and I felt like even in this very small corner of the world that I live in there was a way to move the needle for the better.” — Sarah LaFleur

LaFleur wanted to open a new location in Philly because because the brand already had a solid base of local online customers, good success with a small, pre-pandemic boutique — and saw lots of potential. With our eds and meds, Center City has a lot of essential workers, says Prema Katari Gupta, president and CEO of the Center City District. Even though retail occupancy was down from 89 percent in 2019 to 55 percent in the summer of 2020, many people were still going to work. Now, with Comcast, Independence Blue Cross, the City of Philadelphia and others returning to the office more frequently, Katari Gupta believes it’s the right time for M.M.LaFleur. She’s even purchased a few of the items herself over the years.

“It’s great that there will be another place to shop that in this case caters to professional women,” she says. “There’s a really nice simplicity to their clothes and it makes you feel a little powerful.”

A vision for the future

Back in 2020, at the height of Covid, M.M.LaFleur had to close all of its stores, and the company’s revenue declined 50 percent. Since coming out of Covid, the company has been break-even or profitable, LaFleur says, though she did not share exact sales figures. She is excited that the brand is growing again this year, but the pandemic provided her with time to reflect and realize she didn’t just want to run a company that makes great clothes; she wants to empower them as well.

“I felt a moment of crisis during Covid,” she says. “People weren’t going to the office … Those were the women we were catering to and I was like, Does our brand have a point?

Photo courtesy of M.M.LaFleur.

In some ways, it felt like the turning point LaFleur faced when she left private equity and started the brand in the first place. She wanted to be part of a company that makes change. As the country felt like it was descending into political madness, she launched Ready to Run — an initiative where she offered free clothes to women running for office.

The first year, they provided clothes to 272 women running for a variety of elected positions, 95 of whom won their races. One of the women who ran, a single mother in Rhode Island, wrote to LaFleur to thank her because she would “never be able to afford the kind of clothes that most people expect of an elected official,” LaFleur says. “I was surprised by how many women wrote in saying clothing was actually kind of a barrier for them thinking about being on the campaign trail.”

LaFleur’s efforts haven’t stopped there. Candidates apply to be part of the program, and a team of lawyers help M.M.LaFleur determine which candidates they can support based on political donation laws. In the most recent election cycle, 1,300 candidates applied to Ready to Run, which provided clothes to around 300 of the applicants. The company has also partnered with the NYC-based nonprofit Bottomless Closet to provide clothes for people going on job interviews.

Last year, in celebration of the company’s 10th anniversary, LaFleur outlined a number of things she’d like to achieve: carbon neutrality, committing to only partnering with fabric mills and factories that have women in a third of leadership positions, among other goals. She’s already working toward many of the objectives via the company’s comprehensive sustainability initiative — which analyzed the fabrics they use and what they can do to convert to natural fibers that will decompose or recycled fabrics. Starting last year, the company has committed to donating 10 percent of its profits to social-impact organizations that empower women.

“I really love our customers. I have the best team in the world and I felt like even in this very small corner of the world that I live in there was a way to move the needle for the better,” LaFleur says.


Sarah LaFleur (left). Photos courtesy of M.M.LaFleur.

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