In ELLE.com’s monthly series Office Hours, we ask people in powerful positions to take us through their first jobs, worst jobs, and everything in between. This month, we spoke with Sarah LaFleur, the founder and chief executive officer of M.M. LaFleur, a woman’s fashion brand built on creating stylish, comfortable clothes for women in the workforce. LaFleur has seen her business, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, grow over the years, and then face a massive obstacle: the pandemic. How does a company focusing on creating work clothes for women pivot when office attire looks more like living room attire? According to LaFleur, you follow your gut and listen to yourself. Here, LaFleur shares what led her to create M.M. LaFleur, what she wants to provide working women (besides clothes, of course), and how eight minutes on the phone with her friends keeps her centered.
My first job
My first job post-college was working as a bike tour guide in Paris. My real job—working as a management consultant at Bain & Co.—was my first office job. After I graduated from school, I decided I wanted to go back to my birth country, France, and spend a year there. I needed a way to make money, so I worked as a bike tour guide, which was really fun. It was a lot of the back office stuff and going to various hostels, selling the bike tour dream. I loved it—it made me fall in love with Paris again.
My worst job
I was working in private equity, which was a really tough place to be. In many ways, I thought it was going to be my dream job, but it was such a poor culture fit—I was basically the lone woman on my team. It was a real lesson in that it doesn’t matter how interesting the job is—if you are not enjoying the environment; nothing else really matters. I think I ran out of that job. That was right before I decided to start M.M. LaFleur.
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Why I started my company
I really struggled to find good, well-made, beautiful, and easy-to-care-for pieces when I was working. My mom worked in high-end fashion and showed me a lot of beautiful pieces she brought home. She always looked phenomenal, and I just didn’t understand why I was not having the same experience. I felt very frumpy wearing a lot of the things I would buy, and just hated how much money I spent on these types of clothes. I also wanted something that really lasted—I don’t know what it is, but I think designers are often obsessed with chasing the latest trends. So, I was really focused on things I felt were classic and timeless, and well-made. No one was making that, and that sounds crazy.
I knew from the beginning that I was not going to be the designer. I really wanted the person I was working with to be an enormous creative talent, and that’s when I got together with my co-founder Miyako, who used to be the head designer at Zac Posen and worked with Jason Wu. I remember when I told her there are women like me out there who really struggled to find good clothes, she said, “I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who’s worked in an office.” I want to say the rest is history.
We went through this process together where I introduced her to people like me who struggled to find good clothes. She couldn’t believe that women like us existed, and the journey started from there.
The best advice I’ve received about starting a business
My mom said, “Sometimes you need to surround yourself with yes men.” She meant that starting a business can be so lonely. Most people already think you’re crazy, and your chances of failing are already incredibly high, and somehow, you have to believe that you’re going to defy the odds. I remember her saying to me, “It’s really important to just have people who believe in your dream around you because everyone else will have no problem telling you why you’re doing everything wrong.” I think that’s so true.
There’s a TED Talk about the importance of the first follower. If it’s just one person saying, “This is what I want to do,” people are like “Oh, that person’s crazy.” But as soon as there’s another person there also saying “Yeah, I also think it’s amazing,” and they’re ready to scream about it with you, people are suddenly willing to take it really seriously. That’s another lesson that has really stayed with me.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned (the hard way) as a leader
I’ve really had to learn how to listen to the thing that I want. Talking about the last two and a half years, COVID-19 was really tough on my business, and there were so many times I thought we were going to go under. There were a lot of naysayers out there who suggested I sell my business or that I should think about shutting down; that I’m not a turnaround CEO. I know all this advice came from a good place, but I had to listen to that voice inside of me saying, “No I actually think my business will thrive again; I believe that I’m still the person who should be running it, and I don’t want to sell my business.”
How I keep myself centered without getting burnt out
I have kids, so that’s very easy. Before I had kids, it was harder; I did my business 24/7—and honestly, I was okay with it. Now, my friends keep me very much grounded. Among my college roommates, we have this saying: If you have eight minutes, that’s all you need to call someone. Often, I found myself thinking, I don’t have 30 minutes to catch up with someone, so I’m not going to catch up with them. But I think it’s true; if you have eight minutes, you can actually catch up a lot with somebody. In the mornings I actually get up pretty early and go on a run or a walk, and I give my girlfriends (who are also up at a pretty early hour) a call and we’ll catch up.
How workplace fashion is changing in a post-pandemic world
It’s shifted quite dramatically. What we’re talking with our customers about is power casual. If the dress code used to be business formal, which is full suiting, or business casual, we think there’s a new tier that’s emerged somewhere between business casual and casual. That’s power casual. Think: blazers and denim, maybe even a suit jacket and a pair of slacks. I find the blazer or a jacket to be a very powerful tool, because of its versatility. They really signify when you’re in work mode—and when you aren’t, you take it off. I feel there’s just been a lot more closet merging that’s been happening—a lot more fluidity.
The best way to express yourself at the office
I think you can be very much yourself these days in a way that even a decade ago wasn’t quite possible. The exercise that I love to talk about with my customers is creating a mood board. Yes, you can start a Pinterest board, but I think it’s way more fun to put together an actual mood board. You can flip through magazines or think about TV characters that you really love and the way they dress. Put together those images and ask yourself, “What is it about their style that I like, and how do I want to emulate that?” Then, you can start putting your wardrobe together based on that. I’m a much more practical person, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have a sense of style or want to show taste. For me, it’s less about what’s my artistic expression and more about the image I want to give that day. How do I want to feel about myself? Then trying to build that through clothing.
What I’ve learned in the last 10 years of M.M. LaFleur
Timing is everything. Of course, you can build a good business out of sheer force and will, but what is happening in the macro world will impact your business more than anything. I’ve learned how to be a little zen about it; you can only do as well as the macro conditions will allow you. The key to running a really successful business is catching the tide and understanding what is happening in the zeitgeist. You don’t want to catch that wave too early because you’ll also miss that opportunity. If you can catch it at the right time, then your business, unbeknownst to itself, will often take off. Your business can really only be as strong as whatever’s happening outside of the business, and your goal as a leader is to understand what’s happening out there.
How I tap into the zeitgeist
I walk a lot, and on the subway, I try to not look at my phone. I watch people—what they’re wearing, what makeup they’re putting on—and, honestly, try to eavesdrop to hear what they’re talking about. As a team, we’ll go outside to busy corners on the street and people-watch. I find that to be a barometer. I also read a lot, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be in the news. I love fiction, and I turn to it for inspiration. I’m trying to always keep my fingers on the pulse; I ask my friends what they’re doing, what are they excited about, what are they seeing, and what are they eating. That’s how I get an idea of everything.
What I hope to achieve in the next 10 years of M.M. LaFleur
I did this exercise that Amazon does a lot—PR FAQ, where you write a press release for the future. I found it to be a very useful exercise. It’s interesting to think about: What is your press release three years from now, five years from now, or 10 years from now? There have been moments where I thought, maybe that was the time to move on to something else, but I stayed on because I believe so much in this business. In this next decade, I want to create a business that really lives up to our value statements. Our overarching motto is that the world is a better place when women succeed. So far, we’ve been very focused on our customers and to some extent, our employees, but I’m really turning a focus on our supply chain—ensuring everyone in our supply chain is making a living wage, which is not true for 95 percent of garment factories. I’m asking myself questions like, “How do I make sure the fabrics we’re using are truly sustainable, preferred materials? How do we make sure we’re working with factories that updated their labor practices? How do we make sure that, after their first lives, our clothes they’re making their way to a new customer or donations so they don’t end up in a landfill?” That’s the part that I’m focused on in the next decade.
Why I want to open a women’s workforce center by 2033
I actually worked in a refugee camp for a little bit, and the number one thing that people always wanted was a job. Yes, people want to get paid. But for a lot of people, it’s an amazing thing that gives them purpose. It gives you a sense of feeling appreciated, it gives you camaraderie, and it gives you this feeling of being connected to something greater than yourself. I think one of the reasons I started this company is tied to my feelings towards work and the meaningfulness of work. I think one way I can tangibly give back is to create more opportunities for people to feel like it’s easier to get back into the workforce. Bottomless Closet has been an amazing partner of course, and so has the International Rescue Committee. I hope we get to do more interesting stuff together in the next decade.
This interview has been edited and condensed.