Sarah LaFleur runs a fashion company that’s likely to strike many as surprisingly disruptive.
“I do not have a fashion background,” says the CEO and founder of M.M.LaFleur. “My background was in management consulting and private equity.”
When Sarah did her research, she found that women on average spend 15 more days a year getting ready than men do.
“What is it you would do if you could get back those 15 days?” she asks.
And so M.M.LaFleur was born. Sarah became the unlikely founder of a fashion brand for professional women, with practicality in mind just as much as style. Here are her thoughts on how to become an agent of change in your world and in your work.
- Identify a problem that affects your life.
“The problem I faced on a daily basis was how to get out of the house in as short a time as possible but also feel like I look my best,” Sarah says.
She suspected that other professional women had the same issue, so she focused her target market not only on business changemakers but also on political candidates.
“I think for a lot of the women running for office, it comes from a very practical place and that’s the connection,” she explains. “They have identified problems that are close to their hearts, and a lot of it comes from their own experience.”
- Understand that your outsider status can be an advantage.
“I started this business because I personally struggled with workwear,” Sarah says. “In some ways, my not knowing how challenging the fashion world is worked in my favor. I was able to challenge the preconceived notions on how things have to be done.”
- Supplement your knowledge.
When she launched the brand in 2013, Sarah partnered with Miyako Nakamura, formerly the head designer for Zac Posen. Both women favored aesthetics influenced by Japanese minimalism. But they also had some differences in opinion.
“Miyako said, ‘If we’re going to do luxury clothing, it should be natural fibers only,’” Sarah says. “Synthetics get a bad rap, but it’s not your grandmother’s polyester. There are so many advances in science that make polyester feel like silk or wool. If you have to dry-clean it, working women won’t want it. [Using synthetic fabrics] was unheard of in luxury fashion, but I said a lot of women just don’t like wearing heavy clothes.”
Sarah attributes many of their victories to the marriage of their perspectives.
“Miyako’s traditional experience and impressive talent met my practicality and my personal desires—that was really the success of our company.”
- Learn how to do things your way.
“I also said I wanted pants that I could hem based on what shoes I was wearing that day, so I prompted Miyako to develop a pant that you can adjust the length on based on your preference for the day,” Sarah explains.
As a result, women don’t need multiple pairs of pants just to have choices for different shoes. Sarah says that she is proud of the way that they solved a problem for women in a new and exciting way.
- Don’t fear being a trailblazer.
“There’s a saying: ‘You can’t become what you can’t see.’ But I think there’s always the first person,” Sarah says. “Becoming the first person is tied to forgetting the way things were done before—understanding the system isn’t working for you.”
- Value your time above money.
“Your most precious commodity is your time,” Sarah says. “You’re never going to save enough money to make ends meet while you launch your business.”
Instead, she suggests that entrepreneurs take on side hustles to support themselves during launch.
“I ended up tutoring people for the SATs for the first two to three years of my business,” she says. “That gave me the time to work on my startup without being attached to savings.”
A willingness to be flexible with your timeline is also a must.
“With anything new—whether that’s a company or a movement—it takes so much time,” Sarah says. “So not setting artificial boundaries with your time is so important.”
- Don’t underestimate your impact on the world.
“Our company slogan is ‘When women succeed, the world is a better place,’” Sarah says. “Clothing just happens to be the tool through which we contribute to that mission.” She adds that M.M.LaFleur’s recent “Ready to Run” marketing campaign serves as a nod to that impact.
- Whatever work you do, ladder it up to your personal values.
“Telling the stories of working women has always been a big part of what we champion,” Sarah says. “It was also important in our campaign to see so many women of color step forward. One was the first openly gay woman elected to her town. We had a woman who, if elected, would become the first woman and the first person of African American descent to represent her district.”
In its advertising, M.M.LaFleur spotlights diversity and supports female candidates from across the political spectrum.
“When we did the Ready to Run campaign, we had a few politicians—both Democrats and Republicans—tell us that clothing posed a problem,” Sarah says, adding that several spoke about clothing in terms of “looking the part” on the campaign trail.
“I do think clothing plays a role in a woman feeling confident in herself, and in changing people’s perceptions of that woman.”
- Surround yourself with people who believe in your vision.
“I have always loved being in the company of women,” Sarah says, explaining that she went to an all-girls high school. Before that, she had enjoyed the girls-only nature of her Girl Scouts Overseas troop in Japan, which had offered her a joyful setting that stood in stark contrast to her strict middle school.
“The company I started is for women, by women—we’re 80 percent female,” Sarah says. “I love having that space.”
- Trust your own vision.
Sarah reflects fondly on her time in Girl Scouts, connecting it with the fact that the program “encourages girls to be independent and to advocate for themselves.”
These skills made a difference for her, she says, and they’re essential for changemakers of all kinds, from politicians and entrepreneurs to community organizers.
“Self-reliance is so at the heart of Girl Scouts,” Sarah explains. “And so much of being a changemaker is not doubting yourself—you have to learn to trust your gut instincts.”