A new wardrobe go-to for har­ried 9-to-5ers?

The Washington Post Sunday - - BUSINESS - BY SARAH HALZACK

It’s a tough mo­ment to be a wo­man shop­ping for busi­ness at­tire.

As the “ath­leisure” trend keeps up its long tyranny, many re­tail­ers are or­der­ing up loads of jog­ger pants and styl­ized sweat­shirts in­stead of tai­lored trousers and silk blouses.

Mean­while, mid-price stal­warts such as Ann Tay­lor and Ba­nana Repub­lic seem to be op­er­at­ing with a bro­ken fash­ion com­pass. Depart­ment stores are chas­ing hard after shinier ob­jects, try­ing to win over mil­len­ni­als with trendy ca­sual clothes.

All of this has left a se­ri­ous vac­uum in the mar­ket­place. And that white space is where women’s ap­parel start-up MM.LaFleur hopes to make its name.

The brand, an e-com­merce site just be­gin­ning to branch into phys­i­cal re­tail­ing, is aim­ing to be­come a wardrobe go-to for har­ried 9-to-5ers. So it has just

opened its first lo­cal store on K Street North­west — smack in the mid­dle of their turf.

The the­ory? The way to get into the clos­ets of Wash­ing­ton’s over­sched­uled lawyers, gov­ern­ment con­trac­tors and non­profit ex­ec­u­tives isn’t via a posh store­front in Ge­orge­town or Tysons Cor­ner. In­stead, plant the store in their nat­u­ral habi­tat, so they can dash in on the way home from a client meet­ing or when they have a spare hour be­fore a net­work­ing event.

It’s an un­con­ven­tional ap­proach, and it’s one of many ways that MM.LaFleur stands out in the re­tail land­scape. At a mo­ment when fast-fash­ion reigns and many re­tail­ers are scram­bling to re­spond to trends more quickly, MM.LaFleur is bet­ting there’s an au­di­ence for clas­sic, time­less gar­ments. The store does not of­fer dis­counts or use pro­mo­tions, which have prac­ti­cally be­come ta­ble stakes in the ap­parel busi­ness. Its $200 to $300 price tags are an in­vi­ta­tion to mid­dle-class cu­bi­cle war­riors to change their mind-set about shop­ping, to scoop up in­vest­ment pieces rather than con­stantly re­fresh­ing their wardrobes with cheaper goods.

In a sense, MM.LaFleur is wa­ger­ing that the re­tail in­dus­try has been wrong about what a huge swath of 30- to 50-year-old women want. With its ex­pan­sion into phys­i­cal re­tail­ing, it is tak­ing a ma­jor step to­ward fig­ur­ing out whether that assess­ment is right.

In­side the show­room

Take a spin through MM.LaFleur’s D.C. show­room, and you’ll quickly get an idea of the shop­per it is try­ing to court.

The walls of the dress­ing rooms are stamped with quotes from its cus­tomers. One reads: “I work at the Pen­tagon, which is a fash­ion tragedy, so I try to lift the game a bit — with­out freak­ing out the gen­er­als.”

An­other says: “I need to look like I eat nails for break­fast. Head­ing into a $200 mil­lion ne­go­ti­a­tion next week.”

The clothes are cal­i­brated for just such women — who work in en­vi­ron­ments that still main­tain a fairly tra­di­tional dress code, for mo­ments when cloth­ing needs to project au­thor­ity. There are sheath dresses in neu­tral and soft col­ors; cardi­gans cut with some of the sharp­ness of a blazer; blouses that skim the body, not hug it. The neck­lines aren’t low. The hem­lines aren’t high.

They’re the kinds of pieces that the brand’s founder, Sarah LaFleur, wishes she had back when she worked in pri­vate eq­uity.

“I al­ways strug­gled with what to wear to work in the morn­ing,” LaFleur said. “I al­ways thought it was a pain point.”

So in 2011, when she was 27, she quit her job and be­gan de­velop- ing MM.LaFleur, which she named for her mother. LaFleur brought a de­signer on board and be­gan work­ing with man­u­fac­tur­ers in New York’s Gar­ment Dis­trict. Their first col­lec­tion was just dresses.

“I like to think of them as adult one­sies,” LaFleur said, only sortof jok­ing. “You just throw it on, and you don’t have to worry about mix­ing or match­ing.”

Much of the brand’s over­ture to desk jock­eys is in the de­tails: Some of the pants come with ad­justable hems, so you can shorten them if you walk to work in flats and later change into heels. Many of the gar­ments are made of wrin­kle-re­sis­tant fab­ric and are ma­chine-wash­able. One dress is out­fit­ted with a snap that helps keep bra straps in place; an­other comes with un­der­arm pads to pre­vent sweat stains.

But a core part of MM.LaFleur’s strat­egy is not just the at­tributes of the mer­chan­dise, but also a phi­los­o­phy about cus­tomers’ at­ti­tudes to­ward shop­ping.

“What re­tail­ers don’t un­der­stand about pro­fes­sional women’s life­styles is most women don’t have time,” LaFleur said. “Most women don’t find shop­ping for work a fun ac­tiv­ity.”

That’s why a cen­tral piece of its on­line busi­ness is what it calls the Bento Box, a cu­rated pack­age that a per­sonal stylist as­sem­bles based on what she thinks would work for cer­tain body shape and work en­vi­ron­ment. On so­cial me­dia chan­nels, the brand touts the hash­tag #Bet­terthingstodo, a nod to their idea that high-pow­ered pro­fes­sional women don’t want to be both­ered with pick­ing out clothes.

It’s also a rea­son the brick­sand-mor­tar show­room is not a tra­di­tional store. There are no racks of mer­chan­dise to comb through. In­stead, it’s an ap­point­ment-based ex­pe­ri­ence where you set a time to work one-on-one with a stylist. That stylist will pull looks for you be­fore you ar­rive based on in­for­ma­tion you pro­vided on­line about your needs. You might walk out with your pur­chases if you ur­gently need an out­fit for a big job in­ter­view, but, gen­er­ally, what­ever you se­lect is shipped to your home so you don’t have to lug it around.

The hope is that this setup will bring an ef­fi­ciency to the shop­ping process, be­cause it strips out the wan­der­ing and in­de­ci­sion. The store, too, has a lit­tle as­pi­ra­tional sheen to it: They serve you cof­fee or pros­ecco; old-school jazz thumps in the back­ground.

The com­pany’s growth

MM.LaFleur is grow­ing fast: The com­pany re­ports that it has achieved an av­er­age of 300 pera cent year-over-year growth since 2013. It fore­casts that it will pull down more than $70 mil­lion in sales this year.

This boom of­fers ev­i­dence that LaFleur and her team un­der­stood some­thing the wider mar­ket didn’t: There is an am­ple open­ing for a re­tailer that wants to dress women for busi­ness — for their big sales pitches and board­room pre­sen­ta­tions, and for their ev­ery­day slate of con­fer­ence calls and project meet­ings.

“We’ve got less [stores] sup­ply­ing that prod­uct than we have in decades,” said Mar­shal Co­hen, an ap­parel in­dus­try an­a­lyst at mar­ket re­search firm NPD Group. “Ev­ery­body’s run so far to the ca­sual side that they’ve ig­nored and run far from the busi­ness side.”

Ever click on the Work Mode sec­tion of Nord­strom’s web­site? It’s a baf­fling world where, ap­par­ently, strap­less jump­suits and cold-shoul­der minidresses con­sti­tute of­fice at­tire. Type “of­fice clothes” into Google: One of the first re­sults is a page called Of­fice Chic from trendy re­tailer Lulu’s; it show­cases a black miniskirt with a lacy, lin­gerie-like over­lay.

And even when re­tail­ers are serv­ing up cloth­ing that’s ap­pro­pri­ate for the work­place, they’re not ex­actly scor­ing a slam dunk: Many are of­fer­ing dresses that have of­fice-ready sil­hou­ettes but are made of cheap fab­rics. J. Crew suits now start in a size 000, mak­ing it hard to pin­point your size.

LaFleur got a win­dow into the dis­con­nect be­tween the in­dus­try and shop­pers when she was ini­tially pitch­ing ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists on her busi­ness idea.

“They would say, ‘I’ll have my 16-year-old daugh­ter try it on,’ ” LaFleur re­called. What, she re­mem­bered think­ing, would a teenager know about how 30some­things wanted to dress at the of­fice?

Yet make no mis­take: MM.LaFleur has plenty of hur­dles to jump if it is to be­come a house­hold name. For starters, the com­pany has strug­gled to get its in­ven­tory lev­els right, so it fre­quently runs out of styles in cer­tain sizes on its web­site. That’s a prob­lem for a brand that is premised on mak­ing shop­ping more ef­fi­cient for time-starved women: If you can’t get the goods in the right place in the right time, you miss a sale — and per­haps make women re­luc­tant to try you again later.

Plus, even though many women say they are tired of poorly made clothes and are ready to shell out for higher qual­ity, MM.LaFleur might find that’s a hard sell for oth­ers. We live in a time when con­sumers are splurg­ing on ex­pe­ri­ences, when the idea of in­vest­ing $250 in a dress may be a non-starter for a wo­man who thinks noth­ing of spend­ing that kind of money on din­ner.

And if the brand’s call­ing cards are high qual­ity and ser­vice, it has to con­sis­tently meet cus­tomers’ ex­pec­ta­tions on those mea­sures. While many on­line re­views of MM.LaFleur are up­beat, some shop­pers have said they were dis­ap­pointed in the qual­ity of the tex­tiles or didn’t feel as though a per­sonal stylist re­ally got their vibe.

Still, D.C. is a place where the brand is par­tic­u­larly well-po­si­tioned to prove it­self and cul­ti­vate con­verts. It’s al­ready MM.LaFleur’s sec­ond-biggest mar­ket, and it has been build­ing a fol­low­ing here since be­fore it even had a web­site. (In the early days, there was a trunk show out of a friend’s apart­ment.)

It has data on what shop­pers here like: A black-and-white print called Crackle has been a par­tic­u­lar hit with on­line cus­tomers in this area, per­haps be­cause it has just the right amount of flair to feel as if you still have per­son­al­ity while ad­her­ing to the city’s of­ten-con­ser­va­tive dress codes.

And far beyond Wash­ing­ton, there are en­cour­ag­ing signs. The cloth­ier’s cus­tomer base runs a wide age gamut, with 30- to 50year-olds be­com­ing a par­tic­u­lar sweet spot.

“The truth of pro­fes­sional wear is: What you’re wear­ing when you’re 30 doesn’t ac­tu­ally change when you’re 55,” LaFleur said. “If you have to wear a jacket, you have to wear a jacket.”

KATHER­INE FREY/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Sarah LaFleur, CEO of MM.LaFleur, a start-up women’s cloth­ier, at the D.C. store wear­ing one of its best-sell­ing items, the Cather­ine Dress.

PHOTOS BY KATHER­INE FREY/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Emily Harris, left, re­acts to the blouse that Jenny Al­ber­tini tries on at MM.LaFleur in Wash­ing­ton. The two ar­rived to­gether to shop at the cloth­ier’s new store on K Street NW. The brick-and-mor­tar store’s look is spare com­pared with many other cloth­iers.

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