The pandemic-triggered exodus of millions of workers from offices to homes created a bit of an existential crisis for M.M. LaFleur, but like others the professional woman’s outfitter has redefined its purpose.
In a matter of months — by the fall of 2020 — customers were asking for Zoom-call-appropriate clothing.
“The angst that surrounds dressing for work, wherever you may be working from, very much still exists.” founder and chief executive officer Sarah Miyazawa LaFleur said. “Dress codes have definitely relaxed, which is a trend that we were seeing before COVID[-19].”
Wondering what role M.M. LaFleur plays if people are not going back to offices — or at least not in the same capacity as before — was a glaring question and one the New York-based company is meeting head on. Opening a new Upper East Side store in a heavily trafficked area of the well-heeled neighborhood, enlisting New York City Ballet principal dancer Tiler Peck to trumpet the brand, planning for more stores and aligning styles with shoppers’ changing lifestyles are some of the company’s objectives.
Located at 1225 Madison Avenue at East 88th Street, the 900-square-foot outpost is the company’s first ground-floor retail location, having relied on showrooms (along the lines of the Tesla model) — spaces for by-appointment personal styling sessions with shoppers who would have orders shipped to them. During the pandemic, the company closed its eight locations and has subsequently reopened two of them — one near Bryant Park in New York and another in Washington, D.C. Despite having seen a 50 percent drop in business during the shutdown, M.M. LaFleur survived COVID-19 largely due to online sales, LaFleur said. This year’s sales are tracking 35 percent ahead of last year, which is the rate of growth reached in 2021 versus 2020.
The company is counting on retail to further growth, due partially to the success of pop-up stores that served as great marketing to bringing in new customers, LaFleur said. Well aware that many are still working remotely and may never return to office buildings or traditional work spaces, the company is seeing such lifestyle changes reflected in purchases. Shoppers are gravitating toward the brand’s now bestsellers, the PowerStretch “Foster” pant, which have a side zipper and no waistband, and the “Hockley” pant, which is touted as “better than denim.” Sales of pants account for 20 percent of the business and knitwear comprises another 30 percent, LaFleur said. Dress sales have started to rebound but have not reached pre-pandemic levels of 30 percent.
While more relaxed styles are in demand, so, too, are larger-sized options. “A lot of our customers have said that they put on a lot of weight during COVID[-19] — myself included. We see a lot of women coming in saying that they have had size changes and need to find new clothes to exist in the world again,” she said.
In late February 2021, the American Psychological Association reported that 40 percent of U.S. adults had undesired weight gain — 29 pounds on average — since the start of the pandemic.
M.M. LaFleur offers sizing up to 18, and sizes 16 and 18 have sold out quickly of late, so the company is reassessing where it invests its dollars and may reintroduce a size 20. At one point, the label offered sizing up to 24, which required a different team designated for that, including a lead designer, design team and a fit model. “We just couldn’t figure out how to make that work. We ended up closing that pre-COVID[-19], but right now we’re just extending styles up with the existing styles that we have and are seeing a lot of success with that. We’re hoping to continue to grow that business.”
The Upper East Side store is located in a 10-block radius of about 10 schools, where many of M.M. LaFleur’s targeted customers — younger professionals in their 30s and 40s — have children in school. Market data for the brand indicates that 50 percent of customers have children, and age distribution is roughly between 25 and 65, LaFleur said.
“When we thought about the Upper East Side and who is really working there, we found that it was really younger professionals with young families and less so the grandes dames of the Upper East Side, who may not necessarily have need for our clothes,” she said.
To help spread the word, M.M. LaFleur has enlisted New York City Ballet principal dancer Tiler Peck, whose professional talents and robust Instagram following appealed to the company. Having started going to the NYCB with her grandmother as a child, LaFleur noted that Peck is also a personal favorite. Peck led a dance-along during an appearance at the store last week. “A lot of what we’re trying to do is bring more joy in a time that feels completely joyless. We thought that dance would be a good way to announce the opening of our Upper East Side store,” LaFleur said.
To further drum up interest, a double-decker bus cruised the streets of New York last week offering giveaways and activities. The company is also planning a grand-opening event on Saturday and a VIP dinner for some of the women who sport the brand.
As far as next steps, the ink is dry on a lease for an M.M. LaFleur Upper West Side store that will bow in the first quarter of next year, and three or four more are planned to follow that.