MM.LaFleur wants to pay more than lip service to its ethos of making the lives of corporate working women easier and a new retail strategy is a big part of that.
The five-year-old digitally native brand was built out of what Sarah LaFleur saw as a hole in the online market for dependably designed and moderately priced apparel aimed at women in the corporate world who aren’t interested fashion per se, but still want to look pulled together and appropriate, and with $65 million in sales last year (more than double 2015 sales), the essence of the brand is poised to grow offline. But MM.LaFleur is not aiming for a traditional retail experience.
At the company’s new permanent 3,000-square-foot space on the 13th floor of a typical looking high-rise in the Bryant Park area of Midtown Manhattan — an area stacked with offices, grab-and-go food options and relatively few shops — there will be coffee and blowouts and regular events on offer, but no clothes on display. The clothes, ranging from petite to plus sizes as of last year, will only be brought out for the individual, typically one-hour, styling appointments that shoppers make online, which women can squeeze in during the work day.
“[Bryant Park and the building] is kind of an unusual space for a fashion brand,” founder and chief executive officer Lafleur said. “We’re surrounded by offices filled with lawyers and real estate brokers and bankers, but this is where our customers are. A lot of them come in during a lunch hour, so we wanted to be as close to them as possible.”
Rachel Mann, director of offline retail, noted that the decision to set up in Bryant Park was very deliberate, and said she looked at a “heat map” of MM.LaFleur shoppers to decide where was best after finding themselves a little out of the way for their New York base at a ground level location in SoHo, the company’s first physical location.
“Obviously, in SoHo you’re surrounded by stores and there are a lot of tourists — it’s a giant outdoor mall, and we got a lot of traffic…but [Bryant Park] is a very sweet spot for us,” Mann said.
MM.LaFleur tested out the area for about six months with a pop-up in the same building before deciding to take on a permanent space — its fifth, but the first to push such a communal angle. A full calendar of events is expected, from tutorials on finance to breast-pumping during the workday, as well as those hosted by customers, be it a shopping party or a book club.
“Really, we see it as a one-stop shop for our customer’s needs,” LaFleur said. “But we don’t want to keep you [in the showroom] all the time, we want to make the most of the typical hour we have with you.”
Tory Hoen, creative director of brand, said during a tour of the unfinished space: “We want it to be a comfortable space for women that feels somewhere between a store and their actual home.”
The time element alone is a strategy that diverges from traditional retail, which typically wants shoppers to stay within arms length of a clothing rack for as long as possible, but a realization that MM.LaFleur shoppers have morphed into a community that relate to one another beyond a desire for unfussy workwear is the crux of the new strategy.
Hoen’s favorite customer anecdote is from a lawyer who struck up a friendship with an opposing attorney after a day in court, purely because she recognized her outfit as MM.LaFleur. But she admitted that while “community” is a major buzzword among brands right now, it wasn’t something that MM.LaFleur set out to cultivate.
“It started to happen on its own with women telling us ‘Oh, I loved your event last night, I met so many interesting women that I want to keep in touch with’ — we started hearing a lot of that and then we started to say, ‘OK, this should be a part of our strategy,’ giving these women a place to connect,” Hoen said.
But there’s a solid business angle for wanting to draw women to their retail space as often as possible. The average sale out of a showroom is around $800, or three times the typical online sale, so it’s little surprise that the retail push is set to continue.
With successful pop-ups in Boston and Atlanta, alongside permanent spaces in Washington D.C. and Chicago, as well as New York, MM.LaFleur has its sights set on San Francisco, Dallas and Houston, and later Seattle and Los Angeles.
The company is currently not profitable after an earlier break-even period and is backed by venture capital funding mainly from Meritech Capital Partners, Bessemer Venture Partners and Thrive Capital.
“We’ve been operating really lean and now were slowly being able to develop more — we need to invest in our growth,” Mann said. “That means investing in space, investing in people, systems and tech to scale. It’s hard, but we’ll definitely get [to profitability] and we’re very focused on that. But not this year and not next year.”
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