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Dressing up for work

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 stylised 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 store in D.C. – 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.

Take a spin through MM.LaFleur’s DC 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 developing 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 sort-of 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 a 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 bricks-and-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.

MM.LaFleur is growing fast: The company reports that it has achieved an average of 300 percent 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 30-somethings 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.

webAnd 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.

Washington Post-Bloomberg

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