How MM.LaFleur Designed a Retail Concept Based on Female Empowerment
Late one Friday afternoon, after what feels like an especially long work week, I arrive on the 13th floor of a high-rise building in Times Square. When the elevator doors open, instead of stepping into the sea of cubicles one might expect from the center of New York’s office mecca, I’m met with a more serene scene. There’s a long hallway, covered with a vintage runner, at one end of which is a console table under a round decorative mirror and at the other a gallery wall leading to a sunlit space with high cocktail tables.
It’s immediately clear I’m not in an office, but I’m not in an apartment either, despite my urge to kick off my shoes and toss my keys in a bowl on the console. This is the newest outpost of MM.LaFleur, a startup women’s clothing company that has developed a retail concept around being the anti-shop. On a tour of the space – all Beni Ourain rugs, lush velvet settees, and brass lighting, with nary a clothing rack in sight – Caroline Brown, head of visual merchandising, explains the company’s origin story. “First you have Sarah [LaFleur, who founded the company with Narie Foster and designer Miyako Nakamura, a Zac Posen alum], realizing there are no cool clothes for young professional women, and she fixes that. Then she realizes that many of these women actually hate shopping. So that’s where I come in. The way we design our stores is so that they feel like a home. I want people to walk in and feel comfortable, but also maybe a little bit confused. Like, I thought this was a store?”
Confused I am, at first, but also enticed – that’s part of MM’s (as the staff all affectionately refer to it) game. “Our showroom is on 42nd Street so on the left you have the ball and on the right is Times Square, which is just pure chaos,” Brown laughs. “So I thought, how do we have her get off the elevator and not think, ‘I’m in the middle of Times Square?'”
Top: The entrance of MM.LaFleur’s Bryant Park location. Above: A view of the showroom’s display shelves and dressing rooms, which feature light wood and soft lighting.
Photo: Lance La Breche
The answer ties into Sarah LaFleur’s founding concept of MM, which launched ecommerce in 2013 and ventured into brick-and-mortar first through pop-ups and then permanent spaces (it now boasts long-term locations in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.). Though she’s quick to refuse any credit for the brand’s design (“I’m not the creative person,” she tells me. “I’m the business one!”), LaFleur had a clear mandate when she started the company as a young consultant: It must not feel at all like her experiences in any department store. “It was just horrible,” she recalls with a laugh, referring to clothes shopping after her day job. “You’re clawing through thousands of square feet of racks to find one item that might work for you. It was such a pain point in my life. So that was a huge piece of what we thought about when we were conceptualizing our brick-and mortar. Never having to wade through racks! The most important thing we did when we opened our spaces was to have no merchandise out.”
The MM model is to have customers fill out a questionnaire with a stylist, who then pulls a handful of samples before an hourlong appointment in the showroom (hurried appointments are strongly discouraged – the experience should take the whole hour), during which clients are offered Champagne and slippers and the use of a vanity, if needed. Fitting rooms are tucked away in the back of the store, and are clad in light wood with brass detailing and blessedly soft light – a far cry from the frenzied lines and fluorescent glare of most store experiences.
“I feel like I’m just designing a space I want to be in,” LaFleur explains. “Everything is so boring these days, everyone does the same thing. I never think to myself, ‘I want to be in this store.’ I love libraries, hotel lobbies, spaces that really entice you. That’s what we wanted to do with our showroom.”
From left: Caroline Brown, head of styling and visual merchandising; cofounder Sarah LaFleur; editor-in-chief Tory Hoen.
Photo: Courtesy of MM LaFleur
Of course, though the MM model may be rare in the arena of clothes shopping, it’s hardly the only brand to have reimagined the in-store experience in today’s digital era. What most sets the company apart, then, is that the MM spaces aren’t designed to look different for the purpose of marketing or social media: MM’s foundational goal has always been to create spaces for women (designed by women) that celebrate and empower them – and not in the traditional ways a fashion retailer would.
“When you think of a typical fashion magazine, who’s on the cover? It’s a supermodel or an actress,” LaFleur says. “But for our customer, that woman is never who they aspire to be. It could be Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Sheryl Sandberg – these are people you won’t see on the cover of a magazine. So when we were developing our brand, we thought it doesn’t make sense for us to take our cue from fashion publications. So who do we take it from? Our customers.”
This attitude plays out across the company’s advertising (a wide range of models of all ages, sizes, and ethnicities) and content (since 2015, MM has operated The M Dash, a digital publication telling the stories of working women in a broad variety of fields). “We want to fill this hole, to tell the story of this woman’s career, and also her style,” says Tory Hoen, the company’s editor-in-chief (whose very role gives some idea of the brand’s testament to telling a holistic story), who runs The M Dash. “We touch on the complexities of dressing for work, yes, but my goal has been to tell a more nuanced, truthful story on this woman and also to celebrate her lifestyle. In the ’80s and ’90s, Martha Stewart made housekeeping and homemaking cool; we thought, Could we do that for the office-going woman?”
A wall suggesting weekly outfit combinations (shown here in the New York space) is as close as the showroom gets to a traditional clothing rack.
Photo: Lance La Breche
In its showrooms, the brand translates that celebration to design. Instead of fashion spreads, showroom walls are decorated with quotes from MM customers; shelves house favorite books of the MM team, many by female authors. One wall in the New York space is home to Miyako’s mood board, a piece-for-piece re-creation of the designer’s working one. Down the hall, Brown has created what she calls the Hall of Remarkable Women, a gallery-like space where photos of real women featured in The M Dash hang along with quotes from them. Beyond that is a space designed for events or for customers to host their own networking or social functions.
“I think it’s wonderful that everyone is moving toward more experiential retail,” Brown says. “I’m glad everyone is doing that. I think where we differ is that we know the customer we’re talking to. She’s very specific. She’s very smart, and she’s also funny, and we want to build on that. We take that personality and apply it to our showroom. We put quotes from our customers on the walls because they’re funny and really smart. And this woman is part of the experience, so we want to involve her in the design.”
Underneath those personal touches, the decor is of-the-moment but not trendy, fresh feeling but not immature. It incorporates items and styles the MM team (which is constantly collecting and analyzing customer feedback) believes visitors would have in their own homes, but perhaps a slightly elevated version.
A table in MM’s San Francisco location, with the showroom’s Hall of Remarkable Women behind it.
Photo: Kristen Loken
Seating at the San Francisco showroom.
Photo: Kristen Loken
“Generally what we’re drawn to is Moroccan decoration and how they use furniture and color,” Brown explains. “It’s a mix of custom pieces and purchasing from online, because that’s what we think our customers are doing in their own homes. If it’s all custom, that can be a little intimidating. We want to be high-end, but never intimidating.”
It’s a careful balance, and, indeed, one that MM toes in its very existence as a brand: aspirational, yet achievable. And if that ethos ever changes, it will be because the customers changed it. “There are all these trends in retail, and everyone likes to report on them, but I think in terms of our strategy we don’t really look at what other brand are doing, ” muses LaFleur. “We’re much more led by our specific customer and what she is telling us she wants. That will always be our focus.”
And why, in the day of the Women’s March and The Wing, does what she wants seem to be spaces that encourage and foster female collaboration and support? As Brown says, “Because we never had it before! It’s time.” Though LaFleur is quick to point out that there are male MM employees and that she welcomes anyone to the brand, the concept of repositioning the shopping experience from one marketed toward what we think women want to one designed for and by women, and to celebrate them, is perhaps more impactful than any developments the company has made in fit or style or shipping model.
“Men have had these cool lounge clubs where they can get together and have cigars or whatever, and now it’s time for ladies to start getting together,” says Brown. “It’s been a long time coming. We need places to gather and support each other.” And it just may be that a dress shop, reimagined for a new type (or many types) of working woman, is that place.
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