Rebecca Minkoff and Sarah LaFleur have a lot in common. They are both entrepreneurs running fashion companies—Rebecca Minkoff and MM.LaFleur, respectively—they both work with partners (Minkoff with her brother Uri, LaFleur with her creative director Miyako Nakamura), and they both want their clothing to appeal to real women. While they have a lot in common, they have a lot of differences, too. Minkoff has been building her brand for 15 years. She started her fashion career straight out of high school, slowly building her business by wholesaling her trendy clothing and new-classic handbags to department stores, and eventually generating over $100 million in sales. LaFleur started her career in finance before launching an online company called MM.LaFleur, where she teamed up with Nakamura, the former head designer at Zac Posen, to reinvent the shopping experience far from the gloss of fashion magazines.
Needless to say, the two had a lot to talk about. In this conversation, they share their thoughts on the good old days, the bad old days, the joys of HR, and the importance of always working your ass off.
Sarah LaFleur: We both have partners. I’m on the business side, and it’s my creative director Miyako [Nakamura] who’s really the fashion force behind our brand, and I know you work with your brother, you’re the creative director, he’s the CEO, right? How do you guys think about splitting responsibilities?
Rebecca Minkoff: In the very beginning it was very much separate lanes. He did his. I did mine. We’ve been doing this for 13 years, and now I think it’s very blurry. I’ve grown to love the business side. He definitely has his opinions about the fashion side, and so we are still respectful of each other’s lanes, but there’s definitely crossing over, crashing into each other every once in a while.
SL: What would you say for those people who are coming from the fashion side or from a more creative background, who want to start their own business? Would you recommend that they find a business partner?
RM: For sure. They need to find someone whose happy place is the Excel spreadsheet. You cannot exist by just being creative. You have to either have a great business sense, or find that partner.
SL: Where do a lot of these designers end up finding their people?
RM: LinkedIn is a great place, but I also think through networking. There’s a lot of people that have great backgrounds such as yourself, like you came from finance, you understand that world. It’s very comfortable for you to probably look at a profit and loss statement and understand it.
SL: When you two butt heads or, I don’t know, get into a full-on fight because you’re siblings, how do you guys work it out?
RM: Usually we go to couples therapy. We air our issues to someone else and he helps us work it out. It’s a good way to refresh and get a clear head and get back on the same page.
SL: Our company is five and a half years old and one thing I’m curious about is the stamina that you have to bring on a daily basis. Where do you find your source of inspiration?
RM: I think that it’s changed over the years. For the longest time, travel was a big source of creativity and inspiration. Or going to flea markets and treasure hunting. Now, as I come more into the business side of things, that’s inspiring in a different way. I make sure I get out to a museum or go see a show or concert or read a great book–those are all things that I’m doing to try to keep my creativity. And travel is still a huge part of my job, so I still get to go lots of places.
SL: A lot of the times when I’m thinking about how to refresh and recharge, I tend to find it in my trips, but my trips are usually vacation. I get into this habit of like work, work, work, work, work, work, work to rest for a weekend or a week or whatever it is. My husband and I will fly off to some super-remote part of the world where we can hunker down and disconnect for a little bit. I find that that’s getting harder and harder. I know you have three kids, so you can’t exactly just unplug and leave your cell phone behind.
RM: Right. I mean we do get to disconnect to a degree. We went to Greece this summer and that was for vacation and I did try and disconnect—until I checked my phone and my mom was like, the babysitter didn’t come, and I was like, cool, I guess I’ll be reconnecting back to reality. The week where I said I’m not going to check email was deeply rewarding, and I was able to disconnect and just think and not be on my phone, except to use it as a camera. I’m seeing how valuable that was, and now I’m trying to actually, consciously put more of those moments back into my life. For a long time I’ve felt like I can’t disconnect, even on maternity leave.
SL: Did you work during your maternity leave?
RM: I worked remotely.
SL: I don’t have kids, but we have a lot of parents at my company, and that’s been a really interesting topic as a startup when each dollar is precious. This idea of maternity leave, paternity leave, and how do we take care of our parents at the company? As we’ve grown, we now offer 12 weeks of parental leave to all of our employees, and that’s something we can afford to do. But early on in the company, when each dollar mattered so much, those tradeoffs are really hard to make. I think that’s a conversation a lot of people aren’t having.
RM: I was the first one within my company to have a baby. But then, when the second person has a baby, you realize how costly it is on the company. It’s something I am hands-down 100% supportive of, but even if I’m 100% supportive of it, if you’re a growing company or you’re just starting out or there’s five employees, it’s extraordinarily expensive to support that, and you want to support that person. It’s this constant tradeoff, and frankly, it’s not even enough time. I was just in Canada and they get I think 12 months off paid. America is really behind.
SL: Someone came up to me the other day and [told me] she’s thinking of starting a company. She’s in her late twenties and wanted to know if I thought this was the right time to do it. And I stumbled on that because I don’t know if there’s a right time to do it. I know you started your business when you were right out of high school, when you were 18 years old. Do you think there is a more opportune time to start a business?
RM: I think everyone has to decide for themselves when the right time is, there’s never a right time. I moved here, worked for a designer for three years, so really at 21 is when I launched my company, and it was very small. It was a five-piece collection, based on a T-shirt, and that’s where it took off. Five years later, I added the Morning-After Bag, which is really what hit, so one could say I should’ve started my company then. But if I did not have apparel, then I never would have even gotten the idea to launch handbags. You just have to look for those moments where it’s the right time for you.
SL: What’s the most important thing you think about when you hire people?
RM: Someone who’s really willing to work hard and put the time in. I think a lot of young people expect their career to be as quick as calling your Uber or [ordering on] Amazon Prime. I keep saying, I don’t know of a shortcut to your career. Even if your career path is here for the next two years, work your ass off.
SL: Everyone got that? Work your ass off. That’s the advice. It’s truer than ever. I’ve really come to embrace the importance of chemistry when you’re hiring, or even when you’re looking for a partner. Do you actually get along with that person, and does that person bring out a side in you that you didn’t know you even had?
RM: And can they take some of the load off you if you’re the owner of the company? A gentleman gave us this great advice: Whoever you hire should make less work for you. If they’re not making less work for you, then you’ve made the wrong hire. And now with every hire, I ask, did they take work off my plate? Am I more freed up? Am I not feeling like I’m drowning in a million things? Okay, good. Then that’s a good hire.
SL: One of the things I really admire about your brand is when I think about what you put out there. It’s so clear why customers love you, why the editorial world loves you. When it came to my brand, the editorial world did not love us at all. The department store buyers did not understand us. The only people I felt who got what we were doing were our customers. They would put on a dress and say, Wow, this is the best black dress I’ve ever worn for work, and it’s machine washable and it has pockets. Sold! We started doing these trunk shows in hotel rooms or friends’ apartments because we didn’t have money to build a website in the beginning. We wanted to have a small corner of our office dedicated to customers so they could come in and try stuff on. Granted, this was a terrible building above a methadone clinic, so we honestly didn’t want our customers to come, because we were like, It’ll ruin the magic! Eventually we had enough money in our pocket to open a small showroom in Noho [in New York City], and that became our first place that we opened officially five years ago.
RM: People just see the Instagram gloss and they think it’s always been perfect. We actually reinterviewed our first graphic designer ever, who is now an art director, as we now need that role. He asked, are there still boxes everywhere? Do I climb over them to get there? Because last time I was here, people were working on boxes.
SL: Do you kind of miss those days?
RM: Sometimes I do miss that. There was a frenetic energy that was really fun when you’re just starting.
SL: Yeah, it’s true, you kind of glamorize the past. Sometimes I think I miss that energy of seven people in one office. But I’m also thinking, God, it was really miserable not knowing if you’re gonna be able . . .
RM: . . . to make payroll.
SL: Do you like being the face of the brand? This is weird, having put my own last name on my company, but I think being the face of the brand can be really challenging. It’s not a part of the job that I would say comes naturally to me. My background was in management consulting and finance, like Excel spreadsheets are my happy place.
RM: It definitely takes time, and you get used to it after a while. I wanted to get your thoughts on something: One of the things that’s always been important to me was to support and promote and talk about women. I’ve been doing it the whole time, but I think really this season it took center stage, and I realized this is way more important than product. So we launched our I Am Many campaign, where we really wanted females to celebrate their multidimensionality. As women we’ve been marketed to be one thing— be bold, be brave, be beautiful—but wait, we can be all these things, and we can take confidence in many different parts of ourselves and celebrate that. But someone said I was selling feminism. I was like, I’m not selling feminism. First of all, everything has a charitable component, but also, what am I supposed to do? Be a feminist on the weekends, like a part-time job? I’m not only going to talk about it in my off time. So I’m curious.
SL: Our customers are professional women. It’s part of our company ethos since Day One. In Japan [where I grew up], all these fashion magazines have a models on the cover, but they’re posing as professional women. They’re not Kim Kardashian or Gisele [Bundchen], and all respect to them, but these were like a slightly more aspirational version of a professional woman. Growing up, I would look at these magazines and then I would think, oh my gosh, I can’t wait to be a grownup. Like, I can’t wait for my 8 a.m. meeting. When I came to the U.S., I was surprised that these models were not to be found. Nobody was talking about what it was like to be professional women. I think we’ve really tried to corner that space by starting our own content. We have our own digital magazine called The M Dash, and in that magazine weekly, we feature professional women, and the subscriber list has grown to over a million people. That has been a total surprise for us, just seeing how much interest and curiosity there is from other professional women to hear about other professional women just doing remarkable things. Speaking of content, I hear that you’ve launched a podcast.
RM: It’s called Superwomen with Rebecca Minkoff, subscribe, download, rate, and review. Please. This isn’t only a fashion podcast. I’ve feel like I’ve been really lucky to meet incredible women outside of the fashion industry and wanted to hear and tell their stories. It’s not just how they got from A to B, but it explores their multidimensionality, their challenges, their fears, their failures. Sometimes, things are glossed over and made to look perfect. So hearing all those different aspects of their life is fascinating for me. And so now I get to tell it in voice form, which has been a whole new learning curve.
It was fun. I don’t mean this to sound trite, but to learn something totally new. Totally out of my comfort zone. And so we launched last week. It’s been really fun to hear the feedback and get women on board.
SL: Ten years from now, where do you see Rebecca Minkoff?
RM: We have a couple of categories left in us that we haven’t launched. Like probably kids and home and maybe, beauty at some point, right? I think really solidifying our community and getting that dedicated fan to stay with me for the next 10 years. And what about you? Where are you in 10 years?
SL: One of the goals that I always had was we said, okay, when you think of the world’s most fashionable women, most people think of French women, right? Or Italian madams—that’s what I want to be one day is an Italian madam—but we want the world to think American professional women are the most fashionable women in the world. I think a lot of people think fashion is so trite, but fashion is the power of costume. It’s so powerful when you don something and then look at yourself in the mirror and you’re like, damn, I look good. And the feeling that you can also give other people and the impressions you can change. It’s a very powerful tool. So our goal is to see if we can change that perception and show how American professional women are kicking butt. I think that would be a huge accomplishment. Well, that and making a lot of money.
RM: Hell, yes!