I wanted to look nice and I wanted to look presentable and I wanted to feel good. And I think my mother definitely influenced that. She was someone who really believed in the power of costume and self presentation.
Below is an abridged audio transcript of Episode 62 from Season 4 of Rock The Boat: Making Waves, edited for clarity.
In this episode, Lucia talks to Sarah Miyzawa LaFleur, founder and CEO of innovative women's workwear brand M.M. LaFleur. In this episode, Sarah opens up about growing up with two cultures: Japanese and American, while moving around the globe with her family. A series of events led her from wanting to work in international development, to working in consulting, and ultimately she found a partner in M.M.'s designer Miyako Nakamura.
The brand's goal is to "help women harness the power of self-presentation, and to rethink the shopping process altogether." Learn more about Sarah's journey in this episode of the podcast!
I. Meet Sarah
Lucia: So what were you like growing up like? What was little Sarah like?
Sarah: My dad's American and my mother's Japanese. My father worked in the foreign service. He was a diplomat so we moved around every three to four years.
I was born in Paris. Then we went to Tokyo, then D.C., then my dad moved to Taipei. He took a job in Taipei and then my mom my sister and I moved to Tokyo but we were basically in Taipei like every other weekend. And then my dad got transferred back to Tokyo.
Lucia: The type of business that your mom was running, what was that like and did you help out at all?
Sarah: So she was born in Japan in 1946, right after WWII, went to school and really grew up in Japan in a time where it wasn't really accepted for women to go to a four year university or have a full time job. And I think she defied a lot of the odds there she ultimately got her MBA at Columbia, I think she was one of the one of the first Japanese women to do this.
She was always interested in fashion and so she had spent some years with a wonderful couture designer and then ultimately she started this business. Initially it was a catalog business. She was bringing her US catalogs, if you remember the days of a J. Crew or CW or Talbots, she would bring them to people in Japan and they would place orders for that catalog through my mother. And that was the original business.
II. From aspiring to be Prime Minister to management consulting to fashion
Lucia: Initially, you wanted to become the prime minister of Japan one day.
Sarah: My life has taken a different turn, but yes.
What I ultimately thought I wanted to do, at least in high school was, I think you'll probably relate to this having gone to an international school, but I thought I wanted to do something in international diplomacy or international relations. I set my eyes on wanting to work for the United Nations high commissioner for refugees.
I majored in this thing called social studies in college, which really sounds like something you would study in fourth grade, but it was a mixture of economics and political science and and sociology and I loved it. I ultimately spent some time working in a refugee camp between my junior and senior year in Zambia and wrote my senior thesis on sexual exploitation of refugee women in refugee camps. So that that was kind of what my heart was set on doing.
I had never seen that kind of poverty or desperation before. And you know when I say desperation it was the kind of lack of hope that I think exists in a refugee camp.
Lucia: After working in management consulting at Bain and Company, Sarah wanted to give international development. Another try, and she ended up moving to South Africa to work at a nonprofit called TechnoServe. She loved the work, but she quickly realized that she wasn't actually good at the work.
Sarah: it was just kind of one of those moments where you're like, "Okay. What you want what you think you want to do in your life you." Also, when you think about your career you really should also think about what are you actually good at I think that part gets forgotten.
Lucia: Passion, right We're so enamored by the idea of doing what we want to do Not realizing that we might suck at it.
Sarah: I had people around me who were yellers, you know, who would tell other grown adults to go fuck themselves. And that they were going to you know fire them and never let them see the light of day if they didn't do what they wanted them to do. It was a pretty hard environment driven environment.
And I think I really, I completely crumbled under that. I think it was an environment that, it really works for some people. It drives them it pushes them to be successful and it motivates them And for me it was the exact opposite. It was I just kind of shut down and I started developing weird ticks.
III. M.M. Lafleur
Lucia: Your designer Miyako, how did you meet your designer? Is she a partner in your business?
Sarah: I knew I didn't want to be the designer and actually multiple people from the fashion world was like, "This isn't too hard. You should just you should just design the clothes, like take the pieces that you like make a few edits and you know call it in slap a label and call it yours."
And I was like no, I think that that actually fundamentally doesn't get to the problem that I'm trying to fix which is I want to do something drastically different I want clothes that fit better, that feel better I want to innovate.
Lucia: You're inherently disrupting an industry And how can you disrupt an industry when you just take a model?
Sarah: Exactly. So I think I had a real sense for the customer because I was the customer but in terms of the the real creativity and the innovation in the garments. I really wanted to work with a high end designer because what I wanted to do was really bring high end designer quality to clothing that a lot of professional women could afford. I wanted a $2,000 dress to be sold for $150, so I didn't want to compromise on the design, on the fit, on the technique. And I so I just felt like this partner was going to be so essential.
Lucia: So we always end our interview with our which is how do you intend to rock the boat?
Sarah: Well I think if you've taught me anything today, it's that maybe rocking the boat comes in surprising ways and I never thought of myself as an Asian American, an immigrant. But I think I'm just going to start by sharing this story about being Japanese.
I've never been hiding it but I think talking more openly about it and hopefully through conversations like this I can actually really figure out, okay what is the role that I play between these two cultures and what more about the great things I know about actually share with the American community I've become a part of.
Check out M.M. Lafleur's website.
Sarah is on Instagram.