I Dropped $265 on a Dress at a Retail Showroom. Here’s Why it Was a Deal

Lisa Rowan posing outside of MM.Lafleur in Washington D.C.
Lisa Rowan posing outside of MM.Lafleur in Washington D.C. Photo courtesy of Lisa Rowan.

I have a secret: I hate shopping for clothes.

I hate messy dressing rooms, crowded stores and overpacked racks. I hate searching for my size, which fluctuates so much among brands that my first guess is never correct. I’ll walk into a store, do a few laps around the clearance rack, and usually leave disappointed and empty-handed.

Shopping online isn’t much better. It’s easy to get lost in pages upon pages of results that prove the average person’s vulnerability to decision fatigue.

My lifelong shopping stress came into clear view this summer when I spent entirely too much time searching for dresses with sleeves. From consignment shops to on-trend stores to the endless online shops, I could find plenty of breezy, sleeveless sundresses… but no sleeves.

So when the web kept throwing me ads for MM.Lafleur, an online shop promising to “take the work out of getting dressed for work,” I couldn’t help but browse. There were plenty of sleeves. I liked all the sleeves.

There was even a brick-and-mortar store in my old city, Washington, D.C. With a trip “home” on the books, I made an appointment at MM.Lafleur.

I knew blouses started at $100. Dresses easily grazed the $300 line. Clothing at this price may seem like nothing more than luxury. But as my career has evolved, I’ve been wanting to take my look from “cozy freelancer” to something more like “I’m totally comfortable being on live TV once a week.”

Paper-thin knits and trendy prints from fast-fashion chains weren’t going to cut it anymore — at least, not for my work wardrobe. My goal: to find a few key pieces that could withstand the tests of time and Florida heat, even if it meant paying more upfront.

Your Stylist Will See You Now

Lisa Rowan talks to a stylist at MM.Lafleur in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of Lisa Rowan.

Forget the bright lights and club beats at mall stores. Everything was just a little bit softer at MM.Lafleur. The music was soothing, the decor was chic, and the prosecco came in stemless glasses that were less likely to tip as elbows wriggled into garments.

Washington, D.C.’s bustling, corporate K Street houses one of the brand’s storefronts that it calls Out of Office. There will be four of these by the end of 2017 to complement the brand’s annual schedule of about 40 pop-up shops, where new customers can get a feel for the brand in a temporary setting.

The company started with trunk shows in hotel suites before developing its concept of personal shopping by mail in 2014 to help customers break through decision paralysis.

The brand started experimenting with the appointment model that same year.

Most customers fill out a survey to indicate their needs and size estimates before they arrive for their appointment. I listed my profession, job title, age and my best guess at my size based on how I tend to land at other stores.

When I arrived, my stylist, Ashley, had already pulled several outfits ranging from dresses to blouse-and-pant combinations and placed them in my spacious fitting room.

We talked about fabrics and care, how to layer pieces to create multiple looks, how to mix and match jewelry and accessories to keep the lineup — mostly black, because I’m classic like that — versatile.

I was busy considering alternative colors and trying on additional items as Ashley whisked them from a mysterious back room. But I didn’t feel rushed. There was time to sit down and get a feel for how each garment would move. I also had time to take a few selfies in the mirror and text friends for their opinions.

“An hour shopping can be stressful and overwhelming,” Rachel Mann, director of the brand’s showrooms, told me later, as if reading my mind. “Trying to find your size, sweating, trying to find a bathroom, waiting in line, bad lighting, needing the next size, getting overwhelmed by decision paralysis.”

An hour later, my prosecco glass was empty, and I faced a rack of items I loved.

A friend and former fashion stylist had warned me about getting sucked in. A personal shopper, whether or not they approach bearing beverages, is still a salesperson.

“When you’re done shopping, be firm,” my friend had said. “Don’t get pressured into buying more than you’re comfortable spending.”

April Benson, Ph.D., offered similar advice in her book “To Buy or Not to Buy: Why We Overshop and How to Stop.”

“Yes, it can feel so much easier to take something home than to risk feeling embarrassed or ‘high-maintenance,” after a salesperson has spent time catering to your needs, Benson wrote. “But the salesperson is simply doing his or her job. Your job is to take care of yourself, not to please the salesperson.”

Benson’s book also warns against getting friendly with your salesperson, as even polite chitchat about the weather could eventually put you under their upselling spell.

Too late. I liked Ashley, who wasn’t pushy and asked me lots of questions that seemed to help me make my own decisions. (Psychology at work, people.)

I settled on three items: two blouses and a dress valued just north of $500. I barely recognized myself — someone who used to troll thrift-store racks for resale finds and to stock her own closet.

I know, you think I’ve gone wacky. Sometimes, I think I’ve totally lost it. But this was not one of those times.

MM.LaFleur was born, Mann explained, out of its founders commiserating about having to take their dry-clean-only work wardrobes on the road for business trips. The dry-cleaning bills alone were enough to make any businesswoman want to ditch the road trips and relegate themselves to cubicle life.

“The amount we spend on dry-cleaning is absurd,” Mann said. “If you look at the cost of dry-cleaning over time versus a $200 dress that’s machine washable, it’s worth it. You spend something like four times more on dry cleaning over time.” The company’s items, most of which can be washed at home, go through shrink tests, spill tests, pilling tests and other rigors to make sure they’ll hold up. “We’re always thinking about money and cost per wear,” Mann says.

Wear a $200 dress once a week for a year, and it costs you less than $4 per week. Your laundry costs are negligible, whereas dry cleaning one dress typically costs $10 each time. No thanks.

It was time for my wardrobe to make the investment, even if it meant not buying another article of clothing for the rest of the year. And maybe all of next year.

What’s the Value of a Personal Shopper?

Private shopping with a stylist isn’t new. Think of legendary department stores and independent boutiques catering to the highest-end customers.

But today’s showrooms don’t require a minimum purchase or knowing someone who knows someone. They’re for anyone trying to bridge the gap between beautifully styled online items and their own closet.

Bonobos led the way with its Guideshops to introduce men to its chinos and dress shirts. The company was later bought by Walmart. Nordstrom, long known for its customer service and on-site tailoring, opened a Nordstrom Local store in Los Angeles this fall that doesn’t stock inventory. Instead, it shuttles in a few items at a time from a nearby warehouse for free personal shopping appointments.   

E-commerce-cult-fave-turned-Walmart-darling ModCloth is in on the showroom service, too. The company tested seven pop-up locations last summer before opening a permanent location in Austin, Texas.

Here’s what others had to say about working with a personal shopper.

Tracy Travaglio, a high school English teacher and fashion blogger in Pittsburgh, made an appointment to shop and perused the showroom, allowing a ModStylist to bring her a few extra items to try on.

While Travaglio went into the shop with a budget, she said she went a little over what she expected. But her upcoming birthday justified the splurge.

“This way of shopping obviously isn’t an option for an immediate need, but I could see myself shopping this way seasonally at the beginning of each season to buy a few key pieces,” she said.

Sydnee Merrell, a student in Ogden, Utah, visited Everlane’s showroom during a visit to New York City. She was already a fan of the brand’s online shop, but was disappointed with the limited stock in the showroom, which is open for drop-ins instead of appointments.

“It mostly affirmed my decision to buy those items,” she said of the three T-shirts she intended to purchase at the showroom. But she doesn’t feel compelled to return to a physical Everlane shop because ordering online — and returning, if necessary – is easy enough, she said.

“I prefer shopping in stores because I like to feel the garment, try it on, and make sure I like it before purchasing,” Merrell wrote in an email. “Buying online forces you to buy it first. I thought the showroom would solve that problem.”

I Spent $265 on a Dress, but Was it Worth it?

My MM.Lafleur package arrived a week after I placed the order, each item carefully folded and lined with tissue for the journey. I still felt good about the decisions I made with the help of stylist Ashley. I was still glad I spent the money, trusting that the minimalist mindset of owning fewer, higher-quality items would work for me.

And when I first slipped on the Tory dress, New York-made with a $265 price tag, I was confident that it would be my go-to dress for a long time. At $5.10 per wear, I’d make sure of it.

Lisa Rowan is a senior writer and producer at The Penny Hoarder.