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In the past, I have come across Natalie Massenet, 45-year-old founder and now executive chairman of luxury online fashion store Net-a-Porter, in a number of different places. In 2000, for example, I found her in a warehouse in Chelsea, London, when she was about to launch her website and was sitting in a room with two other employees, lots of boxes, and a new baby in a cradle at her feet. A few years later, I found her in her offices on the top floor of Whiteleys shopping mall in west London, when the business had taken off and she was becoming the poster girl of webtailing.
I found her regularly at various fashion shows in New York, Milan and Paris, as she vaulted from the third row to the first on the buyers’ side. And I found her over the phone from a hotel room last year when the Swiss group Richemont (owners of Cartier, Chloé and other luxury brands) bought the company she had launched with about £1.5m, valuing it at £350m. The sale netted Massenet a reported £50m and officially made her one of the web’s great success stories.
But I have to say I never expected to find her in a restaurant in Munich. The city is many things but it’s not exactly fashion central. Once a year, however, it does become tech central, thanks to the Digital Life Design conference, a three-day affair about – well, the digital and design worlds, featuring speakers such as Google’s Nikesh Arora, Facebook and Napster’s Sean Parker, author Paulo Coehlo, as well as, this year, Massenet, who is currently as much in demand as an online guru as a style pundit. Massenet likes to multitask and so she is using the hour or so before she speaks to have lunch with the FT. She arrives at the Charles Hotel’s restaurant directly from the airport, to which she will return immediately after she has finished speaking. She’s busy.
She is about to launch a new shopping site – Mr Porter– that goes live later this month and will, she hopes, prove that men are just as susceptible as women to spending online in the right environment.
She has also just bought a new house in London near the Lycée Français in Kensington, where her two daughters, Isabella, 11, and Ava, five, go to school. Her husband Arnaud Massenet is a French investment banker. Massenet herself spent her early childhood in Paris before her parents split up and, aged 11, she moved to Los Angeles in 1976 with her journalist father Bob Rooney.
The new house needs doing up, she says. As we walk to our table and I ask her what her life is like, she replies that it is “a Stairmaster that never stops.”
“Is this a one-course lunch or a two-course lunch?” she continues as we sit down. I tell her it’s up to her: I’ve flown in from New York (I’m moderating her panel at the conference) and my stomach thinks it’s the middle of the night. She’s wearing black skinny jeans and black high-heeled boots, with a white button-down shirt over a tank top and under a black tunic; her bag is a large black number, bristling with silver studs. As an approach to dressing, it’s comfortable enough for a flight, not so fashionable that she would scare the techies, but still notably on-trend. She has had some experience of this, as she points out while scanning the menu.
“Every year I go to the Google Zeitgeist conference, which is invite-only, and I’m one of about 20 women and five fashion people out of the 400 there,” she says, before adding: “I think it has to do with the huge amount we spend on Google advertising.” We both know she’s joking; her invitation has to do with the fact she understood, long before anyone else, that certain fashion-forward women would spend, and spend a lot, online; that you didn’t need to be mass and cheap like Amazon to be very, very, successful; you could be exclusive and expensive instead.
The e-tailer currently ships to 170 countries, and Massenet tells me that she gets 2,500 e-mails a week from people asking for jobs. She’s moving into the realm of the big picture. For lunch, however, she decides to go jewel-like and indulgent, ordering a starter-sized portion of shrimp with mashed potatoes and truffles. She can still get into the small picture of day-to-day decision-making when she wants.
So, for example, when she talks about a new platform she is launching, Net-a-Porter live, which will allow users to see real-time updates on what other users are putting in their baskets, she goes both micro and macro. “We have big screens that show sales as they happen hanging in our office and everyone who visits stands mesmerised in front of them, so I knew it would be exactly the same for users,” she says. “Then it was just a question of how we could do it, technically, and how much information we wanted to reveal about our sales to the rest of the world.”
The idea, besides tapping into both the human instinct for voyeurism and competitive purchasing, is “transparency. It’s where the world is going. There will be no more secrets. No more hidden things!”
This provides an easier conversational segue than the arrival of the Cokes we have ordered (Diet for me), so I say, “OK, tell me about Mr Porter.” The site has been much discussed but kept under wraps, and there is as much scepticism around the idea that men will embrace online shopping as there was originally around the idea of selling luxury online, the difference being now more people are wary of doubting Natalie. In fact, Massenet admits, a men’s site was never part of her plan.
“I knew nothing about men’s fashion,” she says. Indeed, she had worked as a women’s magazine fashion editor (at W and Tatler), and she had never thought much about men’s wear. “I didn’t feel natural to me,” she says. “I couldn’t even think of a name that would work for a site like that.” Instead, she was planning on going into children’s wear and had “Petit-a-Porter” as a target.
But then, in 2009, “a group of guys from a fashion investment and marketing company called Saturday came to see us and they said, “We’d like to introduce you to your new brand: Mr Porter.” It was so simple. Never in a million years had I thought about playing with the phonetics of the spelling of our name, because I had spent so many years educating people about the French pronunciation, but it was exactly right. Then and there we put it on our road map.”
Still, they had to spend at least a year understanding how the new venture would work. “We threw out everything we knew about shopping – all the assumptions about how women work – and started again,” says Massenet, ticking off differences on her fingers: women’s fashion is very trend-led; men’s is not. Women like to look at fashion shows and models; men like to look at their peer group; women don’t mind having shopping websites on their computers at work; men do.
In the middle of this learning curve, Richemont, which had been a minority shareholder in Net-a-Porter, started talking to Massenet about upping its shareholding from about 29 per cent to a majority stake. Did that, I ask, speed up the launch process? Did the money help? “No, not at all,” Massenet says. “We were doing Mr Porter anyway. We operate completely on our own cash flow.”
The recession had turned out to be good for Net-a-Porter , despite the fact that Massenet admits to worrying that the end of the leisurely office lunch hour meant no one would ever shop online again. And, coincidentally, just as the economy turned, a new delivery option was launching – offering customers the choice of a discreet packaging option, brown paper bags instead of the company’s trademark black and white boxes, so purchases could arrive at offices without the buyers feeling conspicuous. Net-a-Porter was not only profitable in 2008 and 2009 but outperformed year on year.
“Having Richemont is a great back-up,” Massenet says, “and it allowed some early investors [in the business] to get their money out, which made me happy, but it hasn’t made a palpable difference otherwise.” The waitress arrives with some bread and asks if we want olive oil for dipping; we shake our heads and go back to Mr Porter.
“I always felt I understood women, which was good, because a lot of what I was doing was instinct, especially in the beginning; we didn’t have any money for market research,” says Massenet as our food arrives. “And I never felt it was all that different from what I was doing as a fashion editor: identifying trends and bringing them to people. In fact, I think fashion is actually very good training for being in the tech world, because it’s all about moving on to the next thing, looking for the next thing, not getting stuck in the past.
“But with men we’ve been more scientific about our approach: we’ve tested it, talked to users. All the investment bankers I know, for example, wear the same thing, and it’s because their dad wore it, or their friends wear it.” Her husband was at Lehman Brothers – “That was an interesting Monday morning conversation,” is all she will say about the collapse of that institution – and currently is involved with his own fund, so I ask her if he was one of her guinea pigs.
“No. He’s definitely an archetype, but no,” she says, sawing delicately at her prawns. He is, it turns out, the kind of guy who shops in spurts, unless Massenet buys something for him, and “women buying for men” is one of the types they expect to visit Mr Porter. Then there are “men who love fashion”, “rich men who need guidance” – five archetypes in all, with insider names such as “Leon lives for fashion”, all thoroughly profiled, with their own mission statements and backgrounds. “We have a mezzanine in the office and it’s entirely covered in yellow stickies now,” says Massenet.
Net-a-Porter looks a lot like a glossy online fashion magazine but Mr Porter is largely black and white; more tabloid in tone; more vertically oriented; and features real men, role models who can also be style models, such as actor Steve McQueen and hotelier Andre Balazs, as well as lists of “essentials” every man needs.
Last month the Mr Porter team, including its editor Jeremy Langmead, started inviting a few select men to be “founding members”: to receive perks, act as guinea pigs and, theoretically ,serve as viral marketers for the site. Massenet expects Mr Porter to be as successful as Net-a-Porter, which attracts an average of 11,000 new customers a month and, along with TheOutnet.com, its discounted, end-of-season sister site, has a total of 4m users a month. “It is,” Massenet says very happily, “a big, big world,” and she doesn’t see an end to the potential shoppers in it. “We’re growing in Singapore, growing in New Zealand, growing in the United States.”
Plate cleared, Massenet orders one scoop of chocolate ice-cream, and continues, “And the women who shop with us keep having babies, keep graduating, keep getting better jobs.” When her dessert arrives she picks off the raspberries that decorate it, snacking on them separately, and starts talking about her new offices, which are in the vast west London Westfield shopping mall, and allow her entire staff to be on one floor. “We have very high ceilings and all this light, and it’s a place where you can have big ideas,” she says.
And then she is off, talking about her dream: “My goal was always to be editor in chief of a magazine, and I feel I have achieved that, only it’s also a magazine you can shop – which is even better. I’m living my dream! And I am sure, in the next five years, this is what is going to happen everywhere.” She pauses and a glow of certainty surrounds her like a halo. “Media companies are going to become retailers and retailers are going to become media companies,” she says. “It’s inevitable.” I can’t help thinking it’s about time someone found that woman a stage.
Vanessa Friedman is the FT’s fashion editor
The Charles Hotel, Sophienstrasse 28, D80333 Munich, Germany
Sparkling water €9
Diet Coke x 2 €10
House salad €14
Prawns, mashed potatoes and black truffle €19
Fruit portion €10
Scoop of ice-cream €2.50
Total (including service) €69.50