British Fashion Gets a Web Dynamo
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17 February 2013
By SUZY MENKES
Published: February 4, 2013
LONDON — This month Natalie Massenet, the founder of Net-a-Porter and Internet guru to the fashion world, will throw her might behind London Fashion Week.
As the newly appointed chairman of the British Fashion Council, she will use her power to promote designers not in their traditional role as funky and cool, but as major players in a global arena.
“I haven’t given up on my day job!” says Ms. Massenet, who is executive chairman of Net-a-Porter, explaining how she was persuaded to take up the role after working on a four-year business strategy with Caroline Rush, the chief executive of the British Fashion Council (BFC).
The pro bono appointment shows Ms. Massenet’s astonishing virtuosity. This month the executive, who built her online shopping empire over 13 years, will launch Net-a-Porter in French and German and in Mandarin, for the ever-growing number of Asian online shoppers, who now make up one third of Net-a-Porter’s clients.
Ms. Massenet, a pioneering force behind online luxury shopping will also unveil a newsstand version of the on-line magazine concept that has helped build the success of Net-a-Porter, because it invested in editorial content to attract more than five million monthly visitors to read, browse and shop the latest offerings.
This magazine maneuver takes Ms. Massenet back to her earliest days at the British magazine Tatler in the 1990s — before she built the e-tail business from a £880,000, or $1.4 million, start-up put together by her former husband, an investment banker. She then sold the brand in 2010 to the luxury group Richemont, which valued the company at £350 million, netting her a supposed £50 million.
Ms. Massenet, 47, sits on a couch in the glass box of an office that offers an aerial view of London. With the fitful sun shimmering through wisps of mist and on the space-age construction of the Westfield shopping complex, she is literally, as well as metaphorically with her online business, in the “cloud.”
She calls it “a cathedral-like feeling of light” and announces that the huge space is no longer enough: Westfield has promised to build a new rooftop wing by next year.
Ironically, the Net-a-Porter organization with its 2,500 global employees sits above a shopping mall that has bricks-and-mortar stores for luxury brands from Burberry to Prada to Louis Vuitton. Although Prada is one of the few brands that has resisted her blandishments. Ms. Massenet’s slim mouth, set in a perfect-oval-shaped face, puckers at such a refusal.
Her connection since Jan. 1 to the BFC is significant in reinforcing the changed image of British fashion from quirky but erratic to inventive but well-organized.
Working with Ms. Rush, she has encouraged Prime Minister David Cameron and his wife, Samantha, to support the fashion industry, which is worth more than £20 billion to the British economy, according to the BFC.
The two women have come up with five “pillars.” Ms. Rush cites these as first the designer perspective: getting the right deals, support and global reach; then the business of regulating investment possibilities; and teaching cash-flow management with an effective business strategy via terrestrial or on-line seminars.
The final categories are education and reputation: What Ms. Rush sees as expanding teaching beyond the well-known British art and design colleges; and building strong partnerships across Europe, in China, Japan and emerging markets.
“And if more people wanted to join the industry, they don’t have to be a designer — for an amazing life and career, you don’t have to be a creative,” says Ms. Massenet, referring to potential management and online strategic positions outside of the 700 fashion companies that the BFC has already listed.
Both Ms. Rush and Ms. Massenet applaud the fact that the Scottish designer Christopher Kane, 30, has been backed by the French luxury conglomerate PPR, which is already behind the Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney brands.
Mr. Kane says of Ms. Massenet: “She is my biggest client,” proving how online sales can be a gift to young designers.
Ms. Massenet is seen from various perspectives within the industry. She remembers clearly her starting point at Tatler magazine after being brought up in Los Angeles and Paris (hence the grand double doors to the airy interior of the Net-a -Porter offices).
But the British Vogue publisher Stephen Quinn recalls little of her in that Tatler role and is more interested in her persuading big-brand British designers like Ms. McCartney and Mr. McQueen to show in London rather than Paris.
Jonathan Newhouse, chairman of Condé Nast International, regards Ms. Massenet both as a dynamic force within the industry and as an important advertiser. (Net-a-Porter covers increasingly the same farflung territories marked out by Condé Nast.)
Christopher Bailey, chief creative officer of Burberry, who stages his women’s (but not men’s) shows in London and is wedded to high technology, is enthusiastic about Ms. Massenet’s new role.
“I have so much admiration for Natalie and everything she has achieved through her incredible drive and singular vision,” the designer says. “I can’t think of a better person to champion our creative talent at home and around the world.”
British fashion needed a rebranding to keep a focus on eccentricity (defined at the Olympics last summer by the Danny Boyle opening ceremony), but also to be perceived as a serious business player in a wired world. Ms. Rush’s dynamism has also included Internet promotion and live-steaming shows.
Back home at Westfield, Ms. Massenet has a picture of herself dancing with Roland Mouret, the London designer whom she persuaded to sell his first collection on the fledgling Net-a-Porter in 2001. The speed with which she developed the business to embrace 300 A-list designers and to express-ship their goods to 170 countries has stunned the fashion industry, but few have successfully imitated it.
The executive also seems to have an impressive ability to juggle her work with another important part of her life: her pre-teenage daughters, who are already wired to Twitter and Instagram.
“I am pretty good about turning off — I am binary and when I am home I love being there,” Ms. Massenet says.
The business however, does not switch off, and she is scathing about chief executives who are “experts in old ideas” and whose stores still follow the rhythm of a working day.
“We try not to follow rules — we make our own rules,” she says, adding that Net-a-Porter works 24/7 — as witnessed by the digital screens on the wall documenting every sale, its cost and its place of origin. The figure on Wednesday, at midday, after a £1,250 purchase from Germany, stood at £639,325.
Thirty percent of those sales are from cellphones, changing even further the concept of modern shopping.
Who is the real Ms. Massenet and what makes her tick?
An employee, who asked not to be quoted, described his mentor as “very American” in a demand for super-tidy desks and that the forest of curving Artemis lamps are set at the same angle across the entire work floor. That sense of streamlined order continues along to the Mr. Porter male fashion site (started in 2011) and the Outnet site for marked-down pieces.
Colorful Post-its with baffling messages such as “cucumber” and “Java” are stuck on walls where clusters of staff congregate in stand-up discussions. (No time to be wasted by sitting down comfortably.)
There have been some grumbles in the industry that Mr. Porter’s visual style was too obviously modeled on Fantastic Man magazine, and that the U.K.-based Net-a-Porter does not seem to promote British designers in particular.
But the Net-a-Porter staff express a fierce loyalty. Lucy Yeomans, who originally worked at Tatler with Ms. Massenet, was persuaded to leave her editor’s role at Harper’s Bazaar after 11 years and is now handling the online/kiosk magazine. Jeremy Langmead, who heads up Mr. Porter, also comes from a Hearst magazines background as editor of Esquire.
“It’s very different from magazines in that there are so many platforms,” Mr. Langmead said. “But as Natalie always says ‘yes,’ it puts a spring in your step.”
Is Ms. Massenet really as shiny perfect as her glossy light brown hair and purple nails? She has a sophisticated and refined personal taste. Yet for all her digital savvy (she often speaks at technology conferences) her speech at last week’s BFC/Vogue Designer Fashion Fund award was read from paper, not from a digital tablet. She admits to being fazed by the office telephones, which she finds complex to navigate for conference calls.
Then there is her hearty dislike of getting on a plane — despite her role at this global empire.
But Ms. Massenet’s enthusiasm and energy have an uplifting effect. The number of people applying for jobs puts Net-a-Porter on the almost Messianic level of Google.
“And we have to deal with how we handle the applicants and the 99 percent rejects,” said Ms Massenet, who has hired 40 people in Human Resources.
At last week’s design awards, her speech was a model of encouragement and compassion for finalists who did not win. And her dress code was impeccably British: a lace patterned dress by Erdem Moralioglu and shoes by the fashion fund winner, Nicholas Kirkwood.
From the black ballerina flats (with black jeans) for walking the length of her Westfield empire, through the high-heeled black pointy-toe court shoes for cocktails at the prime minister’s residence last month, it is rare, indeed, for the new chairwoman of British fashion to put a foot wrong.