#TBT: How Natalie Massenet Launched the World of Luxury Online Shopping

In 2014, GARAGE editorial director Dasha Zhukova interviewed Net-a-Porter founder Natalie Massenet about the birth of internet shopping and her plans for world domination.

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Jul 5 2018, 3:47pm

In 2000, as the dotcom bubble was bursting, Natalie Massenet launched Net-a-Porter.com from a flat in London’s Chelsea. Defying all predictions of failure, it instead created a paradigm shift in shopping, in the relationship between designers and customers, and in fashion itself. After she left Net-a-Porter in 2015, the fashion world awaited news of what its e-commerce pioneer would do next. This past spring, Massenet announced she would launch Imaginary Ventures, a venture capital firm, with fellow industry vet Nick Brown. In 2014, for GARAGE No. 6, Massenet discussed the birth of internet shopping, social media, and her plans for world domination with Dasha Zhukova.

Dasha Zhukova: Tell me about the company culture at Net-a-Porter.

Natalie Massenet: I read about the CAA, and Michael Ovitz’s belief that you start in the mailroom, then you work up to being an assistant, and then you become an agent. Here, because we’ve been growing so quickly, you come in as an assistant in the photo studio and the next thing you know you’re running a brand. One of the girls running e-commerce started out in packing.

It’s really phenomenal what Google and those Palo Alto companies are doing. The idea is that if their employees have all their needs met, they’ll put in longer hours, so they have rooms for resting and sleeping, for breastfeeding, yoga classes, and so on. Is there any of that Net-a-Porter?

I put great importance on the environment. Our internal walls are glass, so there are no hidden agendas, literally and metaphorically. In our distribution centers in London, Hong Kong, and New York we have full kitchens with chefs 24 hours a day, and break-out rooms for the tech teams who work irregular hours. They’ve got mad rooms for brainstorming.

Who are your favorite designers?

At the moment, I’m partial to Saint Laurent. I’ve always loved Miu Miu, and I have a lot of Proenza Schouler. For evening I tend to wear Alessandra Rich, whom I found at the Ritz, parking my car beside her.

Do you have to clean out your closet every season?

I’m a big hoarder. I keep everything because I always think it will come back in fashion. I actually wear the same thing all the time—a variation of that thing. I’m partial to black and white… black pants, black skirts, black jackets, black coats. I love a white men’s shirt from Brooks Brothers and then lean towards shiny or sparkling gold or silver accessories with a twist—shoes, bags, jewelry. It’s been the same for 20 years. Each season, the shape is changed—skinny jeans, wide-legged pants, miniskirt, maxi skirt; and the mood—mod, 1980s, Japanese, casual—but it’s basically the same. Oh, and big black sunglasses that I usually wear in my hair, which my friend Michael Smith calls a “surfer tiara”.

What was your major in college?

English. I was very good at writing, even though I don’t particularly like it. It’s a painful process to writing well. I learned languages when I was at school and Japanese was the one I loved most. It was the 1980s and everyone was talking about Japan. I used to annoy everyone in my sorority because I would talk in Japanese. I wrote my diary in Japanese.

And then you spent some time in Japan.

My dad was a poet and didn’t have a ton of money. For my graduation present he gave me a round-trip ticket to Tokyo, a hotel for three nights, and $200. I told everyone that I was moving to Tokyo for a year. I had read The Japan Times in the UCLA Library and saw job listings for English tutors, and I figured, “I’ll get a job, it’ll work out.” I had this huge going-away party.

You must have thought of yourself as an adult to have the confidence to do that.

I had no fear. I arrived and booked myself into a hotel on the outskirts of Tokyo, nowhere near the center. There was an earthquake the first night and I ran down to the lobby in my pajamas. I didn’t even know the word for earthquake. I sat there, staring out the window at the cars going by and wondering, how do you get from the stage of arriving in a town all on your own to having someone to call to go see a movie with? I cried to my dad on the phone and he said, “It’s okay, honey, just enjoy your three days and come home.” I said, “No! I’ve told every I’m going to be here for a year!” The next day I went to see a model agency, with pictures taken by friends who were photography students at UCLA. They would always plop me in the pictures because, since my mom worked in Paris, I had these Alaïa jackets that photographed well. I got the first job I went for, which paid $2,000—more money than I’d ever dreamed of. The agency gave me a contract that paid me upfront, and the next day moved me to an apartment with bunk beds in Roppongi, which is the coolest part of Tokyo.

No way!

I called my dad again 24 hours later, and he said, “Are you coming home?” and I was like, “No way! I got a job, I got an apartment, I’ve got some friends, and I’m going out dancing!” The universe will take care of you. If you do half the work, it meets you with the other half, and all these magical things happen.

And you had some business ideas. A chain of coffee shops?

It was just going to be one little coffee shop on Melrose Avenue in LA where you could go and listen to music and read newspapers. It was a year before the first coffee shop opened in LA. I think Starbucks was about to open in Seattle.

What else?

My friend Thierry Guetta was Mr. Brainwash! He had a jean line he had all these shops. For about five minutes he was like, “Okay, let’s do it” with the coffee shop idea, and then he was like, “No, you’ll never make money on coffee! We’ll open the world’s biggest restaurant and millions of people will come!” I didn’t want to do that, so I decided just to focus on journalism and I carried on working for Women’s Wear Daily. When I threw dinner parties I’d buy industrial quantities of those Mexican glass candles, and then I started decorating them and giving them as presents. I made some samples and went to Fred Segal, and the buyer said to me, “Oh darling, no one’s ever going to pay more than a dollar for a candle.”

Did people try to talk you out of the Net-a-Porter idea as well?

I realized I do have some good instincts and it would be a shame if I was that person sitting with a martini late in life saying, “I could have been this.” All my friends were in fashion, so I knew I could reach people to help me do what I wanted to do. This is one of the tips I give people who want to start a business—do something in your comfort zone. Do something where you can make it happen, not where you need to hire other people to make it happen.

Something that you yourself understand.

Exactly. You have to be passionate about it, knowledgeable about it, and you need the contacts.

When you started, people weren’t yet comfortable buying things on the internet. Such as jeans—you have to try them on, you have to see how they fit on your butt…

You have to unplug your phone line and plug in your computer.

Where did that stubbornness come from? Opening a coffee shop seems like it made more sense than trying to convince people to buy jeans online.

It would have been easier, but at that point it was obvious to me. Amazon had taken off. I was writing freelance at home and I was really bad at deadlines, so I would go online and twiddle around. I was obsessed with vintage, and that was one of the only things that was available online. You’d find some woman in South Dakota selling Victorian clothes, and I’d think, “If I can get a Victorian jacket maybe I could get a pair of Chloé jeans.” The New York magazines were running stories saying, “It’s all about shopping online,” but all I’d find was somebody’s grandmother knitting doilies. I tried to talk my friends in fashion into doing this kind of business and I got annoyed that they were missing the opportunity. I never really intended to start the business myself. A bit like when you meet a guy and you say to your friend, “He’s cute, you should go out with him,” and they’re like, “I don’t get it, but YOU go after him!”

What other struggles did you have when you started Net-a-Porter?

First of all, not have a clue about anything. I knew about fashion and I had a vision, but I didn’t have a business background or money to do it with. And I was pregnant. On the flip side, I was lucky that very smart people joined me immediately.

Because they believed in the idea?

I had this amazing momentum. Without money or any website backing I got 35 brands to agree to be a part of the venture and give me stock without making me pay for it.

“I realized I do have some good instincts, and it would be a shame if I was that person sitting with a martini late in life saying, I could have been this.”

Purely based on your relationships with the brands?

The people I knew were Tamara Mellon at Jimmy Choo, and Anya Hindmarch. I called them from my sofa right when I had the idea and said, “It's going to be like a magazine, there will be a girl in a bikini on a white horse and you can click on her bikini and buy it.” They were like, “Great! And it gets delivered to me? Okay!” With them on board I went to fashion fairs and met young designers, such as Matthew Williamson, Clements Ribeiro, Roland Mouret…

At what point in the development of the idea did you realize that Net-a-Porter was going to be a success?

I got a call from Sally Singer and Anna Wintour at American Vogue, and I couldn’t believe they were going to write about something sight unseen. Then there was Dany Levy, who had started DailyCandy.com. I’d known her when we were journalists, and when I told her I wanted to start a dotcom she said, “You’ve inspired me, I’m going to do one, too! Mine’s going to be a daily blog about what’s cool.” By the time I launched Net-a-Porter she already had about 100,000 subscribers. When we went live on June 10, 2000, the combination of DailyCandy and American Vogue meant that people knew about it immediately. We thought we were being swept off of our feet when we had two orders a day!

How many orders a day come through now?

Thousands.

When did the consignment model go out the window?

Our second season. This is how the conversation went… “Hi Tamara, I’d like to order shoes for next season.” Tamara: “How did it go?” Me: “Really well!” Tamara: “Okay, so now you!”

Did Net-a-Porter adapt to the consumer’s needs, or did the consumer adapt to Net-a-Porter?

Women were working, earning their own money, and the internet offered a much more exciting way of shopping. You’re not guaranteed that the little handbag you have your eye on is going to be in your neighborhood store. Consumers were starting to get the fact that they needn’t be satisfied with what’s being offered locally, that they can actually find something and have it come to them. We taught an entire generation of women that this was a better way of shopping. In the early days, we gave cocktail parties and lunches where we brought in laptops and we got girls to sign up email accounts—they didn’t even have email. We were explaining like, “This is how you turn your TV on.”

Some brands are still resistant to being on Net-a-Porter, right? What is their argument?

There are several. Some of them just want to do it themselves, and some don’t believe in wholesaling. Chanel does everything themselves, as does Vuitton. With the launch of Porter magazine we’re extending our partnerships and our ability to market to these brands.

Who is your biggest competitor?

Ourselves. I know it sounds really cliched, but we’re competing against every single store on the planet that offers a great product selection and great service.

Physical stores?

Online, offline. For us it’s about the mindset of the consumer, making sure that we’re serving him or her better than anywhere else in the world—that we’re offering the best product selection, that we’re completely up to speed on the latest technology, anything that makes it easy for a consumer to shop.

As one of the first online stores or magazines to be translated into Mandarin, how do you think this will change the way you do business?

It introduces the question of local editors versus a centrally run business. Right now it’s one voice, one edit, one buy, translated and delivered all over the world. The investment in growing across markets is substantial, but it’s nothing compared with what you would have to do to reach people the old-school way, opening freestanding stores in city after city. As we invest more in various markets we might start shaping things a bit more to their needs, but intuitively I think it’s more interesting for us to lead than to follow. We’re more useful to the consumer if we show what’s great and what’s coming next, as opposed to reacting to what they like from the previous seasons. There’s room for local players, but we want to be the global arbiter of taste and a global service provider.

What countries are you looking at right now?

Russia! And Australia. Obviously France and Germany and China are important.

Are there a lot of exciting fashion designers coming out of China?

There are some. We’re about to start looking in cities other than London, New York, Milan, and Paris. There are few remaining brands that we want, so we’re going to see a lot of growth from new designers. We picked up Vika Gazinskaya, a young Russian designer, and she’s doing very well.

Tell me about how Net-a-Porter supports young designers.

I’m the chairman of the British Fashion Council, so I spend a lot of time thinking about education and business support and technological support. Here, first of all, we look for young designers with talent. When we put a new designer on Net-a-Porter, they become part of our marketing machine. We’ve got an in-house PR team and external PR teams all over the world. We do press workshops where the new designers are introduced to press in different cities, we do customer workshops where they meet our customers, then we put them on the website, and the content educates. Usually, within about three minutes of going live on Net-a-Porter, they get calls from retailers saying, “We want to pick you up,” which means we’ve got to look continuously for new talent in order to have a unique offering for consumers.

How will Porter magazine be different from Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar?

Ours will be one magazine for a global audience. We’re for the woman who’s in Hong Kong one day and in New York the next, LA the next, and London next. We won’t be talking about the high street. The luxury brands are increasingly looking for global solutions, so for them to get their message across to those consumers simultaneously with one platform is important. Our ability to reach 7 million women with one advertising image is very powerful for them. It will be 100% shoppable—not in a catalog kind of way, but ads, travel, hotels, everything that Porter will inspire you with, you will be able to have a journey to that item. We become a conduit between the inspiration and the journey.

You’re big on Instagram. I follow you. What do you love about social media?

It’s a gift to us! Instagram I love because it’s so positive and beautiful. Everyone’s always, like, hearts and emoticons and thumbs-up and applause. There’s a lot of love, constant reinforcement—“I like this, I like this”—and that’s subliminally sinking into the consciousness. Without being too California or sappy about it, I think it’s an amazing thing.

Do you scan people’s social media sites before you hire them?

Of course. People need to be smart.

Any chance you’ll move back to California?

One day, maybe. It’s such a nice life there. You never really appreciate something until you leave it. It ever I go back and work in film, it would be to produce. Making a business is like producing—you have your concept, you get your director, you get your costume designer, you get your team, your actors, your talent, you make sure it’s financed, you make sure it’s perfect before you put it out and then hopefully you make some money out of it.

A version of this story first appeared in GARAGE Issue 6.