LONDON, United Kingdom - When Natalie Massenet talks, people listen. It wasn't always that way. When Massenet first proposed the idea of selling luxury products online in 1999, she faced more than a few doubters. Nobody doubts her now.
Frequently described as one of the most influential women in the fashion business, as Chairman and Founder of NET-A-PORTER, Massenet has built the pre-eminent online luxury destination, incorporating a clever commerce-meets-content approach that is squarely targeted at a woman that she always seems to have on her mind. It is this laser focus that has kept NET-A-PORTER at the top of its game, becoming the benchmark for luxury ecommerce retailers around the world.
In the first in a series of CEO Talks to understand how fashion entrepreneurs and business leaders are combating the economic downturn, we sat down with Natalie to get her views on the prospects for online luxury.
One thing NET-A-PORTER is famous for is its deluxe, 1950's style packaging complete with traditional black boxes and silk ribbons and with clothes nestled in layers of tissue paper. So, when Massenet launched a new discreet packaging service, I speculated about the rationale behind the latest move by this fashion maverick.
BoF: First things first. Tell us about the discreet packaging service NET-A-PORTER has just launched. It wasn't really about the downturn at all?
While the timing was certainly good in terms of coinciding neatly with a desire for inconspicuous consumption, we have been working on this for a while due to customer demand. Even without an economic downturn women sometimes want to keep their shopping habits to themselves. Don't forget we have moved the store to our customers desks and many women shop at work (which by the way doesn't mean they are not being effective at work, hello multi-tasking, and hello no more long lunch breaks) but does mean they are not necessarily broadcasting their spending habits either. In essence, this initiative came about in response to so many of our customers saying to us "I love shopping with you and I adore your packaging but I get embarassed when huge parcels arrive at work and everyone in the office knows I have been shopping."
It's interesting because people have said NET-A-PORTER has evolved into a luxury brand over the last few years and point to our packaging as part of this positioning. We will continue to celebrate it because it lifts the online experience to joyful levels, but we should not forget that we are a service company as well, one that delivers seamlessly to women worldwide whenever and wherever they want. In our capacity as service providers we owe it to our consumer to offer her various options for how she wants to shop, we shouldn't impose rules on her. Ultimately, the service and selection that we provide is the luxury we offer to our customers. Plus, it's easier to hide a brown bag in the back of the closet too...I'm a woman, I understand this.
BoF: About that downturn, reports I am hearing say that while bricks-and-mortar retail sales are dropping fast, online sales are still growing, albeit more slowly than had been expected. How is NET-A-PORTER faring?
We are growing according to plan this year and are encouraged by the continuing numbers of new customers. We of course are not above deep intakes of breath and thinking carefully about the next 18 months, so we continue to focus on what makes our customers turn to us; a great edited buy with new designers driving new traffic - we are adding Lanvin and Givenchy in a few weeks, and a great selection of new designers in the Spring; access to exclusive desirable product from great existing brands such as the Alexander McQueen pre-spring collection, a range of exclusive dresses from the designer Roland Mouret, an exclusive cruise collection of dresses by Preen to name some of the most recent; and converting new customers in growing markets such as Europe, the Middle East, and the Far East.
Next year will be interesting, but as online retailing in general is growing from a smaller base than bricks and mortar, it should continue to acquire new customers at a rate faster than it will lose customers who are tightening their belts.
BoF: In these tough economic times, what are you expecting from the designer brands you work with? What can brands do to stand out and gain the attention of the NET-A-PORTER customer?
Our brands delivered beautiful collections for the Spring and when the product goes live it should at the very least drive a lot of desire. We had some seasons in the past that would have been harder to sell even in good economic times. New trends - rock and roll, grunge, 80's, new products - harem pants, jumpsuits, designer loungewear are all new things that our fashion consumer will pick up one way or another.
Designers have to remember they are designing clothes to help women look and feel great. When a figure enhancing dress by the designer Roland Mouret or luxurious 'stay-at-home' ultra soft cashmere pieces hit our virtual shelves women will still pay for that.
BoF: One theory holds that in a economic downturn, people purchase discreet classic looking clothes that don't scream money. Another says that consumers look for escapism; something that stands out and is worth a splurge. What do you think?
We love both. Right now we are championing escapist discreet clothes - ie cashmere loungewear. If you are going to escape do it right and this can mean just staying at home. Ultimately we cater for both trends and looking great still counts - our customers still have film premieres, first dates, cocktail parties and holidays to attend. And because we are a fashion company above all, we celebrate new fashion trends, educate our consumer on why they are exciting, and then offer them to her on a silver tray (or a brown bag). And back to our offer again, it is both discreet and escapist and, according to our customers, deeply satisfying.
BoF: Okay, I know that it's still officially under wraps, but your new off-price retailing venture theOutnet.com is creating waves of interest in the London fashion community. What can you share with us about this new venture and what will NET-A-PORTER bring that is not already on offer?
We are very excited about this new brand which will have its own unique offering but this is not an entirely new market and area for us. We have had an online sale business for 8 years on NET-A-PORTER and it's time to give the sale customer a place she can call her own. That's all I'm saying otherwise I will get in trouble with my team!
Natalie Massenet photo, courtesy of the Chicago Tribune.
CEO Talk is BoF’s forum for in-depth discussions with the fashion industry’s global decision makers, conducted by founder and editor-in-chief Imran Amed.
This interview has been edited and condensed.