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Natalie Massenet Says to Create the Future, Follow the Consumer

  • Vikram Alexei Kansara

LONDON, United Kingdom — Over the last several months, all eyes have been on the world's leading luxury fashion etailer: Net-a-Porter. And for good reason.

In March, the business was acquired by Swiss luxury group Richemont at a total valuation of £350 million. In June, the company revealed the upcoming launch of Mr. Porter, a dedicated luxury menswear offering. And just a few weeks ago, Net-a-Porter, which was launched during the first internet boom, celebrated ten years in business.

At this pivotal moment in the company's history, BoF editor-in-chief Imran Amed sat down with founder and chairman Natalie Massenet for the second installment of Fashion Pioneers, a series of intimate live conversations between Mr. Amed and the fashion industry's most interesting operators, brought to you by The Business of Fashion.

Held at Net-a-Porter's cavernous new headquarters on the top floor of London's Westfield shopping centre, attended by key industry figures like Sarah Mower, Jonathan Saunders and Gareth Pugh, and streamed live to a global audience online, the evening was full of exciting revelations — including the world debut of Net-a-Porter's new iPad application, which was specially expedited through Apple's approval process just in time for the event — and was threaded together by a consistent and powerful theme: in today's fast-evolving world, the path to meaningful innovation begins with the consumer. (RSS and email subscribers, please see the video of edited highlights here.)

But it's important to remember that behind the tremendous success story of Net-a-Porter lies a personal story of entrepreneurship rooted in confidence and optimism. Indeed, Ms. Massenet opened the conversation with a reference to a book she read before starting Net-a-Porter. Titled Creative Visualization, the volume focuses on using the power of the imagination to realise goals.

On her own visualisation, Ms. Massenet, a former editor at WWD and Tatler, said: "Rather than imagining Net-a-Porter, I imagined that I would be involved in a media business. It was a big white space, with lots of light and lots of young people walking around, working, smiling." But while Net-a-Porter is most often described as a luxury etailer, what Natalie Massenet has created could equally be described as a new kind of media business: a luxury fashion magazine that's shopable. "I definitely think of myself as an editor," said Ms. Massenet. "I think that a successful retailer thinks like an editor, certainly today when you can use the internet to shop, literally, off a page."

But today, with the explosive growth of fashion blogging and social shopping platforms like Polyvore and ShopStyle, end consumers can become editors, stylists and a merchandisers themselves, creating looks for others to see and shop. Pressed on how the social media revolution has impacted Net-a-Porter, Ms. Massenet was unequivocal: "It drives our business."

“There is a great egalitarianism going on online,” she continued. But Massenet clearly understands that in luxury fashion, selective socialising is the name of the game. Net-a-Porter currently operates an “invitation-only” affiliate program and works with around 430 bloggers and websites around the world who have been “hand-picked because they are relevant in the fashion industry,” she said. “We like the way they look, the way they talk, their professionalism. They drive traffic and they drive sales.”

Social media can also drive consumer insights and intelligence, said Ms. Massenet, relating the story of her accidental announcement of Net-a-Porter's plans to launch The Outnet, a discount sales site, at a bloggers' lunch a year ago. "The fact that we announced to the bloggers that we were going to create The Outnet created all this feedback that started coming in on the internet about what their expectations were about the new brand — and we listened," she explained. "We actually used the feedback that was coming from our future consumers and future partners and built it into our own strategy."

But the world of digital luxury is still a largely undefined territory. “I’m not sure that any of the rules have been written yet. There’s still room for people to improvise,” she emphasised. However, there may be a limit on how much luxury innovators can learn from other digital businesses. “I think it would have been very dangerous for us when we started Net-a-Porter to have looked at the online world, which was at that time Yahoo and Amazon, and said okay that’s the way we need to build a fashion business, because then it would have been full of blue underlines and lists and completely uninspiring visually,” she said.

Since the recent Richemont acquisition, industry observers have been watching for signs on how the transaction would impact the way Net-a-Porter operates. Specifically, there has been speculation on whether the Richemont deal might impact the site's product mix. On this point Ms. Massenet was clear: "The message that I have shared with Johann Rupert, the owner of Richemont, is that Net-a-Porter has to remain independent," she said. "The buying team buy what they like. We work very closely with the Gucci Group, with LVMH, with the Prada group. We are entirely independent."

Turning to the future launch of Mr. Porter, the dedicated luxury menswear site tentatively due to launch in January 2011, Ms. Massenet emphasised that their strategy was based first and foremost on understanding the needs and wants of the consumer: “The women’s business is driven by trends and newness,” she said. “We believe what men really like is to look great — great style.”

“The service is going to be different, the brand is going to be different, the packaging is going to be different, the voice, the tone is going to be different,” she continued. “Why? Because we’re thinking about the customer.”

Having laser-focused insights that enable her to anticipate and answer the real needs and desires of today’s active, mobile and digitally-enabled luxury fashion consumers has been, without doubt, the most important secret to Natalie Massenet’s success as a true fashion pioneer. Indeed, when asked to interpret the personal significance of an Abraham Lincoln quote that’s permanently installed near her desk — “The best way to predict the future is to create it” — Ms. Massenet explained her key innovation strategy: “The most important thing, certainly today, is to follow the consumer. Technology and the consumer are changing so quickly.”

“Women are working, they are making their own money; by moving the store to the desk, we were able to create the future of shopping,” she said. But today, building a website is no longer enough. “The consumer is in the back of a cab, with her iPhone or her Blackberry, on her iPad, she’s tweeting an outfit that her friend is wearing and desperately trying to find out where she got her shoes online. Part of creating the future is to follow this consumer.”

This imperative gave rise to the new Net-a-Porter iPad application, a weekly shopable magazine which not only allows for a more mobile, decentralised shopping experience, but more closely integrates commerce and fashion content than ever before: “The dream was always to make a shopping magazine,” she said. “With the iPad you can actually merge the magazine experience with shopping.”

The new iPad app is only one of a staggering ten ongoing new technology workstreams currently underway at Net-a-Porter. Indeed, in the traditionally closed and hierarchical world of luxury fashion, Ms. Massenet’s “follow the consumer” mantra has rather profound and wide-reaching implications that stretch beyond the company she founded.

When asked about how to fix the dysfunctional fashion cycle that currently means stores are full of cashmere in the middle of the summer and shoppers have to wait 5-6 months to buy a piece of clothing they’ve seen in a streaming runway show, Ms. Massenet, again, puts herself in the mind of the consumer: “There can’t be anything more frustrating than being shown something really beautiful and wonderful that you want, particularly if it’s weather appropriate, and not being able to get it.”

Indeed, Ms. Massenet advocates realigning the fashion calendar to better suit consumers, re-imagining fashion shows as consumer-facing experiences — not insider industry events — that are in sync with what’s currently available in stores. In order to operationalise this sweeping idea, true to form, Ms. Massenet has a wonderfully clever and simply idea: “I don’t think we need to do anything more complicate than skip a season.”

Fashion Pioneers was filmed by Pundersons Gardens. Many thanks to our friends from the fashion blogosphere who live-streamed the event to a global audience. Plans for our next Fashion Pioneers talk are already underway. Stay tuned to BoF for further details.

A selection of images from the event, held at the Net-a-Porter headquarters in London.

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