Oyster Interview: Net-A-Porter's Natalie Massenet
"We're rarely satisfied with the status quo."
For Oyster #101, we interviewed the founder of one of the biggest online shopping empires in the history of the internet — Natalie Massenet of Net-A-Porter. Next month on 1 November, Natalie will accept an Award of Achievement in Fashion and Technology from the British Government.
"[Our global team] have achieved a huge amount together, none of which would have been possible without our customers who demand the best service, the best choice and the best edited view of fashion available," Natalie said in a statement.
Oyster Editor Alice Cavanagh met up with Natalie at the Net-A-Porter head office in London in the midst of SS13 Fashion Month. Read our interview from #101 below.
Back in the olden days (ie before the year 2000), women rarely received exciting deliveries. There might be a bunch of flowers here, odds and ends from the Trading Post there, and maybe some vintage from eBay for those who were really savvy, but we had to venture into the outside world in search of the things we really desired. It was basically the Dark Ages.
Relatively speaking this was not so long ago, but in internet years it's prehistoric. For my entire adult life almost everything has been at my fingertips (quite literally) and for some of us packages arrive on a weekly basis. For many women the most exciting deliveries come in the form of a sleek black box tied up with with thick black ribbon edged in white. This particular box has the ability to transform a relatively sane woman into a grinning idiot (no judgement — I am speaking from experience). She could be presenting in a meeting, writing a report, consoling a friend, operating heavy machinery — it all goes out the window the moment that box arrives.
The boxes, of course, come from Net-A-Porter, the company that not only has the ability to distract us from our daily lives, but has actually changed our lives forever. Before Net-A-Porter, women did not buy luxury fashion online — which is precisely the reason Net-A-Porter founder Natalie Massenet started out. "It was really out of frustration, because I was looking for it for myself. I tried to talk my friends (who were fashion designers) into it, but they were all completely uninterested. I also wanted to have an 'I told you so' moment," she adds with a wry smile.
Massenet has had many 'I told you so' moments since then, most recently when the Net-A-Porter group (which includes the men's offering, Mr Porter, and luxury outlet store The Outnet) was valued at 350 million GBP. To balance that out, she was also recently appointed Chairman of the British Fashion Council, an unpaid position that will commence in January 2013. That's not to say that she's a gloater — she's very natural and affable, with a softness to her that the press shots seem to gloss over.
I met with Massenet in the Net-A-Porter office during London Fashion Week. The gargantuan space sits atop the Westfield in Shepherd's Bush and is like a Tom Ford campaign set in the headquarters of some futuristic political party. Everything is monochromatic and sleek and everyone wears high heels. It's like what the Vogue offices should look like, but on steroids.
Massenet's office sits at the end of the main space, a long, open-plan series of workstations where the hundreds of staff work together. Aesthetics aside, the layout reflects an essential part of the business' philosophy. "Everyone counts and it is a very democratic company," says Massenet as we settle down on a pristine white sofa. "Even though I have a separate office, the walls are glass and the doors are always open."
This open-door policy filters down to all parts of the business: TV monitors scattered throughout the floor broadcast global sales in real time. Although the information is there for everyone to see, I have to stop myself from eyeballing the seven-figure number floating around on the screen. No doubt it's a great source of motivation. "Believe me, there are moments when I pinch myself, but there is a constant wanting to always be one step ahead," says Massenet. "It's tremendously motivating — it gives you a reason to get up in the morning. We're rarely satisfied with the status quo."
Massenet started her career in fashion, working for W magazine, WWD and Tatler as a stylist and journalist. At university she majored in English and excelled in creative writing and languages — she now speaks basic Japanese ("I can get myself home from a nightclub. I lived in Tokyo for a year and that was one of the skill sets I adopted"), "bad" Spanish, "fashion" Italian and fluent French.
In the year 2000, thanks to her time working at magazines, she managed to convince a handful of designers — her friends — to take a chance on her online store concept. Tamara Mellon, then at Jimmy Choo, and Roland Mouret were some of the first to sign up. Other people at the time, however, were sceptical. "It was the technology [that scared people], because people were used to technology being a certain way on the web — and the service levels, because we wanted it to be a luxury experience and a visual experience. People would say, 'No, that can't be done' or 'That shouldn't be done; you'll never make money that way.' Then I realised that people will always talk you out of things they don't understand."
"It was a challenge, and in the early days what kept me awake was the fact that a group of 30 people had put their money into the business — if I had the choice between getting some sleep or working a bit more I would imagine their faces. There were the brands, as well; I'd made a promise to them… And then there were the people who quit their jobs and came to work with us. I didn't want to say to them, 'Goodbye, we're shutting down this week.' So, there was a tremendous feeling of responsibility, and that goes all the way down to the customer. I just never ever want to disappoint anybody."
It's a running theme for Massenet, who has laid the foundations of a successful service business by keeping people happy — customers and staff alike. Her previous experience as an employee in the fashion industry ("It was the worst!") taught her some valuable lessons. "I come from the school of thought that, 'This didn't work so well, let's do it a different way,'" she says. "I wanted to create a workplace where people were happy to come in on a Monday morning; where people liked each other and were nice to each other but where they worked very, very hard. People can work hard and respect each other and still enjoy it."
Although Massenet has a tremendous work schedule and is besieged by technology (mostly Apple products), she has no trouble switching off. She admits that when she leaves the office for the day she can be difficult to contact. "When I'm working you have to drag me away from work. When I'm not working you have to drag me back to work." Sleep is one of her favourite pastimes and the snooze button is her daily tormentor. "I wish I could set the alarm and get up when I'm supposed to. I should just set the alarm for when I get up — I set it for 7 am and I get up at 7:30 am, but I like the idea of being someone who gets up at 7 am."
Another passion is reading, and at home her library doubles as a dining room. Although she reads print publications "less and less", she is somewhat romantic about books — and bookshelves. "I love reading and I do read digital books, but I also see books as tremendously decorative. I'm sorry, book publishers, but they're also decorative!" she says, laughing. "Bookshelves are such a powerful testament to who we are as individuals. But if there were a way to digitally print out all of the books I love and that I think encapsulate my personality and my likes and loves and passages of life, and display them in a way in my home so that you get a sense of who I am as an individual, then I would do that."
Reflecting on some other things that offer insight into someone's personality, I can't resist asking about her wardrobe. Does it occupy an entire floor in her house? "I can probably get you a metreage if you like," she says jokingly. "No, but it is a room — I have a dressing room, which is the biggest treat. But people are always really surprised, because I have everything behind doors — they're like, 'Don't you want it all on display?'" So, she likes to be tidy? "Yeah, that's a mess thing. It's all categorised: there's the holiday closet that I only visit twice a year; the shows are all in drawers — there is an entire drawer of gold and sparkly shoes, like these," she says, pointing to her feet.
Despite being a digital pioneer, Massenet doesn't claim to be completely technically adept. "I wouldn't say I'm tech-savvy. I would say that I'm really excited by new things, though, and in a way that makes me the perfect test consumer, because I'm always excited by the new thing and if I need to do something that's not intuitive then you lose me." Fortuitously the constant quest for something new goes hand-in-hand with both fashion and technology. "We constantly have to evolve. In fashion what was hot yesterday will be over today. With technology it's like walking on quicksand, so we have to walk really, really fast so we don't sink, and that's really stimulating…"
At the time of our interview Massenet had just joined Instagram, her first personal foray into social media. Despite her having extensive teams working across social media platforms for all of her brands, she hasn't felt the need to sign up to anything until now. "[The brand] is not my voice, it's not about what I think and what I like … This is the first time that I've looked at a social media [platform] and thought that I could add value. I am really excited. I have fewer followers than my twelve-year-old daughter, but I just launched it a week ago… so I am hoping that will grow!"