Women Empowerment: Net-a-Porter Founder Natalie Massenet
Credited with revolutionizing the luxury retail industry through her founding of the designer fashion e-commerce platform Net-a-Porter, Natalie Massenet’s passion and drive is an inspiration to women in business around the world. Her path to success most certainly had its ups and downs, but what success story doesn’t?! Today we share Natalie Massenet’s story while applauding her ambition and all that she has done for the fashion industry in hopes it inspires and empowers women around the world!
Natalie founded Net-a-Porter from her kitchen table in London’s Chelsea district in 2000 and grew it to astounding heights before her sudden, and reportedly not-so-friendly, departure from the company in 2015 (more to come on this!) But like any ambitious entrepreneur, Natalie’s separation from the company she poured her blood, sweat and tears into creating far from signifies the end of her career! Currently she serves as the chairwoman of the British Fashion Council, a role she took on in 2013, and in February of 2017 she made it apparent she is not finished putting her stamp on the fashion industry and joined Net-a-Porter’s competitor Farfetch as a non-executive co-chairman.
Born in Los Angeles to former British Chanel model and Sophia Loren movie stand-in Barbara Jones, and American journalist and film publicist Bob Rooney, Natalie was raised in Paris until age 11 when her family moved back to LA. Shortly after her parents split, she stayed in LA with her father and her mother moved back to Paris. In an interview with 032c, Natalie recalls, “My mom basically exited my life when I was about to become a teenager. I didn’t understand that. I guess I still don’t.”
Surely influenced by her parents careers, Natalie dreamed of becoming a magazine editor, well not just any magazine editor, she wanted to be “the magazine editor” – remember we said we were writing about Natalie to applaud her ambition?! After studying English Literature at UCLA, Natalie spent a year in Tokyo working as a model and stylist. She then returned to LA where she worked a brief stint as a receptionist at Universal Studios before taking what she calls her first “real job” at age 25 as a photographer’s assistant for the LA-based Italian magazine Moda. Then in 1990 she landed her first dream job as the West Coast editor for Women’s Wear Daily.
After a few years with WWD, in 1996 Natalie decided to move to London and take a job with Tatler magazine in hopes it would bring her closer to landing her ultimate dream job. In 1997 Natalie met and married her first husband Arnaud Massenet, a French hedge fund manager, the pair has two daughters together. Natalie soon realized that Tatler was not the magazine for her and left her job there in 1998 to peruse a freelance career and contemplate her next move. Seeing a market for selling luxury goods online and an opportunity to merge commerce and content – the idea for Net-a-Porter was born.
Natalie launched Net-a-Porter in 2000 as the first luxury online shopping platform displaying outfits in an editorial format while allowing consumers to click and buy. “People always say to me ‘You’ve strived to redefine retail’ but the reality is I wanted to redefine magazines,” she told The Observer. “From the start we were always trying to blend the two, to buy [clothes and labels] in the same way a fashion editor would choose them.”
Pregnant with her first child and with no experience starting a business, Natalie relied on her passion, unwavering motivation and a helping hand from her husband during the early days of Net-a-Porter. “I was so naïve,” she said in an interview. “I picked up a brochure from Barclays Bank that said ‘Are you an entrepreneur?’ and took it home with me. Then my husband explained the basics of capitalism.” In 2011 Natalie and Arnauld split, but in interviews she credits him with giving her the support and confidence to set up Net-a-Porter and helping her to raise £1.2 million in investment capital to get the business off the ground.
Net-a-Porter was a business at the forefront of change, in the early 2000’s online shopping was in its infancy and luxury designers were very resistant to selling outside of a physical retail outlet, but Natalie was determined and in 2001 persuaded Roland Mouret to sell his first collection via the site. By 2004, the company was profitable and won the best fashion shop award at the British Fashion Awards – Natalie had begun a revolution!
Natalie made the first expansion to Net-a-Porter in 2009 adding the fashion discount site The Outnet. Looking to continue to grow, in April of 2010 Natalie sold a £50 million stake in the company to the Swiss luxury goods conglomerate Compagnie Financière Richemont, owner of Cartier and Montblanc. She stayed on as executive chairman and in 2011 the group added the menswear site, Mr. Porter followed by a beauty component in 2013. In 2014 Natalie instilled more of her love for editorial launching a print magazine, Porter, with ex-Tatler colleague and former Harper’s Bazaar editor Lucy Yeomans. Then in 2015 things took a surprising turn.
Unbeknownst to Natalie, Richemont announced it was merging Net-a-Porter with Italian online fashion group Yoox. Aside from the hurt of being blindsided by the company she founded and having concerns over the rationale for the merger, Natalie was particularly insulted by the mergers valuation of Net-a-Porter which was set at an equal value to Yoox of £950 million. Was this just business, or were pompous men intentionally pushing Natalie out? According to Richemont and Yoox it was just business, but we are certainly inclined to read some gender inequality at play.
In an effort to take back her company Natalie reached out to Carmen Busquets, Net-a-Porter’s first major investor. Equally enraged by being left out of the decision to merge, Carmen and Natalie joined forces to see if they could find a way to save the business from the merger – or, at the very least, make sure Net-a-Porter was sold at a fair market value. The pair convened an emergency meeting of company management and quickly assembled a group of respected investors who agreed to back a management buyout, valuing the business at between £1.3 billion and £1.5 billion. Richemont instantly rejected the MBO. Natalie was distraught, but once again her passion and drive prevailed, clearly seeing the deal was going to happen whether she approved of it or not Natalie decided to stay her course and continue to support the company she founded.
Federico Marchetti, founder of Yoox, had a different plan – appointed CEO in the merger, he made it clear in a post-merger interview with the Financial Times that although Natalie was to serve as the executive chairman of the new entity, he and he alone was the new boss. Internal affairs aside, Natalie, Carmen and the rest of Net-a-Porter’s upper management team continued to battle Richemont regarding the company’s valuation. An independent arbitration process ensued and after much deliberation a £1.45 billion valuation was decided on. This was not quite what Natalie and Net-a-Porter management were looking for, but at more than £500 million higher than originally determined by the merger deal it was certainly a victory. Natalie took home over £100 million as a result, but this of course did not change the fact that the merger with Yoox was still going forward as planned and shortly thereafter Natalie made what must have been a heart wrenching decision to step down and walk away from her baby!
In September 2015, Natalie announced her departure from Net-a-Porter with an eloquent statement that made it clear this would not be the last we heard from her, “My entrepreneurial drive is as strong today as it always has been, and my passion for innovation will continue to be my greatest guide in business.” She also reportedly sent a long email to Net-a-Porter’s team informing them of her decision and telling them “to strive to be the best, lead, exceed expectations, be smart and stylish, but still service others” — which suitably created the acronym BLESS and clearly showed Natalie’s admirable leadership style.
After leaving Net-a-Porter, Natalie focused on her role as chair of the British Fashion Council and in 2016 was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in recognition of her contributions to the UK fashion and retail industries. And now, as she suggested in her departure statement from Net-a-Porter, and in a beautiful f-you to Richemont (probably not her intention but an added bonus for sure!), she has returned to the world of fashion e-commerce as the non-executive co-chairman of Net-a-Porter’s competitor Farfetch where she is working closely with its founder and CEO José Neves.
On her new role, Natalie told the Business of Fashion, “I’m so excited to be jumping back in. This is the space I know and love. For me it is about — and it always have been — celebrating fashion, serving the consumers and following the consumers. The landscape has changed so much in e-commerce over the last 20 years. In order to succeed in e-commerce today you have to be more of a platform. And rather than starting something from scratch, it’s much better to join the expert in the area.”
Life might throw you lemons and salt, but if it does follow in Natalie Massenet’s footsteps and make a margarita! The future is bright for this super woman, in addition to her new venture at Farfetch, Natalie announced in September of 2017 via Instagram, at age 52, that she and her partner, Swedish photographer and co-founder of multi-media fashion marketing agency the Saturday Group Erik Torstensson, 38, have welcomed a son into their lives thanks to the ‘most generous help’ of a surrogate.
Congratulations Natalie Massenet, and thank you for all that you do for women empowerment!
Words of Wisdom from Natalie:
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