LONDON — Even in gray London, L.A. native Natalie Massenet has managed to carve out a bit of sunlight for her Net-a-Porter .com offices -- tucking them under the striking glass dome of Whiteley's shopping center. There is something poetic about this online fashion queen having her offices in a bricks-and-mortar retail relic named after William Whiteley, who opened one of London's first department stores here in 1863.
He was as much a visionary in his day as Massenet is in hers. The former fashion editor has been challenging the rules of retail since she launched her website in June 2000, starting with convincing fashion brands that the Internet was about more than discounting, and that $1,500 handbags really would sell online.
Massenet did this and more, bringing 200 brands to her online store, alongside top 10 lists and runway reports with an editorial point of view. She distinguished her site from then-competitors Boo.com and ShoppingTheWorld by focusing on packaging and customer service, with same-day delivery available in London and New York.
Beyond creating just one impressive site, she reinvented the way we shop. Massenet paved the way for luxury online, and now all designers have e-tail sites, including Marni, Yves Saint Laurent and Stella McCartney. Following her lead, department store sites evolved into mini-magazines with trend reports and blog posts. She also proved to shoppers that buying clothing online could be easy.
At Net-a-Porter, each garment has notes about size and fit, including exact measurements of sleeve and hem lengths, a practice other stores are replicating.
Now, Massenet is on the cusp of the next retail leap: collapsing the six-month runway-to-rack cycle to just hours.
"Natalie is the one who officially made Web shopping chic," says handbag designer Anya Hindmarch, an early recruit to the site. "She succeeded where others didn't see it through. She buys with utter conviction, knows her customer and is a savvy marketer."
Although Massenet is a front-row fixture at the runway shows, she's less a fashion creature of the editor-in-chief variety than she is a businesswoman. She is quiet, firm and generally dresses in more conservative pieces. But they are the most chic conservative pieces you've ever seen.
Net-a-Porter was started with $1 million, and after eight years, business is booming. In 2006, the site had revenues of $73.9 million. Los Angeles is the second biggest market in the U.S. because it's "paparazzi-free shopping," Massenet says, and it has some of the largest single orders, including one for $40,000.
Now that the Internet has come of age, runway photos travel around the world at lightning speed, and copies of garments land in stores before the designer originals. So, earlier this year, Massenet shortened the time it takes for a dress to travel from the runway to your closet from six months to 48 hours, when she struck a deal with Halston to sell two looks from the fall collection the day after the show on Net-a-Porter. Although she won't say how much inventory there was, it sold out in 45 minutes.
"The fashion cycle is outdated," Massenet says, dressed in a sparkly, black Burberry Prorsum skirt, and sipping tea near the bank of computers that is sending luxury out to 150 countries.
"In the last five years, the consumer is more educated than ever. She gets to see the runway shows at the same time as the buyers and the editors, yet we are still treating her as if she hasn't seen them -- telling her what's happened and making her wait six months to buy it in the stores. We're telling her it's all about pointy-toed shoes next season, when what's in the stores now is round-toed shoes.
"You can't tell the customer that it's about two different things. She'll skip the round toe and go straight to the pointy toe, because that's what's coming next."
Massenet grew up in the Ladera Heights neighborhood of L.A. Her parents were divorced, and she spent most of her time with her dad, a PR man. She remembers carpooling to her job at the Beverly Center with pal Lenny Kravitz, who was working retail before he conquered the music biz. In the summers, she traveled to France to see her mother, a house model for Chanel.
After graduating from UCLA in 1987, Massenet landed in the film business, working as a production assistant on "Warm Summer Rain" and other forgettable titles. Then she got a call from Yul Brenner's daughter Victoria, who was starting a bureau for the Italian fashion magazine Moda, and wanted Massenet to help.
She styled Milla Jovovich and Kim Basinger for shoots before being hired in the West Coast office of Women's Wear Daily in 1993. Massenet was well on her way to the masthead when she met future husband Arnaud Massenet, an investment banker, during a summer jaunt to Notting Hill Carnival in London.