Natalie Massenet: The queen of e-tail

The pioneering founder of Net-a-Porter transformed online fashion by giving women exactly what they want. With the imminent launch of her website for men, she might just do it all over again

'Chic" is not a word readily associated with the internet and its quirky-bordering-on-sordid vagaries.

But one woman has changed the sartorial face of cyberspace with a business plan that catapulted fashion fans and designers alike into a new era of luxury consumption. Natalie Massenet MBE, founder and chairman of designer shopping website Net-a-Porter.com, is one of fashion's great pioneers, taking the industry not only into previously uncharted and challenging territory, but also into its own future.

The company has scored year-on-year profits annually since its inception in June 2000 and was bought last year by Swiss luxury goods group Richemont, which also owns Cartier and Chloé. Massenet, 45, who started her business with about £1.2m, was said to have received £50m from the sale, which valued Net-a-Porter at £350m. It's a far cry from the site's beginnings at the kitchen table of a Chelsea studio flat more than a decade ago, where Massenet worked with only two other employees. She has said recently that she receives 2,500 emails a week from jobseekers.

The reason for such interest is, of course, that Massenet's star is in the ascendant: this month alone sees the launch of a digital TV channel, a print magazine and the eagerly awaited men's site, Mr Porter. It is expected to become as astronomically successful as its womenswear counterpart, which attracts 11,000 new users every month. Massenet not only has the Midas touch, she also has an uncanny, bloodhound-esque instinct for progression and profitability.

"Natalie possesses a remarkable ability to feel the moment, and to understand people's needs and desires before they know them," said Christopher Bailey, chief creative officer of Burberry, in 2008. And, said the editor of Harper's Bazaar, Lucy Yeomans, "She has the knack of knowing exactly what women want. She's very smart and hardworking, but it's her incredible taste that is at the heart of Net-a-Porter's success."

Natalie Massenet was born in May 1965 to a Californian journalist and a British model, and spent her childhood moving between Paris, LA and Madrid. She was 11 when her parents divorced and chose to remain in the US with her father, who scrimped to provide her with a rigorous – and rather expensive – education. "I was surrounded by some very wealthy people," she told Vogue in an interview last year. "I realised at a certain point that if I was going to have the sort of life I fantasised about, I needed to get my act together. No one was going to do it for me."

This attitude lies at the heart of her fashion empire, which raked in a turnover of more than £120m last year. Massenet was awarded her MBE in 2009 for services to the fashion industry, and was named Harper's Bazaar Innovator of the Year in 2010, the year that Net-a-Porter celebrated its 10th birthday and notched up its millionth customer. Last year also saw the release of an iPad app (one of the first of the shopping ilk) and marked a year of excellent trading on Net-a-Porter's sister website, The Outnet – where customers can buy past season designer clothing at heavily discounted prices.

Massenet's schtick is providing service not only at the highest possible level, but at its most basic function. Her ideas are simple and practical; above all, they make people's lives easier.

There is an innate pragmatism to all of her schemes: people want top-end designer fashion and kid-glove treatment without leaving their homes. She delivers it to them (often within 48 hours) in acres of tissue paper, sleek, matte black boxes and beribboned bags, a type of packaging straight out of the golden age of couture. For designer fashion at affordable prices she has The Outnet, with up to 70 per cent off original prices and regular online auctions, during which pieces are known to sell out in minutes. People want designer fashion but aren't interested in being flashy about it – she offers an alternative packaging option, an anonymous brown cardboard box. The website also has a team of personal stylists, who are available on email and Twitter, to answer your every fashion query.

"We will have a wealth of information, tips, facts, advice and inspiration," says Toby Bateman, buying director of the forthcoming Mr Porter, "all there to make your experience with us as enjoyable and informative as possible. And if you don't like what you've bought, we'll take it back – simple as that." Before online giants such as Net-a-Porter and ASOS (which launched in the same month at Massenet's site) became our quotidian, customers were wary of buying clothes they hadn't tried on, touched or been guided to by a shop assistant. Especially when those clothes had designer price tags. (The most expensive piece on the site is an Alexander McQueen cape for £28,660.) Her insistence on luxury is the basis of her success. If anyone has become the face of e-tail, it is without doubt Massenet. "Natalie was first in – and best dressed," says Chris Colfer, chief executive of Alfred Dunhill and one of Massenet's first investors.

The reason behind her success, and her "clued-up" reputation, is that Natalie Massenet is, to use the industry vernacular, "proper fashion". She cut her teeth at publications such as W, Women's Wear Daily and Tatler, where she worked in fashion cupboards and on shoots, before becoming a fashion editor. She also worked as assistant to the late Isabella Blow at The Sunday Times, but the glimmerings of entrepreneurial spirit were never far from her mind. Readers would call in wondering how they could buy pieces from the magazines and Massenet realised that it was a very small number of women who had shops such as Dior and Fendi anywhere near their front doors. Her aim with Net-a-Porter was to provide an online magazine format from which readers could buy directly. "Twice I let people talk me out of good ideas," she has admitted in the past. "Coffee house and scented candles. I know I have good instincts and this was a complete intersection of everything I knew as a fashion editor – trends, magazines, and I had a Rolodex of contacts."

Those contacts included designers such as Anya Hindmarch and Roland Mouret, who were among the first to sell on the site. Chloé accessories joined in 2003, Burberry Prorsum in 2005 and Stella McCartney in 2006. Massenet is an excellent networker and moves in a sophisticated London set of financiers and their wives. She is herself married to Arnaud Massenet, a hedge-fund manager, who worked at Lehman Brothers at the time of Net-a-Porter's birth and provided both a fiscal and figurative helping hand to his wife. They have two daughters.

"The thing about Natalie is that she has an abundance of charm, but she never falters far from the line," her friend Jane Gottschalk told Vogue. "She doesn't get over-emotional. She's an approachable boss." That original team of three, gathered around the kitchen table, has since grown to more than 1,000, working in four locations in London and New York. Several of them have also become millionaires.

Massenet's HQ for many years was the dome at Whiteleys in Bayswater, but the company moved last year into premises in west London's Westfield mall. The gargantuan shopping centre which opened during the world's worst recession, playing host to the flashing-eyed and impeccably slick internet operation, provides an interesting allegory for the modern fashion consciousness.

It's like the birds that feed from hippopotamus' teeth and, in doing so, clean them. Massenet hasn't just revolutionised internet fashion. She has shaken up high street shopping too. It's thanks to her site that people are more fashion literate than ever before, thanks to her that everyone can know exactly what the must-have jeans of the season look like. No wonder those CVs are flooding in.

A life in brief

Born: Natalie Rooney, 13 May 1965, Los Angeles.

Family: Her father was an American journalist and film publicist, her mother a British model. She is married to the investment banker Arnaud Massenet; they have two daughters.

Education: Has a BA in English literature from UCLA.

Career: After working for the director John Hughes, she began her career in fashion in 1993, at Women's Wear Daily in LA. Moved to London in 1997 to be closer to her husband-to-be and joined Tatler magazine, of which she later became fashion editor. She founded the online boutique Net-a-Porter in 2000 and is about to launch Mr Porter, a men's shopping site. Sold her stake in Net-a-Porter for £50m last year; awarded the MBE in 2009.

She says: "I've taken the love of fashion from my mother and journalism from my father. He always taught me not to be afraid of what was on the other side of the mountain."

They say: "She's incredible to look at but she's as sharp as a tack and a very good operator." Jeremy Langmead, editor in chief of Mr Porter

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