c.2013 New York Times News Service

c.2013 New York Times News Service

When Natalie Massenet ascended the stairs of the Carnegie Hall stage in New York a month ago to accept a Woman of the Year trophy from Glamour magazine, she outdid Jennifer Lawrence at the 2013 Oscars ceremony, nearly tripping on her Alessandra Rich white lace gown (soon available for upward of $3,000 at Net-a-Porter, the online luxury retailer she founded) before impaling the hem with her high-heeled sandals.

Time froze. The honoree swayed. Gasps filled the audience, already suffering emotional whiplash from a just-ended tribute to Melinda Gates’ philanthropy, as presenters struggled to disentangle Massenet from her dress.

“Death by stiletto,” she joked limply after at last reaching the podium.

It was a rare awkward moment for a woman who has evolved from scrappy Internet pioneer, peddling designer clothes over pokey modems out of a small apartment in London’s Chelsea neighborhood, to consolidating a power of unusual breadth over the fashion industry.

In 2010, Massenet sold a majority stake in Net-a-Porter to the Swiss holding company Richemont, remaining executive chairman; her brand extensions include the Outnet, a discount site, and Mr. Porter (pronounced the American way) for men, all winging their wares to customers within days, sometimes hours, via branded black vans (surely before long there will be a Jet-a-Porter).

A year ago, she was appointed chairwoman of the British Fashion Council, a role she described with crisp authority in an interview as “thinking big picture, gross domestic product, exports and jobs.”

And while publications like Glamour, Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar turn cartwheels trying to figure out new media, in January the hyper-wired Massenet, 48, is expected to oversee the counterintuitive introduction of Porter (pronounced the French way): a magazine to be sold on newsstands.

“It’s a big beast,” said its editor, Lucy Yeomans, formerly of Harper’s Bazaar UK, promising “lots of journalism” and 40 to 50 pages of features.

Imagine, in other words, Linda Dresner and Frieda Loehmann, both Brooks Brothers; Fern Mallis; and, yes, Anna Wintour rolled into one compact personage and you get some idea of Massenet’s tentacular reach.

“Here you have a woman who really created something that didn’t exist before,” said Roopal Patel, a fashion consultant who formerly worked for one of the company’s competitors, Moda Operandi, fondly recalling Net-a-Porter’s unexpectedly rapid delivery of a one-shouldered red Acme dress for a wedding she had to attend in Anguilla soon after Hurricane Sandy. “She really is a visionary, and not just about online shopping. She is investing in fashion and designers of the future.”

But inevitably Massenet’s ever-expanding brief raises the question of whether she is still minding the store.

“It’s no longer just a mom-and-pop shop,” said Patel, understating the case. The Net-a-Porter group employs almost 3,000 people who work at sleek offices in London, New York, Hong Kong and Shanghai as well as less glamorous fulfillment centers in the outskirts of the first three cities, where expensive items are shrouded in plastic, plucked by robotic arms and rolled unceremoniously in bins down conveyor belts before landing at wrapping stations to be boxed and beribboned by harried-looking humans.

Porter was originally supposed to come out in September, the biggest month for fashion magazines. But “they wanted The Netbook to be first to market,” Yeomans said, referring to a “social shopping” iPad app. (Patel shrugged about the delay. “January seems like an ideal time,” she said. “It’s not midseason.”) In October, Women’s Wear Daily reported on its front page that Net-a-Porter was for sale, prompting denials from both Richemont and Yoox, another competitor said to be interested in acquiring it.

Despite such chatter, Massenet consistently projects a calm that is not just preternatural, to use a favorite adjective of celebrity magazines, but perhaps supernatural as well.


“I see ghosts,” she said in June, sitting in the lobby of the St. Pancras Renaissance hotel during Men’s Fashion Week in London. Befitting her position as hometown ambassador as well as walking advertisement for her websites, she was wearing Frame Denim jeans, a black Temperley blouse and a dramatic jacket by Peter Pilotto wreathed in feathers (the studded shoes, though, were Valentino).

“My father always had people around the house who were famous psychics,” Massenet said, “and people were always crossing rooms to tell me things” — among them, she said, that her purpose in life was to be a leader.


Christened Natalie Rooney, she was an only child. Her mother, Barbara Jones, was a model who had worked for Chanel (“a hot English chick,” Massenet said) whom her father, Robert Rooney, picked up at the Café de Flore; he was a dashing correspondent for United Press International based in Madrid. “He told me stories about visiting Franco and also dancing on tables with Ava Gardner,” his daughter recalled. The family lived in Paris for a while. “To me, America was Disneyland and ice-cream milkshakes and a lot of television channels,” said Massenet, who maintains an indeterminate Continental accent.

Her parents split, and she went to live with her father in Los Angeles, where she longed for social conformity, coveting Ditto jeans in a rainbow of colors and plastic shoes.

“Contrary to popular belief, I’m not always trying to stand out,” Massenet said.


One summer, she went to visit her mother in France and came back with J. Taverniti sweatshirts, “these cool new things that no one else had,” she said. The power was intoxicating. “I remember people going: ‘What is that? What’s going on here?’ And I’d be like, ‘You’ll laugh now, but in six months you’ll all have it.’”

To St. Bernard’s high school prom, she wore a custom-made cocktail-length frock when the other girls were in off-the-rack ballgowns. A fan of “The Great Gatsby” (“I like the American dream part of it,” Massenet said), she wanted to attend Princeton, having a vision of herself crossing the quad in tweeds and Shetland wool. But she enrolled instead at the University of California, Los Angeles, joining Delta Gamma sorority, which she credits with helping her create a woman-friendly work environment.

“Lovely songs,” she said fondly. “Quite ambitious girls.”


Her first job was at GHQ, a small men’s clothing store at the Beverly Center in Los Angeles.


She gave a male colleague rides to work in her yellow Honda Civic, where they would listen to cassette recordings of songs he had written.

“He was like, ‘I’m going to be a star,’ and I was like: ‘That’s great! People have dreams!’” Massenet said dryly. He was Lenny Kravitz.

This was not her last brush with fame in the making.

During a year spent modeling in Tokyo, she met the pop singer Bryan Adams, who she said is now a good friend, and Elvis Costello. She met the director John Hughes while working somewhat narcoleptically as a receptionist at Universal Studios. And at the Italian magazine Moda, she assisted an up-and-coming photographer, Mario Testino.

“He’d call and say, ‘Natalie, I need a pink 1950s convertible, a skateboarder, three young actresses, a surfer, a white poodle and a white horse, this afternoon in Topanga Canyon,’” Massenet said. “And I was like, ‘OK, I’ll sort that out.’”


She moved to Women’s Wear Daily and then Tatler, where she worked with the great eccentric Isabella Blow as well as Yeomans, who said: “I thought of her as super smart, super sassy. I remember her coming into the office, she’d been shooting a celebrity in LA for the magazine, and had picked up this little vintage embroidered cashmere cardigan, and suddenly we all wanted embroidered cashmere cardigans.” She paused before adding, “Of course, she’d picked it up for $10 and we all paid hundreds of pounds.”

In 1997, Natalie wed Arnaud Massenet, an investment banker whom she had met at a carnival in Notting Hill; the marriage lasted 15 years (she did not want to discuss it) and produced two daughters, who also are hyper-wired: Isabella, 14, and Ava, almost 8.

“We have to keep 18,000 chargers in the house,” Massenet said.

Though the luxury market has hardly been shy about branding babies and toddlers, she has not yet introduced a Net-a-Potty.

“I don’t have time to deliver on it right now, but I do think there’s space to do something for the preteens, especially since they’re so connected,” she said.

It’s not all point and click at chez Massenet: Tamara Mellon, a founder of Jimmy Choo and an early investor in Massenet’s site who now sells her designs there, described high-spirited barbecues with their children and “huge blown-up swans in the pool” in the Hamptons.

“We’ll hang out on a Sunday afternoon and have lunch and literally be in sweatpants and not worry about it,” she said, though “honestly there was no guarantee she would take my product. I have to tell you I was a little nervous. If she didn’t like it — oh, my God.”

Indeed, despite a mild, accessible manner and a prolific presence on Instagram (where she, inevitably, goes by the handle nataporter), Massenet’s influence is such that, like the more remote Wintour, her mere presence produces genuflection from designers.

This was evident backstage at the Alexander McQueen men’s show in London, where she complimented Sarah Burton on the collection and asked about her baby, and at a Net-a-party the night before the Met’s Costume Institute gala last spring, attended by some talents she has consistently championed, like Vera Wang and Erdem, and others she has not.

“This is my friend Chris Benz,” said one guest, bringing over the young, pink-haired designer to shake hands. And, reverently: “This is Natalie Massenet!”

Later, Benz declined to discuss his hostess, pointing out that his line has not been carried on Net-a-Porter in some time.

“We don’t necessarily drop designers,” Massenet said with diplomacy. “We will pass on a season. If the collections aren’t good, then we don’t put them on the site. We tend to buy a lot, so we can move the needle on certain things, which is an enormous responsibility.”

This was the morning of the gala, and she was in a conference room in her New York offices, mulling where to get a pedicure for that evening, when she would be welcomed by Wintour, who could be seen as her imminent competitor, though Massenet denied this.

“We think it’s a continuation of our service,” she said of the forthcoming magazine. “It will be entirely shoppable, ads will be shoppable — we’re going to try and create something completely new there.”

Obviously it will be no Godey’s Lady’s Book, and yet. ...

“I know it sounds crazy,” Massenet said. “It’s not for the fainthearted, but we’re a multimedia company, and in the same way that you have to have a Facebook page and an Instagram account and be on mobile and have a website, you also need to be in print.”

As Porter is promised to be, the figure of Natalie Massenet was also entirely shoppable, in a Saint Laurent white shirt and jacket, jeans and — life by stiletto — glittery high-heeled shoes, again Valentino.

“Kanye, who I don’t know, was in the hotel this morning, and I walked by trying to be discreet, give him and Kim some space, and they stopped me,” Massenet said with wonderment. “They’re like, ‘We want to take an Instagram picture of your shoes.’ And I was like, ‘I know where you can get those.’”