What Natalie Massenet quitting Net-a-Porter says about the growth of e-tailers from start-ups to billion-dollar brands

Founder of e-commerce titan leaves midway through merger with Italian company Yoox

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 September, 2015, 1:20pm
UPDATED : Friday, 04 September, 2015, 4:08pm

The announcement in March that Italian e-commerce giant Yoox and Net-a-Porter were merging after the former bought the latter for a reported £936 million (HK$11 billion) made immediate headlines in the industry. But this week came the bigger news  that Net-a-Porter’s founder, Natalie Massenet,  is leaving the brand midway through the merger.  

 To some fashion insiders, this doesn’t come as a big surprise. Rumours had been flying for a while that Yoox founder and chief executive Federico Marchetti  (who becomes the new chief executive officer of Net-a-Porter) and Massenet did not  see eye to eye on the direction of the business.

We saw signs of internal struggle earlier this year, when we arranged an interview with Massenet to talk about the merger,  only to have it abruptly cancelled  at the last minute.

The timing of Massenet’s departure  is interesting, however, as she  gave an interview to Bloomberg TV in late June indicating that she was “staying put” in the organisation post-merger.

Massenet, 50,  will receive a payout “in excess” of £73 million to walk away. But looking past dollars and figures, her departure is sad news for many of the designers she’s been working with since she started Net-a-Porter from the living room of her London flat in 2000. Her redefining of the fashion retail industry and chairing of the British Fashion Council has been an inspiration for many fashion entrepreneurs.

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
Natalie Massenet, e-commerce entrepreneur

In a statement released online, Massenet said: “The business I started could not be in better shape today. Having joined forces with Yoox Group, the company will be bigger, stronger and superbly well positioned under Federico’s leadership to lead the industry and create the future of fashion. As for my own future, 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.”

There’s been a sense of déjà vu in the industry,  given that Asos,  Britain’s largest online fashion portal, is also losing its co-founder and chief executive. Nick Robertson  announced he would step down last week – but he will at least remain as a non-executive director. The fast fashion retailer reportedly billed annual sales of about £1 billion, and had  cornered the market in trend-conscious, price-conscious twenty-something shopaholics.

Both Robertson and Massenet founded pioneering businesses that became incredibly successful at around the same time.  With Net-a-Porter dominating the  high fashion market and Asos the younger fast fashion market, what does this signify as a whole for the industry?

One guess is that fashion e-commerce has reached a maturity level in which creativity and big corporations will often merge – and collide.  Consumers, and even fashion writers,  often forget that only a decade ago, people rarely bought clothes and shoes online. User interfaces were not nearly as sophisticated as they are today and most fashion e-tailers  were unproven start-ups.

As the biggest players increasingly expand, commercialise, globalise and change hands,  it’s inevitable that some will have their toes stepped on. With iconic figureheads leaving the brands they created, the next steps for these companies is to  avoid losing stalwart fans.

In the case of Asos, share prices fell immediately after Robertson’s departure was announced. It’s no wonder, then, that  all parties at Net-a-Porter seem to be tight-lipped for now.