Since its conception in 2002 until just 48 hours ago, Net-a-Porter’s founder and executive chair Natalie Massenet has served as an enigmatic and prominent part of the luxury fashion site’s brand and entrepreneurial spirit.
But this week the founder of the £350m fashion-cum-publishing company announced her departure mid-way through a merger with Italian fashion group Yoox, in a move that will create the world’s largest online luxury retailer.
While Massenet’s resignation may have shocked many, there have been rumblings that the ex-Tatler journalist wasn’t entirely aboard the deal with Yoox – she was noticeably absent from a conference call announcing the takeover this year and according to sources at The Guardian was unhappy at the prospect of playing second fiddle to the Italian company’s executive chairman Federico Marchetti.
Tess Macleod Smith, VP publishing and media at Net-a-Porter, said while speaking at The Dots conference today (4 September), that Massenet helped lead the company in a manner that she described as 'unhierarchical'.
"She was very much about putting the customer at the heart of everything we do and about surprising that customer and going beyond and aiming high and being pioneering. All the things that traditional publishers are all about."
Speaking about Net-a-Porter's female readership and the experience they would have as loyal readers Macleod Smith added that the company wanted women to "come along with them" on its journey.
So with the heart and soul of the Net-a-Porter porter brand built upon the foundation of Massenet’s passion for innovation and entrepreneurialism can the brand in its current embodiment endure without her at the helm?
“Having a charismatic and enigmatic founder, one that’s known publically as being intrinsic to the growth of the company, can be a brand’s biggest strength but also its biggest weakness,” Paul Vallois, managing partner of Cocoon, Partners Andrews Aldridge’s luxury division, told The Drum. “You only have to look to the doom-mongering predictions about Apple that were made following the resignation of Steve Jobs - even though Jobs himself had devised the succession plan.”
This mind set can be even more pertinent in the luxury world where a founder of a brand is lauded almost as much as the company itself. Vallois pointed to Dior as a case in point: it experienced a “chaotic slump” that almost destroyed the company when its eponymous founder Christian Dior died in 1957.
To this point, Sarah Bartlett, senior consultant at Luxury Branding, Net-a-Porter is not a fashion house appointing a new designer and no one person can be expected to step into Massenet's powerful shoes.
"This is a new era and whatever changes lie ahead for the brand, it is fundamental that the new guard ensure that the 'NetSet' [The retailers consumers] remain motivated and engaged with the brand. This is the biggest risk when any organisation loses an iconic figurehead."
Luckily for Yoox Net-a-Porter is in an enviable position. In 2014 it drew in revenue of $835m and it boasts highly connected and influential consumers among its loyal followers: the average shopper spends a whopping £22,000 annually on fashion and pulls in a household income of £170,000.
A slew of newly launched ventures, spanning editorial, social and digital over the last 12 months have also helped propell the company to the heady heights of success.
“Losing a founder does not spell the end,” continued Vallois. “But even with the very best succession plans and intentions in place, most brands will experience growing pains as they aim to rebuild. The trick is to accept that, and ensure that the momentum lost is regained in as short a time as possible.”
Bartlett agreed but added that "bigger isn't always better" if a new direction means that the brand essence becomes diluted "and the magic is lost".
The merger with Yoox is set to be completed in October.