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Natalie Massenet: Rise of the queen of internet shopping

As Net-a-Porter's Natalie Massenet agrees a £2.3bn merger with her Italian rival, Susannah Butter charts her journey from Tatler's fashion cupboard to global fashion magnate.

There's an escalator on the top floor of Westfield in Shepherd's Bush, London, that will transport you into an immaculate universe, where chandeliers hang and everything is cool white. The CEO holds stand-up meetings in her central glass office against a backdrop of live feeds from Hong Kong. This is the headquarters of Natalie Massenet's Net-a-Porter fashion empire. Last month Massenet became £70m richer. She celebrated by posting a video on Instagram of a sea of staff cheering captioned: "Raise your hands if you're ready to #CreateTheFutureofFashion."

Net-a-Porter - known as NAP in the trade - has agreed a merger with Yoox, its Italian rival, responsible for the online shops of luxury brands including Yves Saint Laurent, as well as its own site. Yoox is already profiting, with shares rising by four per cent after the announcement. "To have that combined economy of scale, reach and market share will be amazing for Net-a-Porter," says designer Anya Hindmarch, an early investor in the company.

The new set-up sees Yoox founder Federico Marchetti, a former investment banker, take over as chief executive. Massenet will stay as executive chairman. NAP's Swiss owner Richemont will hold on to 50pc of shares, the two brands will keep their identities and the company will trade - unusually - on the Italian stock market.

Alice Enders, of Enders Analysis, says: "NAP's advantage has diminished as companies have launched their own online operations - Burberry, for example, sells from its own site. But Yoox and NAP complement each other: Yoox has innovated a lot, which helps NAP."

Massenet, 49, says the company's aim is: "Redefining the fashion media and retail landscape" with plans for a shoppable media site. She added yesterday: "The best way to predict the future of fashion is to create it."

She's certainly done that. This is the latest big-money deal for the former Tatler fashion assistant who has revolutionised the way we shop. It was in 2000, during a recession, that she launched NAP from the kitchen table in her Chelsea flat after picking up a leaflet on entrepreneurship in Barclays. The dotcom bubble had just burst and Massenet was pregnant with her first child. She piled the signature black boxes in the bath, and staff shouted "kerching!" when there was a sale.

Now she presides over a behemoth that has 6,000,000 unique visitors per month and sells 390 labels in 170 countries. And that's without its sister sites in sports, menswear and discounted fashion. Last year, she launched Porter magazine, edited by Lucy Yeomans, her old friend from the fashion cupboard at Tatler.

Since 2013, she's chaired the British Fashion Council, and seen the UK fashion industry grow to being worth £26bn. She appointed Google director Peter Fitzgerald as pillar of Innovation and Digital and Caroline Rush, CEO of the British Fashion Council, says Massenet has "broadened the fashion community to include digital, innovation and investment internationally".

Rush describes Massenet as a woman who "gets you to push further, think bigger but ensure the detail is looked after... This deal is another industry shake-up but will create a great powerhouse with incredible reach and rich data on consumer trends globally."

Hindmarch was one of the first designers to be sold on NAP, along with Christopher Kane. She says it was Massenet's plausibility that drew her in. "I was not sure it would take off but I believed in her."

The site had a rocky start - it nearly failed twice and investors pulled out. Despite this, "Natalie was incredibly driven," remembers a colleague. "Even when she was told it would never work. She was determined that those like her with a hectic life who didn't have time to buy clothes, wanted a painless shopping experience."

Hindmarch says Massenet's enthusiasm persuaded giants such as Jimmy Choo and Marc Jacobs to sell on her website even though the combination of internet and fashion was still unheard of. "She is a team player, a grafter and of course a 'visionary'. It was a completely new world and she saw it so clearly. NAP was tiny when she started. I get a sense of awe every time I walk through her offices. It is very much carried by her."

Sarah Crook, CEO of Christopher Kane, adds: "The NAP business and how it operates is a clear extension of Natalie's personal characteristics and culture ... there are no limits to her ideas and thinking."

Massenet said in 2013 that the publishing mindset never left her. "People always say to me 'You've strived to redefine retail' but the reality is I wanted to redefine magazines. From the start we were always trying to blend the two, to buy clothes and labels in the same way a fashion editor would choose them."

Porter launched with a party in Paris last year. Massenet danced to Beyonce's Crazy in Love surrounded by guests including Rihanna and Kristin Scott Thomas.

"Massenet makes things fun," a colleague says. "She is not an ice queen." Tatler editor Kate Reardon wrote in Vanity Fair that Massenet has an impressive ability to quote When Harry Met Sally. Another editor says that in fashion week she's often in the bar with the designer of the moment.

In the NAP office, the girls cut their own hair (they worked out how to do layers during Fashion Week when there was no time to go to the salon). Margarita parties happen twice a month - the cocktail is Massenet's favourite. Most recently she threw a bash for Holli Rogers, the fashion director who left after 11 years. "Natalie shed a tear," says a friend who was there. "Champagne was flowing and there was a fantastic atmosphere."

Her talent for party-throwing is evident at the British Fashion Council, where she has transformed the annual awards into a starry event - with a bottle of tequila on every table.

This glamour owes something to her Parisian childhood - and Massenet credits the combination of a journalist father and a mother who modelled for Chanel, for her success: "They were content and commerce!" Her parents, Bob Rooney and Barbara Jones, divorced when she was 12, and she moved with Rooney to LA. She remains close to her mother, often tagging her on Instagram (@Grannybabaparis).

In LA she made friends with Lenny Kravitz, who she ferried around in a yellow Honda Civic. Her first job was at a men's clothes shop and she studied English at UCLA. Other jobs included a "really bad modelling (job) in Japan" and a stint as a receptionist for Home Alone director John Hughes. As a writer at Women's Wear Daily she gave Angelina Jolie her first modelling job ("she was very cute - she was 17").

She met French hedge fund manager Arnaud Massenet, now her ex-husband, at Notting Hill Carnival and moved to London. Alexandra Shulman turned her down for a job at Vogue, something Shulman now describes as: "Very humiliating." Vogue's loss was Tatler's gain. She worked as Isabella Blow's assistant and former colleagues remember an ethereal figure, forever "floating" to Paris to see her husband.

It's often asked how someone so nice rose so far. She told The Times: "It's persuasion." Others say she's hardened. In 2011 she and her husband divorced. They have two daughters, Isabella, 15, and Ava, 10, who attend the Lycee Francais near their £12m home in South Kensington. Massenet moved in after selling a majority stake in NAP to Richemont in 2010 and employed LA interior designer Michael Smith to design a space to both entertain and "nest" with her daughters and pets Loup the Labradoodle and Bean the Bengal cat. Smith told Architectural Digest: "Natalie had gone through a huge social drought because she was so focused on the business. It was time for her to embrace that again."

Like the Net offices, the house is "Black and white, it's an obsession with me," Massenet says. In her office the nod to colour is a Mr Brainwash print of Kate Moss. Downstairs there is a giant image of roses - a gift from her boyfriend Swedish photographer Erik Torstensson. He has worked with her, shooting campaign images for NAP as part of what Massenet calls her ambition to become "the world's biggest luxury fashion store".

This latest move is not without its risks. BBC economics editor Robert Peston says: "Natalie Massenet is an extraordinary entrepreneur who has made a huge personal fortune. She has completely changed the way that top of the line fashion is sold." Merging will be a fresh challenge. "It is always a risk putting two companies together."

But as more online retail businesses - such as Finery and Lyst - open, it's clear Massenet launched a movement. NAP is hiring and expanding. Massenet describes it as: "A store that never closes, a store without geographical borders, a store that connects with, inspires, serves and offers millions of style-conscious global consumers access to the finest designer labels. A store that provides established and emerging brands with the greatest interactive shop window to the world."

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