Meet the Woman Behind Your Wardrobe

Meet the Woman Behind Your Wardrobe

Alison Loehnis attends the Mulberry "Beyond Heritage" Spring/Summer 2018 presentation during London Fashion Week at Spencer House on Feb. 16, 2018.

SourceDave Benett/Getty

Why you should care

Because she’s one of luxury fashion’s biggest players.

It’s 8:45 a.m. on the Saturday of London Fashion Week and Alison Loehnis is having breakfast with two of her team at the Delaunay. Let’s call it a power breakfast, because within minutes of meeting Loehnis, it’s clear almost everything she does suits the “power” prefix, from heels to coffees to calls. Today, in the Mitteleuropean-style café off London’s Strand, the president of Net-a-Porter and Mr Porter, who is celebrating 10 years since starting at the retailer, is having a post–New York Fashion Week debrief. It’s the start of a morning spent shadowing her from car to catwalk, and I’ve effectively got a front-row seat for the Alison Loehnis show.

As Elizabeth von der Goltz, global buying director of Net-a-Porter, and Lucy Yeomans, editor in chief of in-house magazine Porter, discuss the U.S. shows, Loehnis interjects with commercial observations in her fast-talking New York accent. One brand “really know who their customer is,” while a sexier collection “would sell well in LA, where women work their bodies, so they want to show them off.”

There’s an entrepreneurial spirit that runs through the company, it’s very much, ‘Let’s give it a whirl.’

Alison Loehnis

Her sense of precision comes through instantly in her language: Loud leopard prints are “animals on steroids,” and when someone refers to a trend for “dirty florals,” she retorts: “to be remarketed.” Throughout our interview, Loehnis, 47, rephrases my questions to make them sound more articulate but also to erase suggestions of negativity.

Faced with three glossy-haired, impeccably dressed women (and your interviewer), the waiter thinks he has their eating habits sussed and suggests the fashion industry’s favorite breakfast. “We have a great avocado on toast, as well as gluten-free —”

“Do I look like a gluten-free person?” says Loehnis with a laugh, balking at the stereotype. I’m not sure what gluten-free looks like either, but judging by the clingy red Calvin Klein dress that shows her to be toned in that “alpha” way you rarely see outside fashion and Hollywood, she certainly doesn’t suffer from gluttony. She orders eggs and a giant silver pot of coffee. “Don’t let me drink all this or I will be bouncing off the walls.”

Even pre-caffeine, it’s hard to imagine anyone with more energy — a word Loehnis uses a lot. With breakfast over, we are out of the Delaunay, into the back of a chauffeur-driven car, and off to the J.W. Anderson show. We’ve barely sat down on the white leather seats before Loehnis starts chatting. She’s an easy conversationalist and there are book recommendations from when her children, now 11 and 9, were younger. She lives in Chiswick, West London, drives her Lexus SUV to the ultramodern Net-a-Porter offices in Shepherd’s Bush, spends weekends in the Cotswolds with her husband and kids, has just read Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach and is “very strict about not sending colleagues emails at the weekend.” Before Loehnis boosted Net-a-Porter’s profile in the U.S., American acquaintances thought she worked for sandwich chain Pret A Manger.

That’s unlikely to happen now: Loehnis’ profile has soared since October 2015, when she was promoted to her current role following the merger of Net-a-Porter with the Yoox group to form Yoox Net-a-Porter Group, or YNAP. Loehnis is adamant that she “didn’t take over” from Net-a-Porter founder and executive chairman Natalie Massenet, because “I don’t think anyone could take over from her and she was a founder of the business. My job is a different job.” Massenet, who founded Net-a-Porter in 2000, selling a majority stake to Swiss luxury group Richemont in 2010, stepped down the month before the merger was completed amid speculation that she felt Richemont had undervalued the business and that she clashed with Yoox boss and now YNAP CEO Federico Marchetti.

Loehnis says that the atmosphere when Massenet left was “sad.” “Gosh, I adore her, and I adored working for her. When a really talented, amazing founder leaves the business, it’s a difficult time of transition for everyone.” She adds, characteristically: “I realized that I had to be strong and sunny for the team.”

***

Loehnis is seated next to Marchetti, her boss at YNAP, when we arrive at the J.W. Anderson show, and from my location across the catwalk the body language between them looks natural enough. But what’s he like to work with? He doesn’t exactly sound like Mr. Charming. He told the Financial Times in 2015 that his staff at Yoox “don’t like me. There is no love.” Loehnis shrugs. “That’s not been my experience,” she says. “He’s got a really good sense of humor. He too is a big champion of product.”

Her answer is customarily diplomatic, but perhaps it also reflects Loehnis’ belief in “the power of positive thinking.” She says, “I think understanding how you can harness positive thinking [is important] in terms of galvanizing a team, the importance of sharing ideas and brainstorming. No dream is too big.”

There’s plenty to be positive about at YNAP, and more specifically at the “multibrand in-season” stores over which Loehnis presides, where full-year revenues for 2017 were up 18.3 percent from 968.6 million euros in 2016 to 1.084 billion euros in 2017. Net-a-Porter recorded a pretax profit of 11 million pounds in 2015, after a loss of 10 million pounds the year before, and all Loehnis will say now is: “We are making money.” Are profits going up? “Yes, that’s why we’re here.” Is Mr Porter making money? “Yes.” Unsurprisingly, she won’t comment on the bid by Richemont, which owns a 49 percent stake in YNAP, to up its stake to 90 percent and acquire 75 percent of the voting rights it does not own.

***

Loehnis’ career has included a summer job at a Ralph Lauren store while studying art history at Brown, assistant account executive at Saatchi & Saatchi, corporate communications at Hachette Filipacchi and vice president of sales and marketing at Net-a-Porter.

As president of Net-a-Porter and Mr Porter, she must fulfill an overtly commercial role in setting financial targets and budgets for her division. Loehnis describes it as “understanding what the group aspirations are, and how we can contribute to that … a customer strategy, strategies for marketing, buying, merchandising, tech.” Then there’s a more creative dimension: supporting new brands, meeting with designers and testing new ideas.

“I have always been looking for this balance between business and creative, to put it really simplistically,” she explains later during a pit stop at the Charlotte Street Hotel. “I like the notion that you can go about your working life in a creative way. There’s still this very strong entrepreneurial spirit that runs through the company, it’s very much, ‘Let’s try that,’ ‘Let’s give it a whirl.’”

This attitude is true to the gung-ho fashion in which Net-a-Porter was set up. Online luxury shopping is such an integral part of the luxury world now that it’s hard to recall that initially there was real skepticism about whether consumers would want to buy prestigious clothes and accessories from a website. Now, online shopping is soaring, while traffic in physical shops stagnates. Mobile shopping accounts for over 50 percent of the group’s sales, and Loehnis’ most high-rolling customers have no qualms about spending large sums on fine jewelery and watches. The most expensive thing ever sold on Net-a-Porter was a diamond-and-gold Panthère de Cartier watch for 113,000 pounds, and the website is responding to the appetite for hard luxury by expanding its on-site presence and range of brands. Whoever bought the watch would definitely be classified as an EIP (an “extremely important person”), or, as Loehnis describes them, “our most engaged customers.” Forty percent of gross sales on Net-a-Porter and Mr Porter come from EIPs, who make up 3 percent of customers.

In terms of how tech will affect our future shopping habits, Loehnis says mobile will continue to “surge.” “We don’t see mobile as a device, it’s just a way of being.” Earlier in her decade at the brand, “you used to see a sales spike at lunchtime, when everyone was at their desk. Now, we’ve seen a real surge in weekend shopping, at commuting times, at ‘wine o’clock.’” She has to think about “how people want to consume content on a smaller screen.”

Loehnis thinks that Net-a-Porter and Mr Porter have flourished while many similar websites have folded because they are “unbelievably customer-centric.” She clearly gets a thrill from the idea of her shoppers being delighted by their purchases.

The conversation moves to the perfect workwear outfit. Loehnis is palpably more relaxed chitchatting about style than she is talking strategy. She says: “Fashion isn’t going to solve your problems … but actually if you wear something you feel good in, it’s empowering and it can make you smile.”

Yes, it could be a bumper sticker, but delivered with Loehnis’ alpha assurance, it seems to have the ring of wisdom. She knows exactly what makes her customers click.

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By Carola Long

OZY partners with the U.K.'s Financial Times to bring you premium analysis and features. © The Financial Times Limited 2018.

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