NYFW went by in a blur, as usual. Those of us who love fashion devoured up-to-the-minute "reporting" on the shows, street style and trend analysis. And if you even casually browsed any of that coverage, you might have noticed the week-long publicity blitz promoting the global launch of Porter Magazine, the latest offshoot of the Net-A-Porter empire. I certainly did, anyway! And so when I saw that the Apple Store in Soho was hosting the inimitable Ms. Natalie Massenet for a sort of panel discussion on the launch, I immediately signed up to attend.
A bit of backstory about my obsession with Natalie Massenet: I first heard her name when Daily Candy profiled the newly launched Net-A-Porter, way way back in the year 2000 when DC was still helmed by Dani Stahl and spoke authentically to my young fashionista self. At the time I was spending a good chunk of my income on samples sales and was an early adopter of all things e-commerce, from Kozmo to Bluefly. I subscribed to Net-A-Porter (wish I would've APPLIED there too!) and although it was purely aspirational, I devoured each email that looked like a page of editorial. I knew it was a different animal and loved how even back then in the Wild West of web design, the site was cohesive & intuitive, the look immediately recognizable, and the edit/merchandising impeccable, covetable and so Fashion (that's fashion with a capital F!) And one of my first blog posts, a recap of an interview with Imran Amed of the awesome Business of Fashion, was entitled, "Natalie Massenet, You're My Idol."
Since then, I've consumed and subscribed to everything Net-A-Porter has developed, from The Outnet to The Edit on my iPad. I would say that I hold a perhaps misguided but unconditional belief that everything that comes out of this brand will be beautiful, clever and worthwhile. I also think Natalie Massenet is a genius in her own way, someone who understood not only the value of digital, but how to evolve and leverage it to her advantage in attracting the luxury market. I like that she is uncompromising on quality and aesthetic, and envy the way she trailblazed the now obvious formula of content + commerce. Let's be frank here: I kinda wish I could BE her!
And so, I quickly discovered when I arrived at the Apple Store event, do a million other star-struck fashionistas... the place was mobbed, SRO even though supposedly seats were limited. The crowd twitched with annoyance as an Apple event genius (?) tried unsuccessfully to play the role of audience wrangler (he figured out quickly that the room was too cool for school to participate.) And then, La Massenet walked onstage and the crowd went silent. The first part was an interview with Kinvara Balfour, kind of a retrospective on how the business got started. I didn't get much out of it, maybe because it's not the first interview I've listened to, so mostly I tried to get a good Instagram shot by standing on my tiptoes, holding my phone high in the air above the too tall (read: too high-heeled) people in front of me. I did notice her characteristic modesty regarding any mention of achievement: she credits her staff and good timing for most of her success. She mentioned that keeping things small in the beginning, while other e-commerce ventures plowed through millions toward the dot-com bubble burst, was in retrospect a very smart move. When the competition died off, it gave her the space to make mistakes, grow her audience and establish herself as the leader in digital commerce for fashion, while established luxe brands struggled to find their footholds. The focus was always on service, experience and quality of first impression.
For the second part of the event, Lucy Yeomans (editor-in-chief) joined the panel to talk more specifically about Porter and the inspiration behind it. The obvious questions were asked, like, "Why invest in the print magazine business when it's not only saturated, but also on the wane?" And of course, it all comes back to that content + commerce formula. The concept is this: 1) Net-A-Porter takes a page from print magazines in developing a format with a very editorial feel 2) Porter takes the click-to-buy concept to print by presenting content in a way its online readers are used to consuming by now, in a glossy, pretty package that you can hold in your hands. In a nutshell, "Magazines are the marketing arm of the fashion industry; we allow customers to do both (aspire & buy) in one destination." So but why not just do an app, why bother with the enormous expense of a a print version? Her response: "Look at Apple's business model; their brick and mortar locations are brand temples, even though they do a robust online business as well. Porter is our brand temple that's also an extension, because not all of our advertised or featured products are available through our online retail channels."
Ok so... I mean it's not super-compelling and certainly not revolutionary as a premise. It's a risk that could pay off or fizzle like the dot coms who came on the scene with a bang and quickly ran out of money. This is basically all I took away from the talk, which was a little depressing to me, kind of like the lite version of what I was expecting. However, at the end, during the Q&A, I got another little glimpse of why (I think) I like Ms. Massenet so much. Most of the questions were pretty lame and not really questions, just opportunities to gush. But one girl had the chutzpah to not only proclaim her undying devotion to the cult of Natalie, but also ask her for a job. Ms. Massenet's reply was clever and coy, saying that the only 3 brands she's courted to be sold on Net-A-Porter who are still holdouts are Chanel, Balenciaga and Tod's. If this girl started a Facebook page or some kind of movement that resulted in getting these 3 accounts, she'd be glad to give her a job. Touche!
Ok so yes, I do follow Ms. Massenet on Instagram and so I saw all of the pix of the Porter launch event at a Grand Central newsstand as well as pix from all over the world where it was given prime positioning on the racks. They also created a cute app that allows you to be a cover girl for Porter, it's very simple and went VERY viral. If you share your pic, you're entered to win a shopping spree. Will it lead to subscriptions/newsstand sales? Difficult to measure, but I would think it generated enough buzz to get some desired early adopters. That would include yours truly.
And then when we were leaving the Apple store event, we were greeted by sweet young things dressed in black and white, proffering trays with a small branded box to take away. When you pull on the tab, out pops a little monitor with a promo video of the magazine pages turning, set to "She's a Lady." Lucy Yeomans said we would get a special very tech savvy gift when we were leaving (I would have preferred a copy of the magazine!) And it's true, I've never seen a promotional item like this, a tiny monitor with audio that activates with a sensor. The vehicle was cool, but the content, not so much. I guess you could say it was a teaser in all senses of the word.
I went to my favorite newsstand on Avenue A to pick up a copy of Porter a few days later. While I was there, two other girls bought it as well. The owner, Ben, asked me what the big fuss was about and I gave him a quick rundown. His response was that he doubted it would last, which made me laugh because this is a guy who carries every fashion & hobby publication you could think of, including lots of international editions. He's definitely seen a lot of glossies come and go, we'll see how his prediction pans out!
Anyway, here are my impressions of the Porter reading experience:
The cover: Giselle is stunning, of course, particularly in a "natural" state. And I did like the sophisticated headlines (only 3!) that give the impression that the insides will feel more Vanity Fair than Cosmo
The first 20 pages to flip through were of course ads, same that I've been seeing in all the other major fashion magazines this time of year. EXCEPT this one from Tom Ford that I'm dying over, I may have to acquire these if I ever get sick of my TF leopard print frames. Points for stopping me in my tracks with an advertisement.
The tone is highbrow, but not intellectual and certainly not condescending, the way it can come off in Vogue or Bazaar occasionally. Despite all the guest contributors with different voices (everyone from Elber Albaz to Carole Radziwell of RHONY) the overall feel was consistent, concise and fairly insightful. I personally found it interesting how certain abbreviations like USP were used in a beauty editorial without any explanation, I guess Unique Selling Point has become part of everyone's vocabulary?!?
The look, surprisingly, is what makes Porter stand out from the pack. I was expecting clean white layouts with bold black type treatments, and that's what it is. But somehow there is more fluidity here; after the initial gazillion ads, it almost reads like a book rather than disparate pages. And this means that the advertorials for select brands like Dr. Sebagh and Monica Vinader, were virtually indistinguishable from the adjacent advertorials at first glance. Tricky but smart, and I have to admit the design snob in me appreciated this aspect, as advertorials tend to look like they're trying too hard and are therefore usually super-unappealing, at least to me.
The editorial content is definitely geared towards the fashionista set, with profiles on front-row and street style stars like Dasha Zhukova and Sofia Barranechea, and a sprinkling of culture and business icons. The Porter girl is clearly one who dresses to be seen and appreciated and for whom "impractical" is not a consideration. I liked how streamlined each article was, it's a highly digestible format. It seemed fresh to have Manolo Blahnik focus just on the mule silhouette, to have only one gorgeous photo of Penelope Cruz in Christopher Kane's sparkly sweater to illustrate the embellishment trend. I also really appreciated how in some of the profiles, the images aren't just big glamour shots, but also closeups of interesting objects a la The Selby. I'm really drawn to interviews that give little peeks into someone's personality by looking at their desks, what they collect, even if (and maybe better because) it's a little bit messy, and I tend to do the same when I've been writing designer profiles illustrated with my own Instagram shots.
For the inaugural issue, the theme was "Incredible Women" celebrating fashionable feminism, I suppose (although that highly controversial noun was never used.) Not reinventing the wheel, but the target audience likes to read about beautiful, chic, successful but imperfect women in all varieties, so I think it worked. I especially loved the Inez & Vinoodh spread of Giselle - she wears clothes so incredibly, but they really succeeded in portraying her natural gorgeousness and personality in stunning images designed to show the legend as a real girl. And my favorite piece was the Uma Thurman profile - it really felt intimate and I liked the perspective of it being about her and her best friend, and babies, and pet bunnies! But still very chic and visual and fashion-y.
- There is a cult of Natalie, and I am a member. Even though the Apple Store event was more like a superficial press tour designed to make the fashionistas swoon, her modest, witty, sophisticated responses were like catnip. My husband (who attended with me) was not so impressed and chided me for drinking the Kool Aid, but then again, he grudgingly admitted that the promotional item was cool and that the magazine is beautiful.
- The decline of print magazines is inevitable, as is the (in my opinion) painful advancement of advertising towards placements and advertorials. If this magazine is the first hybrid entry, it's a solid start that keeps the bar high. And if it evolves the way Net-A-Porter did, I'm sure it won't be the last of its kind.
- Porter is definitely ambitious but lives up to the hype and easily stands up to the venerable, established fashion bibles.