Alison Loehnis, Net-a-Porter's President, fell in love with fashion at a very young age. "I was always obsessed with fashion magazines, and fashion in general," she told me when I sat down with her at Net-a-Porter's New York office last month. But it took a long time until the business-minded American, whose mother was an ad account manager, her father a beauty industry exec, to realize her passion could be a career.
"My whole career has been a journey to look for the perfect balance between business and creativity," she said. And like any good journey, there were quite a few detours--including stints in advertising, publishing, film-making and traditional luxury retail.
Loehnis started her career as an account manager at Saatchi & Saatchi. "For me it was almost like business finishing school." But it didn't take long until she got the itch to do something more creative. That lead to a job in magazine publishing--working in corporate communications at Hachette Filipacchi, the company that published JFK Jr.'s magazine George, among other titles. "The highlight was seeing John F. Kennedy Jr. in the elevator."
Then it was off to Disney, where Loehnis developed and sold new film projects. After three and a half years, Loehnis was approached by "a guy who had a digital agency which did new media strategy for fashion entertainment and lifestyle," and joined the company.
"That's what got me involved in e-tailing and then what got me to England."
From there, Loehnis was poached by LVMH to help spearhead Thomas Pink, opening stores around the world and redeveloping the brand's e-commerce.
"It was amazing," said Loehnis of her career up until Net-a-Porter. "But my big dream was that one day I could apply all those skills I'd learned to a product I was also totally passionate about." Men's shirting, unfortunately didn't get Loehnis's motor running.
"Then I was reintroduced to Natalie [Massenet] who I had met a few years before and the stars were in alignment and she created a role for me." The rest, as they say, is history.
"The common thread in my career has been, I guess, always focusing on the customer, the sales aspect, and then product development." Maybe "detours" is the wrong word after all. It was more like intense career training.
We caught up with Loehnis to chat about how trying out different jobs helped her land where she is now, what Net-a-Porter is working on next, and why it's important--especially for women in business--to "stick to your guns."
So how would you say your experiences at those very different companies helped you fulfill your role at Net-a-Porter so well? I think that starting in a client service business was a great way to begin because it taught you not only the rules of comportment and how to conduct yourself at meetings but you also had to deal with all different kinds of people. Your are highly, highly accountable, which I think is so important. I think, then, moving on from there, in terms of the selling piece and pitching stories, it taught me to be quick on my feet, it taught me to work with lots of different people, and I think throughout my career I've worked for either very large organizations or tiny organizations, but I've always had to be very hands-on. One of the most important lessons I was taught early on in my career was that detail is incredibly important, so I've taken that with me.
What would you say is your favorite part of your job? Oh gosh, that's a really hard question because I do a lot and I love all of it. But I would say the things that bring me closest to the product and closest to the customer. So an example of the first one is working with our brands and coming up with exclusive collections or interesting launches or getting really involved in the product itself—going to market, going to the shows, planning the season ahead. And then on the customer side, it's when we talk to customers through events, coming up with interesting propositions, creating new services, and I think that touches the customer.
Can you take me through a typical day? There is no typical day. I'm in meetings a lot of the time with my teams--they can be about anything from talking about how the business is doing, to talking about trade, to talking about launching a new collection, to an event, to thinking about our five-year strategy or our three-year plan. It could be budgeting, it could be HR related, it could be news... it could be any sort of things. It's probably a good balance of internal and external discussion. The wonderful thing about our business is that though we're of a reasonably big size, it still has retained its entrepreneurial spirit and is unbelievably collaborative. I will be surrounded by people all day, which is great, and I'm blessed with a terrific team.
What was it about NAP's approach that really drew you to the company coming from LVMH and having worked for all these big corporations? So much of it. I was a customer before I joined the business and I loved the experience. I loved the product selection, I loved the point of view, I loved the innovation behind the content and commerce mix. The service was impeccable, and it was a concept that I just really, really believed in then and, obviously, still do to this day. As a consumer I just loved it.
How important do you think it is for someone like the president--or someone really high up--to really love the product? I can only answer that question subjectively. For me it's really important, because if I'm selling something to a woman, a man, to anybody--it has to be something that I believe in. In the same way that from a job perspective it really helps to love what you do, it also really helps to love what you sell.
What do you look for in a hire? Essentially there needs to be experience. You need to be really, really good at what you do and focused at what you do. In terms of interpersonal skills, I respond to people who have really great energy, who are positive, who are passionate about our business, who are passionate about our product, but who also have the customer top-of-mind at all times.
As a woman on the business side, do you have advice for aspiring young women who wanna be more on the business side which has, in the past, been more male-dominated? My word of advice would be to stick to your guns, pursue what it is that you want to do. Don't look behind you, don't look on either side of you, just look straight ahead and be focused and believe in yourself because you can do anything. I went to an all-girls school for 12 years and we had a headmistress who said that from the day I arrived at age six that you can do anything. Girls can do anything, and that there will be a woman president. And it's interesting because I remember going off to college--and I went to a coed college—-and there were people I remember from high school who found it really weird to have boys in their classes and they would feel self-conscious. They didn't want to be the smartest girl. But I experienced none of that because I was always in a very empowering environment starting from a young age.
Did you ever encounter any challenges as a woman in the business world? Fortunately no. It's probably down to the industries that I've worked in, too.