The Financial Times' Vanessa Friedman with Vogue's Kate Phelan, who'll become Topshop's creative director in September. Photo: Rex Features
Eleven years ago, when the dotcom bubble burst and internet companies were in free fall, Natalie Massenet had an idea. The former fashion journalist decided to launch a website that would sell designer brands online - and the rest is fashion history.
Her slick approach to online retail fundamentally changed how luxury goods were bought, but her approach also signalled a transformation in the fashion media. Net-A-Porter's ability to pair the retail experience with aspirational, snappy editorial was something of a revolution. The concept, explains the brand's editorial director Claudia Plant, was to create the ultimate women's fashion destination by merging magazine reading and shopping. "When it started Natalie was interested in closing the gap between seeing products in a magazine and finding it in a store", says Plant, since both Natalie and I came from the magazine world, we understood that beautiful imagery and compelling content is a source of inspiration for readers, but ultimately they want to be able to act on that inspiration".
A decade later and this formula hasn't changed - and retailers are luring a growing number of best in class fashion editors. It seems that not a week goes by without a new name defecting; from Lucky's Andrea Linett heading to ebay, to Elle editor Melissa Dick's switch to Asos and, most recently, Vogue Fashion Director Kate Phelan's imminent move to Topshop.
Jeremy Langmead, former editor of titles including Esquire and Wallpaper*, joined Net-A-Porter's suave male counterpart Mr Porter, for its launch in September. He was surprised by how easy the transition was: "Naturally there was a sense of trepidation - but I felt like I'd made my career telling people how to dress and where to buy it, so this felt logical." Doesn't Langmead feel like he has given up creative autonomy? "Not at all! I enjoy the shop floor aspect - with a magazine it's like you leave the story halfway through."
Fashion editors are uniquely placed to shift goods in a retail world where conversation and engagement trump the hard sell, agrees WGSN's marketing and digital editor Rachel Arthur. "Journalists have always been instrumental in selling the best products to consumers, but they've never had the capacity to gain from it in any real sense" she explains.
It is about a more subtle and clever way of selling: adding editorial authority gives a reason why customers should take a retailer seriously. They might even learn something from an expert – and this gives them a reason to return. Former FT fashion editor Nicola Copping is now web editor of Harrods.com. She believes that retailers need editors to woo an increasingly complex and demanding consumer, "a simple two dimensional shopping experience – see products and buy – is becoming old hat, particularly online."
Langmead, who has just returned from the Paris and Milan menswear shows, explains that the editorial and buying teams attend the shows together. While he acknowledges the ultimate goal is to get the customers to fill their virtual shopping baskets, he works with buyers to ensure they are buying "editorially" as well as "commercially".
Copping admits to concerns about moving to this new sector - specifically giving up the objectivity of journalism. But in a print magazine world where circulation numbers mean content is increasingly beholden to advertisers, it is not the psychological leap that an outsider might first assume.
Journalism as a whole is shattering into a wealth of forms, and the big newspaper and magazine companies no longer enjoy the power that they once did. Online fashion sites are catching on and setting up shop. Style.com seamlessly weaves "shop the look" features into its editorial, while the Telegraph Fashion and Guardian Style sites have their own online fashion stores. It's increasingly clear that brands, whether media or retail, need both a commerce and a content strategy. But it is a business model that gives the once lofty print fashion magazines little scope.
Found Grazia editor Fiona McIntosh is now putting her experience to good use in her new guise as My-Wardrobe.com's consultant creative director, but she remains adamant that the recent migration from the fashion media is not the death knoll for the big budget fashion magazine. "I utterly adore magazines and they will always have a place in my heart," she enthuses, "What I'm doing now is a different job - I'm here to enhance the product with editorial, not the other way around."
"There'll be less room for mediocrity [in print magazines]," concedes Langmead, "what will boom are the niche print magazines, that focus on high standards of design and execution, and that can be celebrated as beautiful objects."
Traditionalists might balk at this blurring between editorial and brand marketing, but then those sticking to a strictly traditional approach might not be around for too long. Besides, strong editorial content from commercial fashion businesses may just help to sharpen the identity of those publishers whose journalists only to their editor.
This is perhaps why savvy editors want to make the leap (aside from the inevitable salary jump) - they recognise a need to change the media industry, and that means learning lessons from another sector. Essentially it's about survival.
"Many fashion editors, myself included, didn't want to wait for tradition to catch up (or not, as the case may be)", admits Copping. "I wanted to be where I felt the future was - to learn the lessons before it was too late."
Will more editors make the jump to retail brands during the coming months? Absolutely. The real question is what permanent effects the exodus will have on the magazine stands.