Gwyneth Paltrow removes her coat, revealing a sleeveless black Atea Oceanie wrap dress. The dress is simple, trimmed in white and very lowcut, the effect both wholesome and daring. Her hair and skin glow. Her arms look soft and strong, like those of a woman decades younger than 42.
Paltrow is the founder–and the living embodiment–of the lifestyle brand Goop and is in Chicago on this April afternoon to oversee the launch of a pop-up store in Chicago’s Waldorf Astoria hotel. She walks across the showroom, past racks of $2,000 Stella McCartney dresses and $400 Phillip Lim gym shorts, to sit beside Goop’s CEO, Lisa Gersh, on a burnished-steel French daybed. She folds her arms, clutches her elbows, and calls out to her head of brand collaborations, Brittany Weinstein, to turn up the heat. Then she crosses her legs, stretches her neck as high as it will go, poses her arms to one side, and looks off serenely into the distance.
Paltrow is often criticized for seeming, at best, removed from the cares of ordinary life, and right now she does look like she belongs to a different, superior species. The public has always felt this way about her–simultaneously drawn to, and repelled by, her seemingly unattainable perfection. In 2013, for example, she was named People magazine’s Most Beautiful Woman and also Star magazine’s Most Hated Celebrity. Spend a little time on the Internet–or mention Paltrow’s name at a dinner party–and you’ll quickly see that people tend to have a strong, visceral reaction to her.
Paltrow knows that she has this effect on people. And she believes it has been good for her personal business, Goop, a website and newsletter that offers style, food, and wellness recommendations from Paltrow and her circle of elite chefs, spiritual thinkers, and alternative health professionals. This enterprise, which also sells fashion and home products, now has nearly 1 million newsletter subscribers, according to the company; analytics firm Alexa.com estimates Goop receives more than 3.75 million page views per month. Even people who’ve never heard of Goop (a play on Paltrow’s initials) may have heard of “conscious uncoupling” and “vaginal steaming“–just two of the phenomena that went viral after they were written about on Paltrow’s website, inviting both curiosity and mockery. They may have also heard that Paltrow’s product recommendations sometimes venture into rather exclusive price ranges: $300 pajamas, a $4,700 juicer, a $2,000 safety-pin earring (just one, not a pair). But while she is often criticized for being out of touch, it’s precisely her privileged lifestyle–she is the Oscar-winning daughter of the late television producer Bruce Paltrow and the actress Blythe Danner, and was married to Coldplay frontman Chris Martin until last year–and her highly specific sense of style (she’s a red-carpet staple and a regular on the covers of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar) that gives her the authority to make recommendations about living the good life.
Now the question is whether Paltrow can turn the public’s powerful feelings about her and her brand into a profitable business of scale.
In the past year, Goop has been gearing up for a major expansion, hiring Gersh as CEO, moving its headquarters from the U.K. to Los Angeles, amassing a 25-person team, pitching investors, building an advertising unit, and planning its first private-label product: an organic skin-care line due out in 2016. Gersh has restructured the company so that it’s in a position to realize a vision she and Paltrow share: to turn Goop into a “contextual commerce” brand, in which editorial and sales work hand-in-hand to sell product in a more seamless way than other lifestyle brands (such as Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, from which Gersh stepped down as CEO in 2013). Gersh and Paltrow hope to sell Goop fashion and home collections and make the brand synonymous with chic, minimalist, high-quality living. Pop-up stores like the one in Chicago may act as testing grounds for more Goop-branded brick-and-mortars in the future.
The pop-ups seem to serve another purpose: exposing the brand to people who have a strong opinion about Paltrow but have never visited her website. “I do think a lot of the misperception comes from people who haven’t actually gone on the site, because a lot of the things you see or hear, we’re like, ‘We never said that, never wrote that, that’s not the price point, or this was totally out of context,'” Paltrow says. “It seems that when people really engage, they understand who we are and what we’re doing.”
Of all the activities on Paltrow’s professional pie chart these days–acting, investing, writing cookbooks, expanding her chain of high-end gyms with Tracy Anderson–Goop “is the biggest slice,” she tells me over the phone a month later, as she drives her car across Los Angeles. She started the company in 2008 at her kitchen table in her house in London, having reduced her acting schedule to about one film per year in order to spend more time with her children. For years she had been compiling notes on how to live an elevated life. At the same time, she found herself asking questions about food, fashion, health, and spirituality, and not finding a place on the web that answered them. So she decided to start one, sharing tips makeup artists gave her before magazine shoots, restaurants she loved, unique spa treatments in far-flung locations, even advice from her therapists. Paltrow would test newsletter recipes in her kitchen and call to her editor, Eliza Honey–who was working upstairs–when they were ready to taste. “Like many other things in my life,” Paltrow says, “I sort of found myself in the middle of doing them before I really understood how I got there. It was the same with my movie career, or my cookbooks.”
As Paltrow was launching Goop, other fashion and lifestyle websites were popping up that would gradually expand into e-commerce. Refinery29, for example, had begun as an editorial site in 2005 (also at its founders’ kitchen table; it would open its shopping feature in 2012). Goop was also the first in a recent wave of celebrity-driven lifestyle brands. The actress Rachel Bilson launched her fashion collection, Edie Rose, the same fall that Paltrow started her newsletter. Jessica Alba cofounded the Honest Company, which sells nontoxic diapers and home cleaning products, in 2011. Blake Lively’s Preserve, which features shoppable lifestyle stories, launched last year, followed by Reese Witherspoon’s Southern-inspired fashion-and-home brand, Draper James.
Though the media presents these women as competitors, Paltrow bristles at the suggestion. “I feel there’s something slightly misogynistic about it,” she told Time magazine in June. And the comparisons are not entirely apt. Honest pulled in $150 million in revenue in 2014. Goop, with meager earnings in comparison, has always been a different kind of business, one that’s editorially driven and guided stringently by Paltrow’s voice and personal aesthetic. (For example, Paltrow is not a big fan of the color brown, according to the Chicago pop-up’s designer Kara Mann, favoring whites, pinks, and what Weinstein refers to as “Goop gray.”) The product offerings on Goop are therefore highly curated and, so far, available only in limited quantities. “The edit is really, really specific,” Weinstein says. “[Head buyer Patrick Devlin] always says that we should never sell anything we wouldn’t all want to wear.” Everything on Goop–including life advice and merchandise–represents something Paltrow does or would do or buy in her own life. Shopping on Goop is not unlike shopping in Paltrow’s closet.
At first, Goop was mostly a writing project. Paltrow focused on sending subscribers a weekly newsletter that contained a little bit of content–recipes for a post-holiday cleanse, photos of herself modeling winter wardrobe suggestions, or advice from one of her many gurus. The website was simply an archive of past newsletters. “When I think back on it, I’m afraid to press send,” she says. “But at the time, I had this belief in what I was going to do.”
She views this foolhardiness as a hallmark of her career. “My future self is always afraid when I look back,” Paltrow says. “I had this the other day where somebody was asking me about [the movie Emma], that I did in England when I was 22. It was really my first starring role, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma. And I remember at the time people saying, ‘Weren’t you intimidated to play this English heroine? You’re this American girl.'” Now, she says, “When I think about it, I would be petrified.”
Many of the clothes Paltrow’s newsletter initially highlighted–$975 Bottega Veneta riding boots, $2,000 cashmere trench coats from Tod’s–were expensive, and critics quickly painted her as disconnected from “normal” people, even though her newsletter also featured less-pricey options from fashion chains like Zara. The health and wellness advice often came from high-end osteopaths and New Age spiritual experts. That Paltrow was showcasing her ability to spend money–including hundreds of dollars on cleanse diets–as a financial crisis was hitting America fueled the backlash. But her fans responded: The company says the newsletters boast almost a 40% open rate (the average number of subscribers who actually open the newsletter each day), double the lifestyle category average, and drive approximately 35% of Goop’s traffic.
“I think it was a lot of idiot savant-ness,” Paltrow admits about her decision to start with email newsletters and only gradually build up a website. (“It’s not clear why she bothered to put [the site] up with so little content on it,” one Los Angeles Times blogger snarked. “I really wasn’t aware, from a trending perspective, where the Internet was going, or what was going to happen–that newsletters would become something that everybody did,” Paltrow continues. “I sort of just got lucky.”
Goop evolved slowly–no one can accuse Paltrow of building or failing fast. Using her own money, Paltrow hired a COO, a website editor, and a CEO, Seb Bishop, in 2010. Bishop had been an investor in Summly, which Yahoo acquired in 2013, and was no stranger to celebrity-fronted projects; for three and a half years, he had been the international CEO of Red, U2 singer Bono’s licensing brand for raising funds to fight HIV. But the pace remained unhurried. When Paltrow’s company launched its travel app, Goop City Guides, in 2011, it featured just New York; it added one new city every year or so–Los Angeles, London, Paris–in part because Paltrow wanted every recommendation in the app to come personally from her or someone she trusted, down to every restaurant and menu item suggestion.
Paltrow and Bishop explored options for monetizing the site and newsletters in a similarly patient way. “We used to have a lot of discussions about how we were going to do it,” Paltrow says. “There was ShoeDazzle, and there were all these subscription things–were we going to do that? Were we going to be only media? Were we going to sell physical product?” In 2012, Goop tested the commercial waters, offering one limited-edition product for sale per week, each an exclusive collaboration between Paltrow and an existing brand. Goop fans, after reading about the product in the newsletter or directly on the site, could instantly buy it. The first item for sale, a white Kain Label T-shirt, was embellished with grosgrain piping and sold for $90. Predictably, the Internet howled over the price point given how simple the item was, but the shirt quickly sold out. Over time, Goop evolved beyond the weekly single-product format, featuring products from hundreds of brands and collaborating with designers including Monique Lhuillier and Diane von Furstenberg.
One reason Goop grew so slowly, Paltrow admits, was simple nerves.”I had trepidation about taking that leap and defining myself as an entrepreneurial person,” she tells me as she drives, sounding looser and more open on the phone than when we chatted in Chicago.”I think that I felt, Who am I to start a business? If you’re already a public person, and you decide to become entrepreneurial, it just comes with a great deal of scrutiny.” (Even now, she adds, “Unless I see something very, very clearly, I don’t pull the trigger.”)
“It wasn’t until Goop started getting a lot of traction in terms of moving tons of product for other people, like hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars of product, and millions of dollars of product for other brands, that I started to think, You know, there might be more of a business here,” Paltrow says. In 2012, the company made approximately $1.5 million in revenue, though it ended the year about $40,000 away from actually turning a profit and also carried about $1.2 million in debt, according to financial documents filed with Companies House in the U.K. (By the end of 2013, the company carried $1.7 million in debt.)
But the pace of change was about to pick up. The next year, she moved her family back from the U.K. to her native California. Then she announced, via that now-infamous Goop post--which drove a wave of new attention–that she and Martin were separating. In the midst of all this change, she officially relocated Goop’s headquarters to L.A.; Bishop, who chose to stay with his family in London, remained on until a new CEO was in place.
A few days after the Chicago pop-up launch, I meet Gersh at Goop’s New York offices at WeWork, near Bryant Park, where she and the company’s business teams are based. Gersh is wearing a tight-fitting black jacket, her blond hair pulled back. Trim and toned, Gersh is, like Paltrow, a Tracy Anderson fitness devotee–in fact, they met through the famous trainer. Paltrow invited Gersh over for dinner in Los Angeles last summer, and the two brainstormed about what Goop could become. By the end of the night, Paltrow had offered her the job.
Gersh had recently left Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, where she’d been for a year and a half, most recently as CEO. The move to Goop was notable to anyone who had read what the grand doyenne of lifestyle media had said in Porter magazine a month earlier: “[Paltrow] just needs to be quiet,” Stewart had grumbled. “She’s a movie star. If she were confident in her acting, she wouldn’t be trying to be Martha Stewart.” (Gersh, according to a Goop insider, had to wait several months before joining Goop officially, due to a noncompete clause she’d signed at MSLO.)
“I went to Martha Stewart with the purpose of creating contextual commerce,” says Gersh, referring to the strategy of allowing audiences to shop seamlessly as they consume content. But her efforts to bridge the editorial and business arms of the struggling empire–and enable buying through storytelling–were unsuccessful.”It’s hard because of traditional beliefs about content and traditional beliefs about commerce,” Gersh says. “It’s hard to change cultures.” Though Gersh oversaw a massive restructuring and helped grow MSLO’s digital ventures, a product-side deal she helped broker with JCPenney resulted in a high-profile breach-of-contract lawsuit between Martha Stewart and Macy’s. By Gersh’s own account, she and the company were never the right fit. (MSLO, which has had six CEOs since 1999, was acquired by Sequential Media in June for $353 million.)
What attracted Gersh to Goop was Paltrow’s belief that editorial could be merged more seamlessly with the shopping experience. “The brand had what I think are the important components to contextual commerce,” Gersh says. “The recommendations have to be what you actually believe in, or it doesn’t work at all. And you need to have an audience that’s leaning in, in order to make it work.”
Gersh has helped Paltrow raise a seed round of funding for Goop, as well as an approximately $10 million Series A led by Tony Florence at New Enterprise Associates. Investor Amanda Eilian, the cofounder of video-editing startup Videolicious, visited Paltrow in the actress’s apartment in New York’s Tribeca to hear her pitch. “The first time I met Gwyneth, she sat down and talked about her vision for the business–but also how committed she was to it,” Eilian says. “She wasn’t just endorsing it. It was her company, she started it, she put her own money into it. Up to that point it had really been all her. She made me very comfortable that she had the ability to make this a real business–and successful. She definitely wasn’t looking to Lisa and other people in the company to answer questions for her.”
With expanding resources, Gersh set about diversifying Goop’s business model. She assembled an advertising team to drum up a second stream of revenue (brands like Chanel are already running sizable ads on the Goop website); she worked with head buyer Devlin and head of brand collaborations Weinstein to increase Goop’s product offerings on the site; and she beefed up the content teams. “It couldn’t be Gwyneth and one person writing all of the content anymore,” Gersh says. According to the company, revenue in the first half of 2015 was up 62% over the same period the previous year.
“Lisa brings all the scaffolding,” Paltrow says. “She has taken a thousandth-floor view of what we could be.” Before Gersh came on board, editorial director Elise Loehnen says, “we were reporting to no one.” Gersh instituted basic concepts, like organization charts. “She’s been coaching everyone to get into their lanes, and building structure and creating process, and gearing us in a way that we’ll be able to scale,” Loehnen adds. Most importantly, Gersh installed Weinstein as a bridge between the content and product teams, helping to ensure a seamless reading-to-purchase experience. “We don’t buy anything we can’t tell a story around,” Weinstein says.
Gersh, a self-made, Bronx-born entrepreneur who put herself through college and law school and made partner at a New York law firm before cofounding Oxygen Media, enjoys the camaraderie at Goop.”I find women to be very collaborative in the workplace,” she says. “I love working with women who have kids, because they’re highly efficient, and they’re also problem solvers.” Plus, she adds, “It’s great to start a meeting talking about shoes rather than the hockey score.”
Paltrow is surprisingly hands-on as a boss, overseeing Goop’s editorial team much like the head of a traditional magazine would. She leads brainstorming sessions with the L.A.-based edit staff–sometimes in the Goop office, but often while lying on the floor of her Brentwood living room “hanging out with the dogs and the kids,” as Loehnen puts it, or sitting around the kitchen table. (Weinstein often joins, to ensure that the product and edit teams are in alignment.) Paltrow approves all story ideas, as well as screen grabs of articles and visual spreads; she sends back “incredibly specific” notes, says Loehnen, before anything gets published. Paltrow is equally involved on the commerce side of the business. “Gwyneth sees every single piece that we sell on the site,” says Weinstein (who bears no relation to the film producer behind Paltrow’s Oscar-winning vehicle, Shakespeare in Love).
“I’m at Goop every day,” Paltrow tells me in Chicago. “It’s my main job. I’ve made commitments to people and I’ve taken their money, so I’m going do everything in my power to make sure that the brand scales.”
Paltrow’s relative absence from the big screen has left some wondering if her passion for film is waning. But Paltrow refutes the idea that she can only have one career. “I’m a big believer in the ampersand,” she says.”I don’t see it as I’m leaving something behind, I see it as this year I probably won’t make a movie or I probably won’t do a TV show or a play, and I’ll focus on the business. It’s our tendency to want to put women in one little category,” she continues, making a pinching gesture with her hand. “That’s where we like them.”
Despite advances on the business front, Goop continues to trigger intense skepticism, particularly on social media. While many Goop diehards Instagram meals prepared from Paltrow’s cookbooks or tweet articles when the weekly newsletter arrives in their inboxes, sniping often erupts simultaneously–about price points or the more unique aspects of certain recommendations, like a dessert recipe for “sex bark.” The phrase conscious uncoupling still triggers eye rolls from people who see it as a pretentious substitute for divorce, as if Paltrow even thinks she knows how to break up better than everyone else (the term is actually meant to describe a process, created by therapist Katherine Woodward Thomas, for peacefully ending a marriage). A tiny Goop item about an unusual treatment offered at an L.A. spa led to thousands of negative news articles and blog posts about Paltrow’s “vaginal steaming” advice. Paltrow once drew ire for writing about a book that, she said, claims that “negativity changes the structure of water”; in January, a book about pseudoscience was published bearing the title Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? “I think that it would be easy to feel crippled by some of the backlash,” Loehnen says, but Paltrow “really just encourages us not to ever feel scared, not to ever hold punches, because I think that she feels, and we all feel, that what we’re doing has value.”
Paltrow also defends Loehnen for having written the vaginal-steaming piece. “This is a thousands-of-years-old practice in Korean spas,” she says. (Loehnen stands by the recommendation, too. “It feels good, it’s not harmful–it’s not like we’re urging people to go out and buy AK-47s,” she says.)
Though Goop is still very much a small business in startup mode–editorial headquarters is a barn on Paltrow’s L.A. property–the decision to offer more product is working, especially when it comes to “elevated basics” like blazers, which regularly sell out. And then there’s its first proprietary launch, the organic skin-care line Goop will unveil in the first quarter of next year. Goop is collaborating with Juice Beauty, a company with its own chemists, to produce the line. (The partnership is a complex one: Juice is an investor in Goop, and Paltrow is an investor in Juice. As part of the deal, Paltrow became Juice’s creative director for makeup in January and is helping Juice design a makeup line, due out in January 2016, which will be sold on the Goop website.)
Paltrow recognizes that it’s a luxury to have a strong brand. “You can put a lot of people in a room who have strategy, money, experience in marketing and say we want to do something and this is how we’re going to do it, but it’s actually a tricky thing to create a real brand,” she says. “I feel grateful that I started sort of unwittingly with a brand.” Questions about how to monetize the company, Paltrow says, “are much easier problems to have than how we are going to create something that people are going to resonate with and identify with.” Gersh, sitting near her at the pop-up, nods subtly in agreement.
Looking back, Paltrow sees that part of the reason the email list grew was that she focused on the content before she ever thought about how Goop might make money. “I was doing something from a very real, very honest place,” she says of those early newsletters, her hands clasped lightly. “There wasn’t anything commercial about it. So when we decided to foray into commerciality, there was something to trust.”
Goop understands that big brouhahas can bring big readership numbers, and that haters can wind up becoming unwitting Goop converts. “That’s the general trajectory,” Loehnen tells me. “People are resistant, and then someone gives them her cookbook and they’re like, ‘These recipes are kind of amazing,’ and then they become fans. Generally, when people experience the site, they’re like, ‘Oh, I didn’t want to like it, but I loved it.’ ” Paltrow is amused by these reactions, and heartened by them. “I always like it when there’s a big response to something because it tells me, ‘Oh we’ve touched a nerve here, this is really interesting,’ ” Paltrow laughs. “There are a lot of media companies that would die to have the kind of response that we get from our content.”
“Love us or hate us,” Gersh says, “you want to know what we think.”
[Photos: Williams + Hirakawa, Set design: Mike Malandra & Bette Adams at Mary Howard Studio; Styling: Jill and Jordan at The Wall Group; Hair:
Derek Yeun at Starworks Group; Makeup: Jillian Dempsey at Starworks Group; Manicure: Tracy Clemens at Opus Beauty; Goop Dreams Section: Ragu Photo: Marvin Joseph, Getty Images; Stella McCartney Photo: Han Myung-Gu, Getty Images; DVF Photo: Celine Grouard for Fast Company; Lisa Gersh, Goop Location Photos: Ryan Lowry; Goop Pop-Up 2014: Michael Buckner, Getty Images for Goop]