Inside the growth of the most controversial brand in the wellness industry.
On a Monday morning in November, students at Harvard Business School convened in their classroom to find Gwyneth Paltrow. She was sitting at one of their desks, fitting in not at all, using her phone, as they took their seats along with guests they brought to class that day — wives, mothers, boyfriends. Each seat filled, and some guests had to stand along the back wall and sit on the steps. The class was called the Business of Entertainment, Media and Sports. The students were there to interrogate Paltrow about Goop, her lifestyle-and-wellness e-commerce business, and to learn how to create a “sustainable competitive advantage,” according to the class catalog.
She moved to the teacher’s desk, where she sat down and crossed her legs. She talked about why she started the business, how she only ever wanted to be someone who recommended things. When she was in Italy, on the set of “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” she’d ask someone on the crew about, say, where the best gelato was. When she was in London, on the set of “Shakespeare in Love,” she asked a crew member where to find the best coffee; in Paris, she asked an extra where to find the best bikini wax; in Berlin, the massage you can’t miss. She wasn’t just curious. She was planning this the whole time.
The first iteration of the company was only these lists — where to go and what to buy once you get there — via a newsletter she emailed out of her kitchen, the first one with recipes for turkey ragù and banana-nut muffins. One evening, at a party in London, one of the newsletter’s recipients, a venture capitalist named Juliet de Baubigny, told her, “I love what you’re doing with Goop.” G.P., as she is called by nearly everyone in her employ, didn’t even know what a venture capitalist was. She was using off-the-shelf newsletter software. But De Baubigny became a “godmother” to Paltrow, she said. She encouraged her vision and “gave permission” to start thinking about how to monetize it.
At first, Goop — so named not just for her initials and for, you know, goop, but because someone along the way told her that all the successful internet companies had double O’s — appealed to an audience that admired G.P.’s rarefied lifestyle. Martha Stewart (for example) was an aspirational lifestyle brand, true, but the lifestyle was so easily attainable once Stewart took her wares to Kmart and Macy’s.
G.P. didn’t want to go broad. She wanted you to have what she had: the $795 G. Label trench coat and the $1,505 Betony Vernon S&M chain set. Why mass-market a lifestyle that lives in definitional opposition to the mass market? Goop’s ethic was this: that having beautiful things sometimes costs money; finding beautiful things was sometimes a result of an immense privilege; but a lack of that privilege didn’t mean you shouldn’t have those things. Besides, just because some people cannot afford it doesn’t mean that no one can and that no one should want it. If this bothered anyone, well, the newsletter content was free, and so were the recipes for turkey ragù and banana-nut muffins.
By the time she stood in that Harvard classroom, Goop was a clothing manufacturer, a beauty company, an advertising hub, a publishing house, a podcast producer and a portal of health-and-healing information, and soon it would become a TV-show producer. It was a clearinghouse of alternative health claims, sex-and-intimacy advice and probes into the mind, body and soul. There was no part of the self that Goop didn’t aim to serve.
The students nodded studiously as she spoke about her clothing line and CPGs and “contextual commerce” and open rates and being “cash positive” and “radical wellness” and how she likes to hire “smart people with founder DNA” and working mothers: “That bitch will get things done.”