With backing from LVMH on a fashion line, Rihanna is now an all-singing, all-dancing, all-beautifying, all-designing one-woman super brand. But are the clothes nice? It may depend on whether you are a Riri fan or not
By Mao Shan Wang
Let me be upfront: I am not a rabid fan of Rihanna—okay, not a fan at all. I don’t listen to her music (except when it’s played on the radio; even then, I pay attention not); I don’t buy her Puma shoes; and I am not impressed by her cosmetics, never mind if there are 40 “inclusive” shades of foundation (at launch).
Like countless young women who desire to be a fashion designer because they like clothes, shopping, and to dress up, Rihanna seems, to me, to be answering to gratifiable vanity than vocational calling. As we know, fashion these days is doable as long as you want to and have the means or connections, not if you really have the skill or flair.
I grew up understanding that fashion designers design. They don’t sing. Jean Paul Gaultier, who despite a single from 1989, How To Do That, won’t go so far as to call himself a singer. But, conversely, many who sing—or employed as musicians or DJs—are not quite contented with expressing themselves vocally or musically, and are boldly crossing over so as to be able to establish themselves as fashion designers.
To be sure, there are singers who are/were successful designers. Victoria Beckham comes to mind, and, reluctantly, Gwen Stefani, but these women put out fully-merchandised lines there are more than an extension of their armoire and their penchant for a certain look. Or, fashion that’s less the wardobe ‘edit’ of a fashionable individual such as Kate Moss for Topshop. I have, of course, not forgotten Beyonce, but you probably have. Remember Ivy Park? Maybe you do. House of Deréon? Guess not! And somewhere in there, the Haus of Gaga, which is really another story.
Maybe Rihanna is different, maybe she has what it takes—if not necessarily in the realm of actual clothes-making, at least in churning the hype. To be fair, she has experience, as many people call the pre-LVMH, Puma-backed/produced Fenty (not to mention the even earlier, 2013 collab with British fast fashion label River Island). Could Rihanna have been just parking herself there until a luxury conglomerate comes a-calling? Despite clever (or campy) collection themes such as Marie Antoinette at the Gym, Fenty 1.0 was not exactly high fashion. But, I could be wrong about that. It’s hard to be certain about such things these days. Whatever Serena Williams wears on court, the media is wont to call it a “high-fashion statement”.
Through Fenty, Rihanna augments the fashion-as-amour posturing by using a not-quite-soft silhouette and tough-wearing fabrics, such as canvas and barely-washed (or perhaps not at all) Japanese denim. She does not say how comfortable these fabrics are in increasingly high summer temps or scorching heat that is much of the world with no seasonal variations, such as Southeast Asia. The first hype-driven ‘release’ (her preferred term than ‘drop’), comprises the kind of clothes that wearers can “stun” in, “rock” a look, and appear “fierce”. Or, as Badgalriri described to the media, “badass and daring”.
And there’s the tailoring, which recalls pal Virgil Abloh’s suits for Louis Vuitton, kind of a post-streetwear take on the zoot suit—a little oversized, with conspicuous lapels, in colours that are, surprisingly, sweet. Indeed, are they not on the same page? Rihanna makes her Fenty blazers more feminine by taking them in at the waist, so as to give the nipped-in effect that would otherwise not be apparent on wide-girthed women, a group every ‘inclusive’ fashion label now cannot ignore.
There is a discernible path here. When hip-hop-pop-stars-turn-designers (or streetwear-designers-do-luxury), tailoring seems to be the way to show that they have arrived at a certain level in fashion. To have mastered the suit is perhaps the equivalent of attaining an MBA, which, many graduates know—and schools promote—“means a worldwide recognition of your credentials”. Rihanna needed to move Fenty out of the sportif and athleisure sphere that the brand found itself in under the auspices of Puma. Tailored garments, with all its technical complexities, is a veritable upgrade for both label and the woman behind it, and a testimonial of her abilities for a global audience.
That Rihanna appeared at the Paris launch of Fenty in a white suit top (sans the bottom) with sort of boning that emphasises the waist is authentication of her style, one no longer glorifying a super-svelte body, and her long-brewing wish to be taken seriously as a designer. It is inconsequential that the silhouette—top heavy, sort of an inverted tear drop—is not quite new as brands, from Ambush to A Land, have long stocked them.
Fashion is, of course, no longer about mileage. Who thinks about what they will wear a month from now? It’s about the moment, the vibe of the hour, the feeling of the day. See now, want now! Fenty is that time, the creator’s emotional state, the ardour her fans will not dampen. These are not exactly designs to rewrite anything; they are clothes that are familiar, something already seen and shall be seen (a week later, Alexander Wang showed interestingly similar jackets), pieces that presently seemed to me destined for discount retailers such as New York’s Century 21.
Although the media and Rihanna’s fans think this is a big deal for fashion, I am not sure what it all would really mean. It seems odd to me that those who can really design, such as Phoebe Philo, isn’t pursued and given their own label. Instead, we gravitate towards those with a pop life, a deep sense of self-worth and an ever-expanding IG account, those who have never sat at a drafting table before, those who have never ever dreamt of being a designer’s designer. According to WWD, LVMH has availed key employees from Louis Vuitton and Celine to work with Rihanna and her team, among them Fenty’s style director, Jahleel Weaver, who has been Rihanna’s partner-in-crime on previous projects. Of course Fenty will be well staffed. Who’s expecting Rihanna to even sketch?
Rihanna, while reportedly the first black woman to launch a fashion collection in Paris (for sure under LVMH), isn’t the first African-American to do so. I reminder one other. In the early 1980s, the late Patrick Kelly, a friend of the model Pat Cleveland, moved to Paris from New York City to establish his eponymous label, and was subsequently admitted into the prestigious Fédération Française de la Couture, du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode, never mind if many only remember him for buttons and bows. Mr Kelly, unlike Rihanna, could at least sew, a requisite no longer crucial as long as you can sell anything, and in doing so, move mountains and the titans… of luxury.
The Fenty online store launches today at fenty.com. Photos: Fenty