F For Fenty Fashion?

LVMH is not continuing with Rihanna’s clothing line. Are you surprised? Is Fenty a flop?

The higher-ups at LVMH were hoping she’d be the Virgil Abloh of womenswear. But Rihanna’s Fenty, two years since its debut in 2019, is now in a mutually-agreed arrangement to halt the design, manufacture, and retail of the born-in-hype fashion line. The news that have emerged these past two days have mostly stated that LVMH and Rihanna have “paused” the Fenty line. The New York Times reported that both are “taking a break”. A hiatus may not lead to resumption. All have been careful not to use the four-letter F-word: Fail. As many wise sages have said, “there’s nothing wrong in failure”, but Rihanna, one of the biggest stars of her generation, has not known failure. According to an LVMH statement quoted in the press, the conglomerate and singer will “put on hold the RTW activity, based in Europe, pending better conditions.”

Does “better conditions” mean when COVID-19 is over or better controlled? Or, is it referring to improved economic conditions, post-pandemic? Or, do they mean when Rihanna becomes a better designer? For now, we can only hazard a guess. Talk and speculation suggest that Fenty has not been doing as well as the brand owners thought they would. Fenty launched to much much fanfare, but was there consensus that it was a ground-shifting (breaking is asking too much!) collection that would rewrite the aesthetical direction of womenswear or move the mountains of luxury retail? Was it just another singer/celebrity line, riding on hype than design? Did Rihanna’s “megawatt style” translate to a megawatt luxury line?

Fenty is conceived with one pop star’s idea of fashion, independent of retail reality and creative innovation

The fashion critic Suzy Menkes, on Instagram, quoted Rihanna to have said, “I’m a curvy girl” and “If I can’t wear it myself, it’s not going to work”. It appears that Badgirlriri has fashioned Fenty too much after herself for the line to be able to realise its potential, even if fancied. These are clothes imagined, rather than designed, for a woman leading a very particular life and adopting a very particular style. Rihanna gets away with wearing practically anything. No one has called her out for even questionable looks. Fenty is conceived with one pop star’s idea of fashion, independent of retail reality and creative innovation. It may look “stunning” on Rihanna, but on those who want to emulate her style, it’d look, at best, wannabe. She told Ms Menkes, “I am very much a red carpet girl and I am going to design something for that.” She did not say how that will fit into LVMH’s family of highly commercial brands, or how that will make the world’s largest luxury-brand conglomerate even bigger or the chairman Bernard Arnault, already the richest man in France, even wealthier.

The business minds at Fenty priced the collection to qualify it as a luxury line (minus the other family members’ inherently marketable French quality), but one that did not sit shoulder to shoulder with LVMH’s star brand Dior. ‘Traditionally’, pop/movie stars’ fashion brands are priced to appeal to whatever is opposite of high-end. Think Ivy Park. Or, Jessica Simpson. But Fenty is, for many, expensive (e.g., USD940 for a denim jacket). To be sure, Rihanna is aware of her line’s high prices and had expressed concern that they might not appeal to her budget-conscious fans, used to the far more accessible Fenty Beauty. If, however, the designs were worth paying for, there could be encouraging take up, though no market share. As it turned out, LVMH could not bank on two firsts of Fenty—the first woman to conceive an LVMH brand and the first woman of colour to lead her own house with the company. In the end, taste, voice, and originality matter. And, whether LVMH or Rihanna is aware, flair too.

Illustration by Just So

Two Of A Kind: Wide Shoulders, Narrow Waists

Fenty 2019 Vs A Wang 2020.jpgLeft: the suit jacket at Fenty. Photo: Fenty. Right: The suit jacket at Alexander Wang. Photo: Alexander Wang

Hers came first if only because she sold hers first. And is for the current season, not spring/summer 2020, a far-off six months or more later. Rihanna’s Fenty jacket, worn as a dress by the singer herself at the opening of her first store, a pop-up in Paris, has a silhouette not unlike Alexander Wang’s, shown in New York last Friday, as part of a segment purportedly homage to the now defunct fashion line of Donna Karan.

That the broad shoulders and nipped-in/shaped waist are finally expressed by hype-driven designers perhaps attests to the proportion’s mass acceptance… at last. Balenciaga under Demna Gvasalia’s watch somehow escaped American designers’ inspiration… until now. Is it uncanny that one Barbadian designer’s Parisian debut is echoed back in North America, where European aesthetics have always been dreamy aspirations, not commercial reality?

The similarity is truly remarkable: wide shoulders with enough padding so that they do not droop, the fairly large armhole, the natural-waist emphasis, and, in particular, the vertical lines below the bust used to accentuate the waist—boning for Fenty and reverse darts for Alexander Wang. Rihanna styled hers as a dress, and although Mr Wang teamed his with turtle neck and what appears to be jeans, the jacket looked like it, too, would work sans bottom.

This jacket shape looks to us to be without a dotted line that can be traced to European couture. Rather, it appears to be related to black tailoring of the Forties: the jacket half of the zoot suit, a garment that was, as Smithsonian magazine noted, “unbranded and illicit”. It explained further: “There was no one designer associated with the look, no department store where you could buy one. These were ad hoc outfits, regular suits bought two sized too large and then creatively tailored to dandyish effects.”

There is, of course, nothing “unbranded and illicit” about Fenty and Alexander Wang (who is now using his name as Calvin Klein did and does) and their suit-jackets are clearly not provisional nor standard-issue. It is perhaps easier and more convenient and less provocative to say that they both tap into the zeitgeist emerging from black America, and is going (gone?) mainstream.

Rihanna is today not only a high priestess of fashion, she is, as CNN puts it, “a godsend for curvy women”. Riri does not have the same body as the lass who released the debut album Music of the Sun in 2005. Now bigger, she considers herself her muse, who presumably represents the many women out there that designers, such as fellow LVMH employee Hedi Slimane, do not cater to. That her first male customer is reportedly British Vogue’s Edward Enninful substantiate her social enterprise spirit of wanting to design for non-traditional body shapes that fashion is not partial to, just like the Savage X Fenty underclothing line.

Alexander Wang may be Asian, but he’s American in every way. His Europeanisation of self via Balenciaga (2012—2015) was essentially a parody of what European couture looks like from across the Atlantic. His heart has always been in Harlem; his strength in streetwear. That a jacket of uncommon proportion should appear in his collection indicate that, like other American designers, Mr Wang is addling our understanding of what is street-influenced fashion by taking the tailoring-as-confirmation-of-arrival route.

For now, Rihanna and Alexander Wang are marching to the same drum beat, but who will march on?

Horn Of Fenty

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.
Fenty 052019 G1

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”.

Fenty 052019 G2.jpg

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