By joining forces with LVMH, the powerhouse French conglomerate behind the world’s biggest labels, Rihanna is blessing high fashion with an inclusivity that Europe’s exclusive fashion houses have never seen before.
Rihanna is the first woman for whom Bernard Arnault, the mega-company’s chairman and chief executive, built a label from scratch. She’s only the second designer who can claim that honor. The first was Christian Lacroix in 1987. Rihanna is also the first woman of color to lead an LVMH maison. According to the Business of Fashion, she’s a 49.99 percent shareholder in LVMH’s Fenty.
“Rihanna has always been bold. Never afraid. And now she’s a pioneer," said Tuesday Gordon, longtime manager of Center City boutique Joan Shepp. "This is a special moment in fashion for black women.”
It’s also a win for young fashionistas. And that has the potential to make an even greater impact on the industry.
Fenty — which debuts Friday at a Paris pop-up and which will launch online on Wednesday — speaks to those younguns who wouldn’t think twice about pairing a Fenty Japanese denim blazer with a pair of fast-fashion Fashion Nova jeans. It has in mind the young man who may want to wear a corset. And it relates to all who would rather scroll through Instagram and click to buy than thumb through a fashion glossy. Rihanna belongs to the millennials on down.
And this makes me wonder: When it comes to cachet, does Rihanna need LVMH as much as LVMH needs her?
Ten years ago, I would have been on the side of LVMH. People were shopping for sport. Labels mattered more than a brand’s story. And although Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen’s the Row was gaining serious industry traction, we still lived in a world where celebrities were just the faces of the fashion brand. Who cared if they could actually design? Name recognition was queen. Who didn’t own a pair of Jessica Simpson’s wedge sandals? Celebrities needed established labels in their corner for style cred, and in Simpson’s case, it was Vince Camuto.
Brands founded by black celebrities, from Kimora Lee Simmons’ Baby Phat — which she plans to relaunch this summer — to Jay-Z’s Rocawear, were pigeonholed as streetwear. Sean “Diddy” Combs broke the mold with the success of Sean John, a brand that reportedly rakes in hundreds of millions of dollars in sales annually. Still, the highest retail echelon he’s reached is Macy’s.
I suspect this lack of respect for celebrity brands driven by hip-hop artists in fashion’s most rarefied houses is why rapper/designer Kanye West was once obsessed with pleasing Hedi Slimane, the former creative director of Yves Saint Laurent for whom he wrote his 2013 single “I Am a God.” Yeah, I know Kanye thrives on being the center of attention, but I’d bet money a part of him was pleading for the validation in the high-fashion community that black celebrities had never been afforded, no matter how many pieces of clothing they sold.
But without these “streetwear” brands fronted by black celebrities, this Fenty-LVMH lovefest wouldn’t exist. Rihanna is still under Jay-Z’s Roc Nation label, and its CEO, Jay Brown, helped broker the deal for Ri Ri. Simmons, Jay, and Combs made inroads in an industry in which LVMH wants Rihanna to be a boss.
My, how the script flips.
So what does Rihanna get out of the deal? Under the LVMH umbrella, Fenty will enjoy the manufacturing and distribution resources only a monster brand can offer. That’s a luxury for any designer, said Kevan Hall, former creative director of Halston and who dressed Katherine Heigl and Vanessa Williams on the red carpet and whose pieces are sold locally at Gabrielle in Bala Cynwyd. “But when it comes to fashion cachet,” Hall said, agreeing with me, “Rihanna has a bit of an edge.”
Rihanna has the influencers’ ultimate design gig. She can speak directly to her 71.1 million Instagram followers, and the concept of the collection is based on who she is, rather than what the brand wants her to be. She’s dictating to LVMH what her style is, rather than LVMH telling her what’s going to sell. LVMH is in her house now.
And this is why: Rihanna’s style has been an important part of her persona from the moment she launched her singing career. In 2014, the Council of Fashion Designers of America named her its style icon, and Rihanna boldly arrived at the gala in a see-through Adam Selman gown. She’s the highlight of every Met Gala; she didn’t show up this year, and Twitter was salty.
No wonder Rihanna can be disruptive. I can already see how her influence at Fenty is impacting fashion’s greater good.
Fenty’s double-breasted blazers — complete with built-in fanny packs — roomy trousers, puff-sleeve shirts, and corset shirt dresses in neutral blushes, khaki browns, blacks, and whites are proof the label’s nude palette goes way beyond customary peaches and ivories. Also, the collection’s pieces go up to an American size 14. That’s remarkable when most French fashion houses tend to make a hard stop between sizes 10 and 12.
And Rihanna is completely ignoring the fashion calendar. Fashion collections are traditionally revealed on runways in September and February. But Rihanna is releasing her inaugural grouping now. And it will be available to buy within days, not in six months.
There is no doubt this foray is promising, says Teri Agins, author of The End of Fashion: How Marketing Changed the Clothing Business Forever. But the fanfare will mean little if Fenty doesn’t make major sales. And that’s going to be tough, even for a game-changer like Rihanna.