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Rihanna's LVMH appointment is a watershed moment

Rihanna’s successes within the luxury sector are important for the culture. Read exactly how here.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.

-- Stephanie Smith-Strick

After months of speculation on Friday, May 10, Rihanna took to social media to confirm the launch of Fenty, a new fashion venture with luxury conglomerate LVMH (Moët Hennessy – Louis Vuitton). The 31-year-old CFDA Fashion Icon Award winner tweeted that the partnership represented “a big day for the culture,” and she couldn’t be more right. Rihanna’s appointment not only makes her the first woman, but the first black woman ever to helm an original fashion label for LVMH. Her line is also LVMH’s only original brand investment since launching Christian Lacroix in 1987-- it sold the brand 18 years later in 2005. According to The New York Times, the upmarket permutation of Fenty will span ready-to-wear, shoes and accessories, and is set to reveal its first offerings in the coming weeks. While Rihanna certainly has a knack for making such accomplishments look effortless, in reality, she comes with an extensive fashion portfolio that has taken the better part of a decade to build.

As early as 2008, when she was tapped as the face of Gucci’s first UNICEF ad campaign, Rihanna was already ingratiating herself into the world of fashion. In 2011, after appearing as the face of both campaigns, she partnered with Armani Jeans and Emporio Armani underwear on a dedicated line of T-shirts, denim and underwear (perhaps the seed of Savage x Fenty took root here). A collaboration with high street retailer River Island -- on which she worked closely with designer Adam Selman -- followed in 2013. By 2014, Rihanna was a front row fixture at fashion weeks around the globe, often arriving as a special guest of the designer du jour. In the same year, she announced a creative director role with Puma -- her run of chronically sold-out footwear spawned a debut RTW collection at New York Fashion Week.

She also became a spokesperson for Chanel, sparking rumors she would be the new face of the brand. While this never came to fruition, a year later, she was tapped as the first black spokesperson for Dior, and also fronted the maison’s Secret Garden campaign. It is certainly no coincidence that the following year Dior Homme appointed A$AP Rocky as the first person of color to front a campaign. In 2017, Rihanna even forayed into fine jewelry, racking up another landmark accomplishment and co-designing a collaboration with Chopard that was inspired by her childhood in Barbados.

Rihanna’s successes within the luxury sector are of two-fold importance. For starters, they proved very early on that she possessed an innate cultural currency -- black people have always driven popular culture -- that high-end brands have always struggled to leverage. Keep in mind that Fenty Beauty, which launched in partnership with the LVMH beauty incubator, made well over $500 million in its first year alone. By comparison, many of LVMH’s other brands have suffered sluggish growth and declines in sales. As Forbes noted in December 2018, a Savigny Luxury Index report showed a continuing drop in the average stock prices of 18 of the world’s leading luxury companies. LVMH was listed as having seen a six percent drop. Part of this trend is, of course, down to wealth disparity; as America’s middle class continues to shrink, retailers have increasingly turned to Asia, which currently leads the world in the consumption of luxury. Yet another factor is the historic resistance of luxury brands to engage non-white consumers, who have gone from being openly shunned to discreetly ignored (but routinely appropriated), and now, actively courted.

For example, in 2017, in an odd twist of fate that no one would have ever predicted in the 1980s, Gucci ripped a custom Dapper Dan piece and re-appropriated it for their Cruise 2018 collection. People were understandably outraged. Though Gucci was not among them, in the ‘90s, several luxury labels took issue with the counterfeiting of their logos, and legally pursued the Harlem atelier so aggressively, it was eventually driven out of business. Of course, now Dapper Dan has an official partnership with Gucci, who also helped reopen the atelier in 2018.

In this way, Rihanna’s appointment (and her many other firsts) are an extension of a slow, but steady cultural shift that has seen black creatives like Dapper Dan -- who were once shunned by luxury labels -- brought into their fold out of a necessity to adapt or become obsolete. LVMH -- whose portfolio includes a number of “heritage” French, Italian and Spanish brands -- has often rightfully been associated with an aspirational, intentionally white-washed ethos that is deeply rooted in colonial histories. Throughout the mid-2000s and earlier, it wasn’t even uncommon to see LVMH brand campaigns that actively leaned into these tropes, featuring white models posed in settings ranging from African safaris to flat-out using actual black people.

As rewarding as it is to see independent black brands like Pyer Moss or Wales Bonner playing in the same spaces as historically monied European maisons, it’s also deliciously ironic to watch a black woman from a small island that was once a British colony assume the mantle of creative power at what is for all intents and purposes a French luxury house -- Fenty will based in Paris. Now we can only hope her actual hiring decisions will be a lot more inclusive than the other black creative currently helming an LVMH brand.

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