How Rihanna Became the Undisputed Queen of Fashion Week

Wednesday, September 12, 2018, 6 p.m. It was, as The Hollywood Reporter called it, “a New York Fashion Week showdown.” Marc Jacobs, always the last — and most punctual — show of Fashion Week, was running late. Nearly an hour and a half late, to be exact. Guests who had planned to have enough time to attend Rihanna’s first Savage Fenty event at 7:30 p.m. in Brooklyn were faced with a difficult choice: wait for Jacobs to begin and likely miss what would become the most talked about event of the Spring 2019 show season. For many, the decision was clear — get up and leave. It was Rihanna or bust.

Editors and buyers who made that choice were rewarded with an experience unlike any other. The Savage x Fenty show skipped traditional fashion show seating (and NYFW’s Midtown location) for a standing-room-only presentation at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Models didn’t just walk, fast-paced, blank-eyed down an elevated runway; they danced to an upbeat, mostly electronic playlist as directed by New Zealand choreographer Parri$, a frequent Rihanna collaborator. The casting also stood out. Per The Fashion Spot’s seasonal diversity report, the show featured 72 percent models of color, 12 plus-size models, and two pregnant ones (for the kind of buzz you can’t manufacture, model Slick Woods went into labor backstage, delivering a baby boy the following day). It wasn’t your traditional fashion show; it was a 360-degree meditation on the Savage x Fenty brand, the women it’s for, and the woman behind it.

When Rihanna announced she’d be adding lingerie to her growing business portfolio in April 2018, the industry was having an identity crisis. For so long, Victoria’s Secret had a monopoly over the market, and smaller, direct-to-consumer brands like ThirdLove and True & Co weren’t just emerging — they were reshaping how people buy lingerie (and how companies sell it). Rihanna was ready to challenge that notion, too.

Her line, Savage x Fenty, was about finding the right combination of sex appeal and body positivity, and proving that the two aren’t mutually exclusive. But the brand wasn’t only focused on expanded sizing (bras range from 32A to 44DD; underwear ranges from size XS to XXXL) and creating inclusive campaign imagery (it has featured boundary-breaking models like Jazzelle Zanaughtti, Leomie Anderson, and Stella Duval). It was ready to revitalize the fashion show, and turn the runway from pure spectacle with clothing that is rarely produced to a presentation of pieces people can actually wear — and buy.

Generally speaking, fashion shows are a branding and press opportunity. They’re a chance for designers to connect with customers, and they’re a way to project a certain vision and visual direction. Though they are a chance for followers to see clothing up close and in motion, most of the items shown will never actually get made. For the most part, what you see on the runway isn’t what you get in real life. Rihanna challenged that, too. She made the runway a reflection of her reality.

“Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty show has definitely challenged other brands to be more edgy and contemporary in their approach,” says Shelby Ivey Christie, media manager at L’Oréal USA and creator of the “Girl with the Bamboo Earring” podcast, which examines the impact of Blackness on the fashion industry. “At the inaugural Fenty Savage show we saw a pregnant Slick Woods walk the runway, and we saw an array of women — all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, and backgrounds. Rihanna organically injects representation into her shows. It doesn’t seem like forced diversity and inclusion or some business KPI to check off a list. She is just doing the work to ensure that everyone can see a bit of themselves in her collections.”

In 2016, market research company NPD group found that Rihanna was the world’s most marketable celebrity; her fans were 3.7 times more likely to buy pieces she’d endorsed or created than those by other big name stars. Her first design collaboration with UK retailer River Island helped boost sales by 70 percent; Puma credited its partnership with Rihanna for increasing profits (the September 2015 Fenty collection sold out in just 35 minutes).

“Brands left, right, and center are paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for celebrities and influencers to wear their product (especially at key events such as Fashion Week), but Rihanna is a walking, talking, hustling advertisement for herself, her values, and her product,” says Sedge Beswick, managing director of influencer marketing agency SEEN Connects. “She’ll constantly show off the different ways to wear and style her pieces using her own social to drive awareness, credibility, and in turn, sales.”

The odds of a celebrity building a successful fashion brand are small. The odds of building a successful fashion brand that’s also well-respected within fashion itself are nearly impossible (Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen’s The Row and Victoria Beckham’s namesake line are the rare exceptions). But Rihanna hasn’t just gotten it right — she’s forced the industry to keep up with the pace she’s setting, and has compelled brands to reevaluate how they connect with their customer. The proof is in the numbers.

Most fashion shows cost upwards of $100K, with little to no evidence that designers will receive a strong return on their investment — especially when the average consumer can’t afford a luxury price point. Despite the fact that the clothes weren’t the focal point of the Savage x Fenty show’s coverage (most headlines applauded the casting), her collections consistently sell out.

Luxury is expensive and unattainable. But women can buy into Rihanna’s lifestyle for less than $100 — and seeing the pieces on the runway, on women who look like the Savage x Fenty customer, has only helped sell that story.

“It’s the most overused word in marketing (especially when influencers are involved!), but the reason why Rihanna can drive the impact she has around Fashion Week is because it really is authentic to who she is and what she stands for,” Beswick explains. “She uses her social footprint to break down the barriers and to bring everyone one step closer to her brand — making it constantly accessible and aspirational (even if you’re not on the front row). Rihanna also stands up and leads by example, whether it’s around diversity or being ‘you.’”

Influencer discovery and activation platform The Gramlist examined the social presence of the biggest/most recognizable names on the NYFW calendar (including Marc Jacobs, Michael Kors, Ralph Lauren, Tom Ford, Oscar de la Renta, and Coach) to see how Savage x Fenty compared. Though much newer, the Savage account has a much smaller audience with 1.4 million followers — compared to Michael Kors at 13.7 million, Ralph Lauren at 9.8 million, and Marc Jacobs at 8.3 million. Still, it receives four to nearly 12 times as much engagement (which includes likes, comments, and shares). Last September, the #SavageXFW18 hashtag garnered 1.4 times the number of mentions of Marc Jacobs’ #MJFW18, and 3.9 times the number of mentions that Oscar de la Renta’s #odlrspring2019 received.

Put simply: Her collection is newer, smaller, and talked about way more.

“Fenty’s social posts, ads, products, events, and initiatives are all executed with the utmost authenticity,” says Brandon Perlman, CEO and Founder of The Gramlist. “They have strategically been cultivating an online community rather than chasing audience.”

Adding to the “authenticity” factor is that the way Rihanna utilizes social media in her personal life seamlessly translates to her professional one. She’s open and honest, whether it’s about her weight gain (and celebrating her body), or her penchant for the to-go glass of wine.

“Rihanna has always been a ‘Clapback Queen,’” Ivey Christie says. “She was one of the first major celebrities to respond directly to fans on social media and engage with them there. I also think it’s clever of Savage x Fenty to use talent and influencers who dominate the social space. Not only is organic social media advertising free, but it’s where the eyeballs are, it’s where her demographic is, and it’s where some of her most iconic clapbacks live.” It’s also where she — and anything she does — thrives.

The social presence, the influencers, that’s exactly what makes a Rihanna fashion show a moment — and not just another fashion show. Pink sand mountains (with a motorbike finale), a detention-themed faux-library, a Garden of Eden celebration…they may sound kitschy, but they are made for the ‘gram. When they’re happening, everyone is talking, sharing, and wishing they were there. Rihanna’s isn’t the only brand serving up over-the-top show sets (let us never forget the Chanel grocery store looting incident of 2014). But it works for her like none other, strictly because of that authenticity factor: Her audience is already used to communing with her on social platforms, which is precisely where fabricated “moments” like that explode.

“The social impact of Fenty and the shows Rihanna puts on illustrate what it takes for brands to break through the noise,” Perlman explains. “She has a distinct perspective that is authentic to her brand and rooted in its the DNA. She has been consistent with that message and leveraged it to connect with a community of highly engaged followers. The shows have been able to tap into cultural themes which resonate with her community both in-person and online.”

So much of Fashion Week may be dead, but for Rihanna, it’s all just coming to life. 

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