Rihanna Disrupts Luxury Fashion World, Joining LVMH With 'Fenty' Brand

May 12, 2019
Originally published on May 13, 2019 5:20 am

Already a bold trendsetter on the pop stage, Rihanna is also breaking barriers in the makeup and fashion industries.

The 31-year-old Barbadian singer has partnered with the historic LVMH Mo√ęt Hennessy Louis Vuitton fashion house, becoming the first woman of color to have a label under LVMH and the first woman to start an original brand for the world's largest luxury group.

The new label is named Fenty, after the last name of the singer (born Robyn Rihanna Fenty). It's an expansion of her cosmetics empire of the same name, launched in a 2017 partnership with LVMH.

The Paris-based Fenty line, which will include ready-to-wear clothing, shoes and accessories, will launch this spring 2019 season as the first house established by the group since Christian Lacroix in 1987, joining legacy brands like Dior, Givenchy and Fendi.

"Designing a line like this with LVMH is an incredibly special moment for us," Rihanna said in a statement from the LVMH group on Friday. "Mr. [Bernard] Arnault has given me a unique opportunity to develop a fashion house in the luxury sector, with no artistic limits."

It's a big moment for the exclusive world of luxury fashion says Tanisha Ford, an associate professor of Africana studies at the University of Delaware.

Ford, who writes about fashion and black identity, says, "We see a woman of color with this much creative control in a luxury market where typically European men have dominated."

For centuries, luxury fashion has reflected a lifestyle enjoyed by very few people, she says, "so by nature it wasn't in a market that was designed for everyday people of color to participate in it."

Even as African Americans hold a buying power of up to $1.2 trillion, fashion critics and consumers have slammed luxury brands for what many say is a diversity problem within the industry. In recent years, big luxury players have been accused of cultural appropriation and selling products viewed as racist.

But it's that particular consumer market that's helped put those brands on the map, Ford says. It's a message the black community has been trying to send to the high-fashion industry for years, she says, "especially the hip-hop generations who have rapped about Gucci and Louis Vuitton and Givenchy, and all these designer brands.

"I'd like to also see the end of this notion that luxury is not for people of color," Ford says. "It means that black and brown people are highly susceptible to racial profiling and hyper-policing when they do go into luxury stores to buy these goods."

LVMH has been taking steps to address the need for diversity in recent years. Last year, the group tapped the DJ and entrepreneur Virgil Abloh as the first African American artistic director for Louis Vuitton's men's wear.

Ford calls the new deal a positive first step in what she hopes will become a larger movement toward inclusion.

"I would love for Rihanna to not be the only [face of luxury]," she says. "I would love to see this be a model that other luxury brands and other, more well-priced pointed brands accept as well."

NPR's Monika Evstatieva produced this story for broadcast and Barrie Hardymon edited.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

You may know her for her music. But for the past few years, she's been breaking barriers in other industries - makeup and fashion. She's now the first woman and the first woman of color to launch a fashion line with the historic LVMH or Moet Hennessey - Louis Vuitton, the world's largest luxury group. The line will be called Fenty, which is the singer's last name. But it's also the name to the cosmetics empire she launched in 2017. To talk to us about this moment and what it means for the industry, we're joined by Tanisha Ford. She's a professor of Africana studies at the University of Delaware and often writes about fashion and black identity.

Welcome.

TANISHA FORD: Hello.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It is hard, I think, to overstate what a big deal this is.

FORD: This is indeed a major moment for luxury fashion. And it's a major moment for people who come of age in the hip-hop generation. We see a woman of color with this much creative control in a luxury market where, typically, European men have dominated. We have a woman from Barbados who is now the face of a luxury empire.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, Fenty, as a fashion line, is the first new line to join the LVMH family since 1987, which is extraordinary. But I wonder, what does it say about the fashion industry itself? You mention that it has taken so long for a woman and a person of color to join the scene.

FORD: Right. So if we think about what luxury fashion has meant for centuries, really, it's an idea that it's a market for the most exclusive people in the world. It reflects a lifestyle that very few people in the world live. And, therefore, for most of us, it's just a fantasy. So by nature, it wasn't a market that was designed for everyday people of color to participate in it. But what we see is that in recent years, that same old-guard fashion industry has been under attack. They're consistently getting it wrong in terms of releasing fashion goods that viewers and people who wear the fashions have considered racist. A lot of these luxury brands have been accused of cultural appropriation over the year. And people who are fashion critics and everyday fashion-lovers have said, well, part of the problem is you have a diversity issue. You don't have people of color at the highest ranks of your fashion industry.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. African Americans have a buying power of up to $1.2 trillion, so their economic impact is huge. I mean, it seems like this is not only good for the brand, and it takes it into the 21st century. But it's also good economic sense.

FORD: Exactly. And that's the thing that black communities have been trying to say to the fashion industry, particularly the haute couture fashion industry, for decades - especially the hip-hop generations who have rapped about Gucci and Louis Vuitton and Givenchy and all these designer brands. You know, we've put those things on the map.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FORMATION")

BEYONCE: (Rapping) I'm so reckless when I rock my Givenchy dress.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRONGER")

KANYE WEST: (Rapping) Awesome - the Christian in Christian Dior - damn, they don't make 'em like this anymore.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROLLIN")

CARDI B: (Rapping) That Louis Vuitton, our uniform - 24 karat - my grills.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MERCY")

2 CHAINZ: (Rapping) Black diamonds - backpack rhyming - co-signed by Louis Vuitton.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HENNESSY")

2PAC: (Rapping) Hennessy - just pour me a glass - Hennessy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BIG POPPA")

BIGGIE SMALLS: (Rapping) The back of the club sipping Moet is where you'll find me.

FORD: Even the Moet and Hennessy lines of alcohol that LVMH represents - so it's like, why wouldn't you recognize our buying power? Why do you continue to sell these goods to your ideal customer, who is a white buyer? But with Rihanna - she's not just a figurehead. She is the leader of a house. And that is major.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So with everything that you're saying about this, is it enough, though?

FORD: I think that it's a step in a positive direction. I think that representation matters. And so this is, indeed, a lovely moment to see. But I think that we need to see a multi-prong approach. So I would love for Rihanna to not be the only. I would love to see this be a model that other luxury brands and other more well-price-pointed brands accept as well. And I'd like to also see the end of this notion that luxury is not for people of color because it excludes a large part of the buying market. And it means that black and brown people are highly susceptible to racial profiling and hyper-policing when they do go into luxury stores to buy these goods.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tanisha Ford is a professor of Africana studies at the University of Delaware and the author of the upcoming book "Dressed In Dreams: A Black Girl's Love Letter To The Power Of Fashion."

Thank you so much.

FORD: Thank you, Lulu.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PON DE REPLAY")

RIHANNA: (Singing) Mr. DJ, song pon de replay. Come, Mr. DJ, won't you turn the music up? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.