It’s live! Fenty.com opened for business on Wednesday, the public consummation of the much-hyped commitment between Rihanna and LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton. Vocal reaction to the nascent partnership has been mostly euphoric, the deal touted as indicative of fashion’s expanding borders, a major step for Rihanna in her ongoing evolution from global pop star to global pop-culture mogul, and a salient move by LVMH for having brought this creative juggernaut into its fold, a pro-diversity milestone laudable in an industry not as worldly woke as it likes to fancy itself.
No question, the deal puts Rihanna on a well-funded path to potential luxury mogul-hood and puts yet another LVMH brand firmly in the limelight. Yet one aspect of this partnership has been under-discussed: What it represents for the larger industry, in particular, for the pure creation side, and for the future trajectory of the traditionally trained designer.
The celebrity infiltration of fashion didn’t happen yesterday, nor did it start in the design studio. It first emerged on the cover of magazines, when models got shoved aside in favor of actresses. That was long ago, and a great deal has happened since (that models have made something of comeback even as magazines have waned is due to the determination and social-media-savvy of some smart, self-directed young women). And while many celebrities have collaborated with fashion brands or launched their own, few have broken into luxury-level stardom. Those who have — Victoria Beckham and The Row’s Mary-Kate Olsen and Ashley Olsen — renounced their performing pasts, turned fashion into their day jobs and dedicated themselves to growing their brands seriously and slowly.
Not so Rihanna. One assumes she has no intention of giving up the pop-star life, nor should she. (Would you?) But that’s not the biggest difference. The biggest difference is that Rihanna launched Fenty in partnership with LVMH, one of fashion’s most powerful groups, under the leadership of Bernard Arnault, who is one of the most powerful people in fashion.
As widely reported, this was the first time in 32 years that Arnault has backed a start-up fashion venture. Clearly that indicates his deep belief in Rihanna’s talent, creative message, work ethic and ability to break out from an oversaturated field and connect with the consumer. More than 250 million followers across her various social media platforms say she has already connected.
Since the launch of Christian Lacroix in 1987 (LVMH sold the brand in 2005), not a single pure young fashion talent has impressed Arnault and LVMH enough to merit the level of interest bestowed on Rihanna. This, from the luxury group that studies aspiring designers intensely, and for the past six years, methodically, through its Prize for Young Fashion Designers initiative. Someone I spoke with on the subject argued that my take is overblown: “Fenty-LVMH is one deal and Rihanna is one pop star, with a highly developed sense of style.” True. But a great sense of style doesn’t necessarily translate into rarefied design talent. And it’s one example, but one example out of a field of one case in 32 years.
Arnault is a brilliant man, with a fabulous track record for identifying talent and directing LVMH, both in response to and anticipation of cultural shifts. Given the rarity with which he goes all-in on an untested designer, one might infer that he sees celebrity crossover as the way of the future, and even that creativity is a secondary consideration. And it’s not as if other groups are jumping in with major support of unknown design talents. The obvious exception: Gucci’s Alessandro Michele, on whom Marco Bizzarri took a huge chance that has so far paid off brilliantly. Still, it’s not the same degree of risk. The recent past indicates that even fashion’s most storied contract employees are just that — contract employees, and the one-and-done concept is now as ordinary in fashion as in Division 1 college basketball.
The industry has changed, the consumer has changed, the culture has changed. Given that, is the Rihanna-LVMH partnership particularly symbolic? In working through my own thoughts on the topic, I asked a handful of smart industry people their takes. Some of the questions posed: Is the era of the designer who achieves fame purely on the merits of his/her creative vision and designs over? Are trained designers destined to be the anonymous worker bees behind megabrands fronted by glamorous celebrities? What are the long-term creative ramifications for fashion? Will young creative types continue to view traditional fashion design as an attractive career path? Has the zeal for brand-building made the zeal for creative expression a secondary consideration?
On the creative question, some whose jobs encompass talent evaluation talked about the inevitably of change. “Everything is in flux,” said Robert Burke, founder of consultants Robert Burke Associates. “What’s appealing today to the consumer, it’s not as traditional as what we have known in the past. When I look at someone like Virgil [Abloh] or I look at what’s happening today at Gucci, [with] Michele, being a very unknown designer, it’s impossible today to separate sheer design, classically trained design and marketing.”
A pair of retailers focused on the positive aspect of such change without speaking specifically to whether there’s been a deemphasizing of pure creativity and the skill required to realize it. “It’s a sign of the times. It’s very promising, very exciting,” said Roopal Patel, fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue, of the Rihanna-LVMH partnership. “Rihanna at the heart of it is an artist, a megastar, a superstar and her creativity expands across many different channels.…It is innate and natural, and we have seen that multiple times across the red carpet in her fashion selections.”
Artist, megastar, superstar. Check, check and check. And as a designer, she may prove to be an all-time great; we don’t know. But not a traditional designer. Nor certainly a full-time one, in the model of virtually every famous designer who has had lasting impact on the industry and the culture. Today, the “multi-hyphenate” rules.
“We have to be open to the changes and evolution of the industry — which can be very exciting,” said Elizabeth von der Goltz, global buying director at Net-a-porter. “I remember seeing Rihanna’s first Fenty collection, and even then it was clear she had a true love for designing and expressing her own point of view. She has continued to really elevate what she’s doing.…Rihanna truly transcends pop-icon status and has her own sense of style. Knowing what she has done in the past, I am very optimistic about her abilities.”
As for the diversity/inclusivity angle, Patel noted the historical import of a woman of color heading a house within LVMH for the first time. Certainly a great deal has been made of that fact, and many plaudits thus directed at LVMH for making it happen (the same plaudits the group received when it tapped Abloh to design Louis Vuitton men’s wear). To her credit, Rihanna immediately declared that inclusivity and diversity will be integral to her hiring ethos. That’s great, and as it should be, at Fenty and everywhere. But let’s not overstate the social consciousness vis-à-vis LVMH. Yes, Rihanna is a black woman. She is also one of the most famous people on the planet whose every move, every song, every concert, every red-carpet appearance generates seismic social media activity. Fenty has already garnered more attention from both traditional and new media than many fashion start-ups will get through the life of their brands. Is there risk involved? Sure. There are no guarantees; it might not work.
But partnering with this particular black woman is a very different start-up situation than if LVMH had decided to get behind a different black woman, say one discovered during its Young Designer Prize process. Or a white woman or black or white man or differently gendered person to emerge that way, someone trying to break through as a fashion voice solely on the merits of talent, training and tenacity, without the boost from preexisting global stardom.
It makes one wonder about the future of that type of designer and that specific career. Of course, as in any creative field, only a very small percentage of fashion aspirants become famous, either at their own brands or by leading a major brand. Most designers work within a system under the direction of the outward-facing designer/creative director, with the mandate of helping that designer realize his or her vision. Here, the launch of Rihanna’s immediately high-profile brand has already created a host of employment opportunities.
“To reach out to the masses and to have the scale, [fashion needs] that level of visibility and recognition by the public,” said Burak Cakmak, dean of fashion at Parsons School of Design. “And who better has that recognition than people in the entertainment world, who have celebrity status [with] the audience? As they build these brands, obviously they are relying on a whole team to support them, to deliver their promise around the product, and a design and a brand promise, so it will always include designers.”
Fair enough, but historically, that designer or creative director has skills at least equal to those working for him or her, or had the skills, even if with time and business growth they may not always get sufficient exercise to stay sharp.
And naive or not, most young people setting out on a creative career track such as fashion are drawn in part by aspirational allure, by the yearning to ultimately find a platform for their own voice and vision. The facts of real-world employment, including that most creatives never achieve fame or that high-profile, statement-making platform, are learned incrementally along the way.
“As a dean and as an educator for 20 years, I worry about the encroachment of celebrity culture, a kind of dominance of branding,” said Troy Richards, dean for the school of art and design at the Fashion Institute of Technology. “What I’ve been really impressed with is that young people are far more adaptable, far more creative and find more ways in this world than I would have thought. And it really helps alleviate many of my concerns as I watch our students leave FIT and succeed and really flourish in what looks like an unstable environment.”
While fashion is indeed often unstable for the independent and unfunded, for the major groups and their favored brands, the growth-and-power ceiling seems as limitless as the marketing resources available to them. Around the Rihanna launch, relatively little talk has focused on the clothes themselves. While marketed as positioned at the luxury level, by LVMH standards, that’s relative — jackets around $1,100 as compared to two to four times that at Givenchy and Dior. As for the look, Rihanna went for strong-shouldered, shapely tailoring with a power vibe, clothes for a woman in charge of her day-to-day drill and her greater destiny. Are they visionary? Not from an early perusal of the web site and marketing materials. Smart and strong — yes. Innovative — no. But these days in fashion, innovation and wonderment aren’t the singular driving forces they once were.
“It used to be that it was all about the product and it was all about the craft and all about the workmanship and the training and the background and devoting your singular focus to just that,” said Burke, name-checking a quartet of greats — McQueen, Galliano, Oscar, Saint Laurent. “Today it’s not. I think it speaks to how society has changed, how the consumer has changed, how luxury has changed. I think ultimately the product is key. But the product alone today is not enough to carry it…it’s not enough to appeal to the consumer.”
Fashion students — and pure fashion lovers — take heed.