Every company wants to be "relatable," particularly when the age of social media and digital streaming provides opportunities for brands to invade our daily habits.
In fact, when designing a brand, companies basically hack our daily routines so we see optimal "representation" of ourselves in a brand's identity. Accordingly, society's calls for more body positivity and inclusivity change how companies present themselves. The fashion and beauty industries, historically myopic in their views of what women look like and offering products of limited sizes and shade ranges, clearly want to answer calls for more inclusivity. Cue Rihanna, renowned 31-year-old pop singer and now a CEO, debuting a makeup line, a lingerie line, and soon a luxury fashion brand through LVMH.
Rihanna is the first black woman to create a luxury fashion line with Louis Vuitton's parent company. The Barbados-born singer and designer recently shared with T Magazine that she aims to be "as disruptive as possible" in the beauty and fashion industries. In 2017, she launched Fenty Beauty and received public acclaim for its extensive range of 40 shades of foundation, with 10 more released earlier this year. Additionally, her Savage X Fenty lingerie line was lauded for its size inclusivity and relatively affordable price points. Now, her luxury fashion line will make its full online debut on May 29, with a limited pop-up store opening in Paris on May 24.
When asked if she ever felt like an outsider in a traditionally white and male-dominated industry, she replied, "It's never alleviated, you know? You're going to be black wherever you go. And I don't know if it's unfortunate or fortunate, because I love being black. So, sorry for those who don't like it—that's the first thing you see before you even hear my voice."
Rihanna takes great pride in what her under-represented perspective has to offer the industry. "There are also other factors: I'm young. I'm new to the family. I'm a woman," she said. "Those factors do come into play, but I will not apologize for them, and I will not back down from being a woman, from being black, from having an opinion. I'm running a company and that's exactly what I came here to do...I do know that the reason I'm here is not because I'm black. It's because of what I have to offer. That's what they're invested in. And the fact that I'm black is just that: a fact."
Her luxury line's unique sales approach takes after Supreme's insanely successful strategy, releasing a new clothing item once a month on the website, like dropping a single. Rihanna said, "So with this, you see it, you love it, you can have it. I want to be as disruptive as possible. The brand is not traditional. There is no runway show. It's a new way of doing things because I believe that this is where fashion is going to go eventually."
As far as the brand's relatability goes, Rihanna noted that uniqueness and self-differentiation are central to her style: "I use myself as the muse. It's sweatpants with pearls, or a masculine denim jacket with a corset. I feel like we live in a world where people are embracing every bit of who they are." The brand's style director, Jahleel Weaver, added that Fenty's mission "is to really speak to how multifaceted today's woman is. We're thinking about each release as a different facet to a woman's wardrobe and how she approaches dressing."
But the brand's claim to appeal to the modern woman is out of touch with reality. Products range from $460 sunglasses to a $1,100 cotton canvas dress. That's not surprising from a luxury goods company parented by Christian Dior. But the typical modern woman can't afford $625 sandals or a $420 brass ear cuff with Swarovski crystals.
High fashion is never "modern" in the plain sense of the word; its inherent elitism means it's dictated by the styles of the economically privileged, not "today's woman," as Weaver described. The Fenty brand baldly caters to modern wealthy women, with Weaver adding, "Luxury has been defined in the past as one woman, one brand: You know who the Saint Laurent woman is, you understood who the Céline woman was when it was Phoebe. Which is fine, but you think about how that relates to the modern woman. I don't think she is just one thing, Rih being the perfect example of that."
Again, we'd expect no less from a luxury brand, but early praise of Rihanna's clothing line cites its inclusivity of sizes and unisex styles. She noted, "I'm thick and curvy right now, and so if I can't wear my own stuff then, I mean, that's not gonna work, right? And my size is not the biggest size. It's actually closer to the smallest size we have: We go up to a [French size] 46 [which is a US 14]. We're saying we can meet you at any one drop that we put out." Aside from the fact that the average size of an American woman is now between 16 and 18, a fashion brand's gestures towards size inclusivity do nothing to counteract the inherent classism of the industry.
When speaking with T Magazine, Rihanna didn't acknowledge that her customer base will be primarily defined by their economic standing. Rather, she only encouraged her future customers to mix her luxury brand with whatever they wanted. "I don't care what you pair it with. Whatever you want," she said. "You know, when I was younger, I couldn't afford everything, but a pair of Timberlands: That was my Dior. And I had to save my money for a whole school year to get those Timberlands that I wanted, and I did it. Shoot, if your closet is full of Dior, go for it, put Fenty on with that. But you might have some Balenciaga sneakers and a Fashion Nova fit that my jacket is super lit with."
The designer claimed that her past experience is "the thing that keeps me asking: So how much is this gonna cost at retail? How can we bring the price down without compromising on quality?" Apparently, they can only bring the price down to a $200 T-shirt and $1,500 outerwear. Frankly, even Fenty brands touted as being affordable for the average American consumer are at higher price points. For instance, a piece of Savage X Fenty lingerie is comparatively more costly than its competitors, with an average price of $43. A similar Victoria's Secret product costs an average of $31 and Aerie $36.
Pew Research Center
Ultimately, Rihanna's role as the first black woman to create a line with LVMH should be celebrated as a step toward minority representation in fashion. But it doesn't open up doors—at least not for 81% of Americans living in middle or lower class. The median income of the middle class in 2016 was $97,312 per year. According to Fenty's sneak peek, that's 88 coats!
High fashion itself is infamously classist, from designer brands appropriating "distressed" aesthetics of working-class clothing to price-gouging pre-stained sneakers up to $530. With America's income inequality matching levels seen prior to the Great Depression, luxury brands are hardly reflective of the typical, modern consumer. Rihanna's is no different. While it gestures to "disrupt" industries by challenging how size, race, and gender are represented, it's like most other high class brands, excluding the majority of American consumers who experience income scarcity. Rihanna's Fenty line is historic and, sure, even socially progressive, but it's still a classist endeavor that feeds the rich and uses the struggles of "today's woman" as a marketing tool.