The star’s Savage X Fenty range is stealing the market from Victoria’s Secret
Flesh rolls, stretch marks and dimpled thighs aren’t a traditional mainstay of New York fashion week, nor are lingerie shows ever deemed to have a finger on the pulse. But if the hype around Rihanna’s new collection is anything to go by, the industry is bracing itself for a wobble.
This Tuesday the star, named the world’s richest female musician by Forbes, will be mounting her second Savage X Fenty show at an as-yet-to-be-disclosed Brooklyn venue. As per her debut last year, which was celebrated as a game-changing “festival of flesh of all skin tones” by Vogue, the spectacle is expected to be diverse, inclusive and attended by fashion and celebrity A-listers.
Last year Rihanna staged a direct assault on the traditionally hard-bodied, Barbie-doll aesthetic entrenched in the multibillion-dollar underwear industry by including plus size and pregnant models on her catwalk.
This year she is making no bones about occupying the space created by the fast-declining but still dominant Victoria’s Secret. Rihanna’s event will be streamed on 20 September by Amazon Prime, and is expected to be aggressively marketed to its app users and customer base, propelling the viewership and sales far beyond the reach of any other show.
After a 20-year tenure and posting its worst ever viewing figures last year, Victoria’s Secret’s annual show won’t be broadcast on television at all this year.
The brand best known for its frou-frou polyester knicker sets and fairy wings has been battered by its association with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, who falsely posed as a model scout for the company. Epstein used his close friendship with Leslie Wexner, then head of the retailer’s parent company L Brands, to facilitate his alleged crimes against young girls. But mainly Victoria’s Secret has suffered for failing to adapt to social and consumer change, unable to influence the cultural zeitgeist in a way it once did.
While the company still generated sales of $7.4bn (£6bn) in 2018, its market share dropped from 33% to 24% in just two years. The chain has struggled to resonate with younger buyers, who appear to be choosing comfort over seduction, and will close 53 stores in the US alone this year.
Rihanna’s vision for Savage X Fenty, which launched with more than 90 styles of bras, knickers, bodysuits, rompers and robes, has been designed by her for women like her – who, as she put it, might be “a curvy girl with thighs and a little bit of booty and hips”. The brand is speaking directly to a contemporary audience hungry for a less narrow and prescriptive representation of sexiness.
Meanwhile, Victoria’s Secret has not hidden its debt to male fantasies. As noted by the Atlantic, its former president, Howard Gross, boasted of “never conducting any research into what actual women wanted from their underwear or their lives”. The company itself was founded in 1977 by a man named Roy Raymond who “imagined it as a haven for straight men, something more titillating than the mainstream department-store offerings but less salacious and fringe than sex shops”. The advertising campaigns and lingerie sets that followed were dreamed up from men’s sexual fantasies, rather than making any claim of “empowering” women through garters and bralets.
Rihanna, who has sold 60 million albums and 215 million digital tracks, making her the biggest-selling digital artist of all time, has been lauded for her business prowess. She pivoted from pop music to cosmetics with Fenty Beauty in 2017. The range was met with hysteria: when it was launched in the UK exclusively at Harvey Nichols, queues formed around the block.
Savage X Fenty, which announced a $50m round of new funding from backers last week, followed in 2018 and has cemented the 31-year-old’s reputation for immense savvy. Both brands have been actively designed, led and curated by Rihanna, whose authenticity and “BadGalRiRi” image remains a key part of her appeal.
“Women should be wearing lingerie for their damn selves,” she said when the brand launched. “I can only hope to encourage confidence and strength by showing lingerie in another light. You don’t have to stick to one personality … I want people to wear Savage X Fenty and think: ‘I’m a bad bitch’.”
Casting relatable women in beauty and lingerie campaigns, and offering products that cater to all body shapes and skin tones, and at affordable prices, may seem obvious, but it remains a groundbreaking model for the industry.
According to Lou Stoppard, former editor of the fashion site SHOWStudio, Rihanna’s success lies in serving consumers ignored by the mainstream: “Not content with merely shaking up a beauty market that seemed committed to ignoring non-white women, she’s Fenty-fying our underwear drawers. [Rihanna has] spotted the gap in the market for underwear that doesn’t equate female excellence with a penchant for goji berries and 5am starts to get to the gym”.