The Lessons of Rihanna

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A report by Vanessa Friedman for the New York Times.

On Monday night, late in the program for the 69th annual benefit and student fashion show at Parsons School of Design, a group of graduating seniors stood onstage and extolled the talents of one of the evening’s honorees. She was “inspiring.” Her style was “amazing.” Her brand was “amazing.” (There were a lot of “amazings.”)

Who was this fashion paragon, role model for all of the young would-be designers in the room thanks to her creativity, philanthropy and talent? Not, as it happened, a fellow graduate who had fought her way to the top of the industry through perseverance, sweat and imagination. Not a retailer who had promoted and facilitated the growth of multiple businesses over the years.

Rihanna.

Yes, the Barbadian musical artist/entrepreneur — who has, it seems, officially made the transition from fashion plate to fashion force a mere three years after being crowned a “fashion icon” by the Council of Fashion Designers of America. Or so her positioning on the same platform that has also honored alumni like Marc Jacobs, Donna Karan and Jason Wu would suggest. But is her trajectory from a good celebrity to dress to a serious creative a new paradigm or a paradox? What exactly is the lesson — it was enshrined in a quasi-academic setting, after all — of Rihanna?

Someday there may be a course in the way she has pretty much rewritten every rule book about the relationship between celebrities and design and what it takes to have a successful career in fashion. But for now, let’s work with the crib notes.It began in 2008, when she performed at a benefit for Raising Malawi sponsored by Gucci and held at the United Nations, to the delight and discovery of the style set in attendance. Six years later, she received her CFDA award and set off a thousand flashbulbs when she stood onstage in a sheer rhinestone-spotted Adam Selman gown and white fur boa.

In short order she signed a deal with Puma to become its creative director and design her own line (Fenty x Puma), took that line to the runways of New York Fashion Week and then to Paris (where she showed in the same site as Valentino), became contributing creative director of Stance Socks, received the Footwear News Award for shoe of the year (the first woman to do so) and dipped in and out of collaborations with Dior (on sunglasses), Manolo Blahnik (on shoes) and Chopard (on high-end jewelry). She did this all while maintaining her position as an ambassador for Dior and wearing clothes from a broad assortment of names — from Vetements to recent Parsons grads — with whom she has no contractual relationship.

“She has a quite unique ability to do it all at the same time,” said Burak Cakmak, the dean of fashion at Parsons. And he is referring not just to her own creativity, but also to her ability to get the global brands with whom she works to agree to her (very flexible) terms. This has never really happened before.

A brief history review: Up to this point, there have been effectively three kinds of strategies for celebrity would-be designers. First, the “license your name and make a profit from your fame” approach, one that has had varying levels of success: Jennifer Lopez’s Sweetface line failed and Jessica Simpson’s namesake empire was a wild success.

Second, the “humble yourself before the industry and disappear into the atelier to pay your dues” tack. This has been the favored mode if you want to be seen as a serious fashion person, as exemplified by Victoria Beckham, the Olsen sisters and (at least at the moment, a somewhat chastened) Kanye West.

And third, the newest iteration: the pop-up rock collection gambit, as adopted by Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga and the Weeknd, and essentially an expanded, upstyled version of what used to be called “tour merch.”

Rihanna, however, fits into none of the above. She is both serious about, and promiscuous in, her style. While she says she is heavily involved with her brand, she also freelances widely across the fashion world, often for competing names.

Sure, she has the buffer of her social media fan base, a potential consumer bonanza to dangle in front of any brand, a weapon to wield and ensure her freedom. But that’s only part of the explanation. There are a few different theories as to the rest.

One has to do with the reputation she built as a risk taker who does not hew to a singular path but zigs and zags as she desires: musically, sartorially and professionally. In this hypothesis, her career in fashion simply reflects her career in music, and thus has its own authentic internal logic (authenticity being a big deal these days). Especially when you consider her evident delight in dressing up.

And it is also possible that she is simply the most visible beneficiary of a battle that was fought first by Ms. Beckham et al., who took the initial heat for (we all assumed) daring to think that because they wore clothes well, they could make clothes well.

“Kanye paid the dues for Rihanna,” said Marina Larroudé, the fashion director of Barneys, referring to the fact that Mr. West, with all of his ambition, hubris and early attempts to show in Paris, softened us all up and made us willing to entertain the idea that celebrities can legitimately become designers, and that their work should be judged on its own merits.

But what sort of message does that send to the rest of the fashion world? To consumers, for example, about where the value in their garments lie? To the kids sitting in the audience looking at Rihanna after going to school to learn exactly the sort of thing she never did?

“Anything is possible!” said Fern Mallis, a fashion consultant. “It’s a whole new ballgame in this industry, and she shows that.”

That’s one way of looking at it. Mr. Cakmak offered another. The whole serve-many-masters thing is a situation most design school graduates face, he said. They may start their own brand, but they also have to work behind the scenes for others to pay for it, and Rihanna models this behavior (even if she is not so much hidden as front and center in every scene). As for the notion that she swooped in without any training and was almost immediately regarded as a substantive player, he said that in today’s world “there’s a studio behind every person selling a product,” and you need both to succeed.

Rihanna has, for example, her stylist, Mel Ottenberg. And Puma, which is owned by Kering, which also owns Gucci and YSL (among other brands). There is a lot of traditional know-how to back her up, and the need for traditional know-how equals jobs.

“We’re all rethinking the system, and Rihanna is part of that,” Ms. Larroudé said.

She may be the most visible signpost of it. Certainly, onstage at Parsons in an oversize khaki suit (designed by Matthew Adams Dolan, a Parsons alumnus), she was impossible to miss. But whether the direction she signifies is up or down — or merely a big sideways hop — is not yet entirely clear.

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