Why Rihanna Broke Barriers That Others Couldn’t

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Dan Runcie

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LVMH’s continued partnership with Fenty is a cultural moment, but it also acknowledges the fashion world’s fear of missing out on Rihanna’s rise.

Rihanna at Sephora Fenty Beauty (via Shutterstock)

In less than two years, Fenty Beauty has put the luxury industry on alert. Rihanna’s brand, which launched in partnership with LVMH, has disrupted cosmetics and appears destined for new heights. Fenty’s rise led LVMH to strengthen its partnership and give Rihanna artistic freedom to build a fashion brand in her own Maison—the company’s first since 1987. It’s a celebratory accomplishment, but it’s still a business move. Had LVMH not taken a stronger stake in the upstart brand, Rihanna could have soon became a competitor.

Fenty’s success represents a decisive shift. The 31-year-old addressed generational blindspots in cosmetics and lingerie. She could have eventually done the same in high fashion—LVMH’s wheelhouse. The partnership should elevate the vision of Rihanna’s brand and extends its influence to the rest of the fashion world. It’s a calling that’s long overdue. But this partnership, like any, has its tradeoffs.

The fashion industry was forced to shift

My first Trapital article was Timberland Showed Up Late to the Cookout. Method Man and Mobb Deep proudly repped the iconic six-inch boots, but the New England based apparel company turned the other cheek. Year laters, Timberland started to embrace hip-hop (just in time for Cam’Ron to pull up in pinks Timbs). But the company still lost millions by ignoring its customer base in earlier years.

Timberland’s story is not unique. For years, apparel brands were reluctantly reactive to societal shifts, but came around when they realized the financial opportunity. It’s an example of the “tanning” process that Steve Stoute wrote about in The Tanning of America.

Over time, brands became more susceptible to the cultural pulse. Social media strengthened consumer bargaining power by rewarding brands that knew how to cater to their audience. At the same time, brands that created insensitive products and racist ads were chastised. It was a turning point in fashion, where power brokers were used calling the shots and rarely got checked.

Eventually, high-end brands took it a step further by including artists in their marketing efforts. Rappers became the face of brands on fashion runways and TV spots. These moves were done in preparation for the future. Hip-hop has the strongest impact on millennials and Generation Z, who will account for 40% of spending power in 2020. Their power will only grow over time.

Rihanna struck fear where others did not

Rihanna is not the first artist to have success in fashion, but her rise differed from those who came before her. The 2000s was prime time for apparel companies like Sean John, yet the high fashion industry didn’t take “urban brands” seriously. But the even those artists who aggressively tried to gain traction in high fashion circles weren’t taken seriously either. It was partially due to timing (i.e. the tanning process). But it was also driven by fear—the driving force behind each stage of this progression:

  1. Brands feared of missing out on millions by not catering to hip-hop (Timberland)
  2. Brands feared the public backlash from marketing insensitive or racist products (Gucci’s blackface sweater)
  3. High-end brands feared missing out on hip-hop artists as the face of their brands (A$AP Ferg’s and Tiffany’s)
  4. Brands fear that artists might directly compete with them (LVMH and Rihanna)

In Rihanna’s LVMH statement, she thanked the conglomerate’s CEO, Bernard Arnault. That’s the same Arnault that fueled Kanye West’s epic 2013 rant on the Breakfast Club. “Bernard Arnault, head of Louis Vuitton, said he didn’t need to take a meeting with me. You don’t understand why you didn’t have to take a meeting with Kanye West??”

Ye later shared that he had a deal in place with Louis Vuitton but it fell through. Arnault did not think Ye’s brand would be profitable enough. Kanye was livid and bemoaned about his marginalized talent.

Kanye might have been correct—as he’s since proven his talent with the Yeezy brand—but he had no leverage at the time. Arnault was not scared of losing out on the Late Registration artist. Ye did not incite fear. Keep in mind, this was around the same time Kanye was riding in limos holding plates of food up for Paris fashion designers. He was hungry to get his foot in the door, but hunger can’t close deals.

Meanwhile, Rihanna had a much stronger case to make for several reasons. First, her products addressed a looming pain point in luxury goods. Inclusion is at her brand’s core. Her products are aspirational yet desirable. They attract both the affluent and soon-to-be affluent.

Second, Fenty has valuable customer data. The wide number of cosmetic shades offered is a goldmine for analysis. Data can be used to infer purchasing habits on different demographic segments.

Third, Rihanna is one of the most influential celebrities. A partnership with her is a connection to the Navy, her loyal fanbase. Her 70 million Instagram followers helps, but that’s just a number. Her engagement is where it’s at. Here’s a paragraph from an article I wrote about Rihanna in December:

According to a 2016 study by the NPD Group, the Navy is 3.7 times more likely to buy products from Rihanna than the average big-name celebrity, which is the highest rating that any celebrity had. Rihanna’s track record in consumer products has confirmed this power.

And given Fenty’s quick extension into lingerie with Savage x Fenty—a wholly-owned company that’s not owned by LVMH— it was only a matter of time before she would leverage the Fenty trademark to pursue a fashion line and other brand extensions.

Fenty knows what its customers want

Fenty’s customers are bought into the brand’s purpose. Plans are in place for Fenty skin care and furniture. What’s next??

Companies with different products but similar target markets should always keep an eye on each other. There’s a chance one might enter the other’s space with a competing product. If the company understands the customer well, it’s logical to sell other products that the customer wants. The extended partnership between LVMH and Fenty addresses that risk.

The partnership outlook

The LVMH-Fenty Maison deal is like an acqui-hire. The move should accelerate the creation process for LVMH, which would have needed more time to start a ground-up brand and build its identity.

Rihanna and her team should be excited about their artistic freedom, but the new Maison may be a cultural change. Will the partnership shift any strategic plans that team members were attached to? Will answering to Michael Arnault impact the scrappiness that drove the Fenty team’s initial success? And what if Arnault catches them wearing Yeezys? Will he say something?!

Growing pains are part of any company’s evolution, but the challenges are intensified in mergers and acquisitions.

There’s also the privilege and responsibility that the Fenty team’s minority voices may feel. A voice like Rihanna has the power to influence other Maisons by the examples she sets. It’s a great responsibility, but it can carry a burden.

When fashion brands release racist ads or problematic products, the media often asks the same hypothetical questions: How did this pass all the directors? Do people of color who even work there? That onus might now fall on Rihanna, Virgil Abloh (artistic director for Louis Vuitton’s menswear) and their respective teams.

The minority voices who push back on the problematic and insensitive concepts may not get treated with open-minded acknowledgments either. They may face more resistance than the outside public realizes. It’s an unfortunate possibility that those of us who have been in these positions know far too well.

There’s an old belief that the cost of acquisition is always lower than the company’s true value and potential. Otherwise, the acquiring firm wouldn’t do the deal. The notion is more questionable in industries like tech where valuations are often volatile and inflated. But it’s more realistic for Fenty.

Rihanna has tapped into a movement that’s not changing anytime soon. Inclusion and representation are more important than ever. Companies that embrace it well will continue to succeed.

LVMH knows this. That’s why it strengthened its partnership with “this little girl from the left side of an island,” and gave her a leadership role that the company hasn’t offered anyone in decades. There’s a lot unknown, some clear tradeoffs, but a lot to be optimistic about.

But if there’s anything to be doubtful about, it’s Rihanna’s next album. The Navy’s been waiting for a while now, but Bad Gal RiRi is a bit preoccupied.

Correction 5/18/19: An earlier version of this article reported that Rihanna’s fans were 3.7 times more likely to buy her products over the any other celebrity. I should have said over the average big-name celebrity. Sorry for the error.

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Trapital is written by Dan Runcie: info [at] trapital.co

Dan Runcie

Dan Runcie

Founder of Trapital

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