As Rihanna‘s profile grew towards the end of the decade, her image became arresting. With Umbrella and the album, Good Girl Gone Bad came to an appearance: a distinctive, provocatively heavy-lidded stance, bra tops, bondage straps boots and leather. Whips and riding crops became props.
The imagery’s violence was uncomfortable viewing by her boyfriend, Chris Brown, in 2009. It reached its peak in the movie for S&M, in 2011, where Rihanna wore a dress with the slogans “whore” and “slut” while binding against a wall with layers of clingfilm. The movie was banned in 11 nations. Rihanna told British Vogue that the appearance was “not me. That is just like a part I play. You know, like it is a bit of art, with all these textures and toys to play with.”
Rihanna’s shift from popstrel to controversy-baiting sex symbol caught the attention of the fashion industry. Within six months of the S&M video, she had appeared on the covers of US and British Vogue. In that year’s Grammys, she wore Jean Paul Gaultier haute couture. In Time magazine in 2012, Stella McCartney described Rihanna as “one of the coolest, hottest, most talented, most enjoyed, most listened to, most followed, most impressive artists at work today.”
But as her fashion connections grew to include an ambassadorship with Dior and collaboration with Manolo Blahnik, Rihanna pursued yet another career, as an actor. She starred in the film Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and will appear alongside Sandra Bullock, Anne Hathaway and Mindy Kaling from the hotly anticipated heist film Ocean’s Eight next year.
Tom Ford has clarified Rihanna’s style as “daring, fearless, and continuously evolving.” That fashion has evolved beyond the sledgehammer sexuality of S&M to an exuberant take on fashion that combines a willingness to experiment with a strong sense of self. Where other actors stick doggedly to the look that the stylist has deemed appropriate for their “personal brand,” Rihanna has fun with her clothing.
In 2014, she wore a Swarovski-crystal fishnet bodysuit with matching turban to the CFDA awards, accessorized with a nude thong and a white fur stole. The next year, her Guo Pei dress for the Met Gala prompted an omelet meme. (Fashion observers, however, noted that Rihanna was among very few attendees to have honored the Chinese theme of the exhibition by wearing a dress with a Chinese programmer.) She has embraced the fashion of Vetements with puffa coats and luridly dresses, and helped turn Princess Diana to a hipster millennial crush by sporting her face on a T-shirt.
The past year has marked Rihanna’s transition from fashion plate. One year ago, she transferred her Puma show to Paris, using a collection entitled “Marie Antoinette Goes to the Gym.” This was followed, in March, by sending her models walking down the tabletops of the National Library of France in collegiate-themed streetwear. The Paris fashion week event, which had the air of the world’s most glamorous detention, garnered Rihanna’s most favorable reviews thus far. Her influence has been evident in other designers have followed her lead in casting her favorite version, Slick Woods, who has appeared in each Fenty series and is the face of Fenty Beauty.
At the launch party for Fenty Beauty Rihanna, dressed in a custom-made Oscar de la Renta outfit, Rihanna emphasized the importance of inclusivity. “There has to be something to get a dark-skinned girl, there needs to be something for a pale girl … you want people to appreciate the solution and not feel like: ‘Aw, that’s cute, but it just looks good on her,”’ she told editors. Alongside the strikingly buzz-cut, gap-toothed Woods, Rihanna has chosen the hijab-wearing model Halima Aden as a Fenty Beauty ambassador. Rihanna “makes me feel hopeful for the future of the beauty industry,” enthused one reporter who attended the function.
Three days after the gravitas and business clout of her attractiveness launch, Rihanna took her catwalk bow after her Puma series with one hand in the air and her tongue sticking out. The world is taking Rihanna now, but women just wanna have fun.