FOR THREE YEARS, I have been a diligent student of Rihanna’s 2016 song “Work.” The first lesson it taught me was in the fine art of ubiquity: The omnipresent earworm hovered over casual intimacies, significant encounters, mundane journeys and made sense of itself wherever, in whatever crevices it chose. Then “Work” found its way into my own work. In my script for “Slave Play,” which debuted at New York Theater Workshop in 2018, the protagonist Kaneisha suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder and Rihanna’s “Work” plays in her head on repeat, taking on a frighteningly oppressive quality and revealing the historic bedrock I was attempting to excavate: namely, that black people, specifically women, must live with the knowledge that their emotional and physical labor is the backbone of every relationship that they endeavor to have with their partners, with America. The song, which weaves through the dialogue, brought more attention to the play than any other device could have.
This sense of casual immensity is what drew me to Robyn Rihanna Fenty, 31, as not only a performer but as an artist and a businessperson: a model for my own maturation. When listening to her repetitive, patois-filled song— work, work, work, work, work, work — one hears a Barbados-born1musician who recognizes that the histories that are carried in her movement and her tongue are foreign to the listener. But instead of shying from that otherness, she dines upon it, a lesson for any of us who have held onto the shame of difference. As she prepares to launch Fenty, the fashion line she has created in partnership with LVMH2 — the first luxury fashion house the conglomerate has created from scratch (which will begin sales at a pop-up in Paris on May 24, then be fully available at fenty.com on May 29) — I wanted to discover what lessons she had to offer as she carried that confident otherness deeper into the nonmusical work she has been concentrating on this decade.
In April, we agreed to meet among barrels of chocolate at Dark Sugars Cocoa House,3 in the Shoreditch neighborhood of London. I thought about the unenviable position that Rihanna has come to occupy throughout her 14-year career, since she first moved to Stamford, Conn., and released her first tracks in 2005. To be black, a woman and an immigrant in the United States is to be a collection of negations of the American dream — yet she stepped past those negations and into a fantasy of abundance few could imagine. In the last five years, we have witnessed her release her most critically acclaimed album,4 become creative director of women’s collections for the German sportswear brand Puma,5 develop a line of size- and gender-inclusive lingerie under the Savage x Fenty label and debut her Fenty Beauty line,6 which literally changed the face of the cosmetics world by introducing a foundation palette with 40 shades, from the palest to the darkest skin tones. Now, Rihanna has become the first black woman to run a major luxury fashion house. Featuring structured silhouettes in subdued neutrals (at least to start) that emphasize strong shoulders, cinched waists and exposed legs, the Fenty brand is hoping to disrupt the market not only by channeling the imagination of a black woman but by revolutionizing the luxury distribution model by focusing on direct-to-consumer online sales. This allows Rihanna and her team of collaborators the freedom to drop new additions to the collection — which includes sunglasses, shoes and other accessories — every few weeks, like singles from an album. LVMH and the artist decided last year to expand their current relationship beyond cosmetics into a full-fledged fashion company, and Rihanna has already imbued the collection with her high-low aesthetic, incorporating intricate leatherwork and meticulous techniques like boning, then queering the looks by playing with gender tropes.
Rihanna is uniquely positioned to forge a path for black owners in luxury fashion: Not only is she a muse of that realm herself but she has studied the maps she’s inherited from her forebears. From a red-carpet style indebted to the silhouettes of Zelda Wynn Valdes7 as well as the lush fabrics of Sean Combs’s Sean John line8 and the steely assurance of Jay-Z’s Rocawear9 collection, we have seen black fashion’s past adorning Rihanna as she steps into black fashion’s future. Indeed, the mission of the Fenty clothing line, according to Jahleel Weaver, a stylist for Rihanna who is now the label’s style director, “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. 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.10 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.”
AS THE DOORBELL chimed, a brilliantly heeled foot — wearing one of the aggressively pointed leather Fenty sandals I’d previewed the day before — stepped through a hidden side door. I was instantly hit with the emotional heft that a student feels in the presence of a favorite teacher — if only all teachers wore pinstriped Balenciaga suits. She smelled like cinnamon, bubble gum and the sea, her scent dominating the overpowering chocolate around us. For the next two and a half hours, I studied her every glance and gesture for a hint of the weight her work must put upon her. The weight of expectation, the weight of anticipation, the weight of youth, the weight of doubt — though only in a single moment, when we spoke of fear, did this weight announce itself. Yet the lesson I took back home to New Haven with me is that there can be pleasure in the privilege of working despite society’s negations. The pleasure and ubiquity of Rihanna’s work endures because the only thing that will stop her from doing it — is her.
‘I CAN’T JUST THINK I KNOW EVERYTHING.I’M VERY SMART WITH MY CONTROL FREAK.I WELCOME OTHER PEOPLE’S EXPERTISE.’
JH: What are some of the things you’ve come to appreciate since you’ve moved to London?11
RF: Walking around the block.
JH: Wait, you can walk around the block? Because here, they had to shut everything down.
RF: No! This is not a regular day in London. It’s a bank holiday. Everyone’s out. It’s insane.
JH: Do people recognize you?
RF: When I go walking, I try to keep it a little incognito.
JH: Well, you are Rihanna. Which brings me to my first question: What draws you to collaborate with a company like LVMH? I feel like you’re as big as LVMH, if not bigger.
RF: Whoa. That’s kind of crazy to say.
JH: It’s true, though. Numbers don’t lie.12
RF: I’ve been slowly evolving throughout the fashion world. First wearing it, buying it, being recognized for my style and then collaborating with brands. I never just wanted to put my name on something and sell my license. I’m very hands-on, so I wanted to take it slowly and gain respect as a designer. I already had a relationship with them after the Versailles campaign13 and the makeup line, so they extended the offer to me and it was a no-brainer because LVMH is a machine. Bernard Arnault14 was so enthusiastic; he trusted me and my vision.
JH: When they came to you with this, was part of your calculus, like, “I’m gonna be the first black woman to do this?”
RF: No, and I didn’t even know that until months into our relationship, when Jahleel15 brought it to my attention. And I’m like, “Are you sure about that? Did you do your research? ’Cause I don’t wanna state a claim that’s [expletive].” Because I still couldn’t believe it. It made me feel proud.
JH: It’s unmapped territory. What models did you have — or were you purely going from one task to the next?
RF: I didn’t have these dreams when I was little. I had a dream of making music; that’s it. I didn’t even think about the fame part, and then that happened, and it’s like, “Do I really like this? How much do I really lovemusic that I’m dealing with this?” Then the one-hit-wonder comment16came straight out of the gate and that put a fire under my ass, and I just never stopped working. Every time it was about challenging myself: I have to do better, I have to do better. And what’s next, what’s next? I won a Grammy17 and that was seconds into my past as soon as it got into my hands. I have to think about the next thing, which is terrible because people should live in the moment. I just started branching out into different creative outlets. That’s what makes me happy.
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JH: Something that one of my mentors, the playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins,18 said to me is, “Never let anyone rob you of your right to fail.”
RF: You know what’s crazy, I have a tattoo that’s written backward so I can read it in the mirror: “Never a failure. Always a lesson.” So what you just said is, like, boom! How you gonna learn without making mistakes? Did you believe your mom when she said, “Don’t touch the iron”?
JH: No! None of us did.
RF: You had to touch it, right? You had to get burned.
JH: What lessons do you think you could learn from failing with this Fenty project?
RF: So many, because it’s the beginning of a new world. Everything was a collaboration, so I’ve plugged my DNA into theirs, but there was already a blueprint. I’m learning so much: about the tailoring, the fabric — I’m seeing fabrics that I’ve never seen in my life.
JH: What are some of those fabrics?
RF: One of them is called Weapon.19 That’s what we ended up making our suits in. Even making clothes in luxury is different. All the techniques are, like, ridiculous.
JH: I mean, all of the boning on your dresses is —
RF: I love a corset. We put a corset in a suit, a dress, a shirt, a denim jacket and a T-shirt dress.
JH: It’s so femme. But you’re using traditionally masculine shapes (the suit, the chore coat) to tell a complex narrative about the Fenty person. What is the Fenty person’s relationship to masculinity and femininity?
RF: 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. Look at Jaden Smith,20 Childish Gambino.21 They dare you to tell them not to.
JH: To me, part of being Rihanna is twerking on a yacht and walking out of a bar with a wine glass. You’re like a modern Dionysus, a goddess of the party, the turn-up. Does that feel true to you now as Fenty’s muse?
RF: There has been quite an evolution in that party. In the beginning, it was just my culture, my life. And now, the party, believe it or not, is at work. I do not go out. I will go to a dinner. I try to have as much fun as I can during work. And even after work, when I’m literally in my kitchen having a drink, I invite all my staff. And we work, still.
JH: Do you think that that ability to party with your staff comes from the fact your associates and staff, known as #TheCorp,22 are like family?
RF: I see them more than my family and spend most of my life with them. It becomes friendship first, and then it leads into family because we lean on each other. I’m sure it’s really different from any other boss-employee relationship.
JH: Using your family name as the anchor of this company and Fenty Beauty seems to recall the idea of a family business. What was behind that choice?
RF: I used to be afraid to step into the whole celebrity makeup world. I saw brands like Hilary Duff and Hannah Montana23 have so much success [in the aughts], but it got to a place where they were so oversaturated in the market that it diluted their personal brands. It made me think, “I’m not going to do this, because you lose your respect and credibility,” and so every collaboration I did outside of music, I used Fenty so that you didn’t have to hear the word “Rihanna” every time you saw something that I did. So Rihanna stayed the music, the person. But these other brands are called Fenty.
‘YOU’RE GOING TO BE BLACK WHEREVER YOU GO.AND I DON’T KNOW IF IT’S UNFORTUNATEOR FORTUNATE, BECAUSE I LOVE BEING BLACK.’
JH: Do you know where your last name comes from? I looked it up.
RF: Really? You’re about to teach me something about myself. Is it Irish?
JH: No, it’s Spanish and Portuguese. It derives from the word “infante,” a title for the children of royals.
RF: Get out of here!
JH: It’s a medieval name.
RF: That is tripping me out.
JH: Does it trip you out that Fenty gets to open so many doors? How are you looking to make room at that table of luxury design for other black, brown and female designers?
RF: I like to think of my establishment at the Fenty house as a hub. So I am always looking at grad collections, who’s about to leave college, who wants a year here. And we’ve done that with a couple young designers and a couple new ones that are coming in. Even if you’ve never designed something in your life, you might have impeccable taste: I’m welcoming everyone’s vision here, because that’s what it’s gonna take. I can’t just think I know everything. I’m very smart with my control freak — a smart control freak. I welcome other people’s expertise. I love new, young talent.
JH: Who was really generous with their knowledge with you?
RF: Jay Brown, my manager who started off as my A&R.24 He’s been a father figure in my life.25
JH: Jahleel said that when you hired him you gave him “his freedom papers.” He’s free to walk through the LVMH headquarters in Paris and be who he wants to be. Where does that freedom come from? From being affiliated with you?
RF: No, because even within being Rihanna, that freedom didn’t exist for a while. “Good Girl Gone Bad”26 is where I started to take the reins: “I’m going to do whatever I want to do, I’m taking control of my vision, my sound, my clothes.” I also embraced change along the way — things that make me a better woman, a better human being. Like, even the way I communicate: I’m really proud of my growth on that. I’m proud to walk into any building as this person. Nothing about me makes me embarrassed about me.
JH: You did an interview in 2012 where you said you used to change your voice in business meetings. Was that one of the pressures you felt in that era, to be a certain type of Bajan woman in American society?
RF: No, that was the pressure I felt from the jump, with “Music of the Sun.”27 I’m walking into a new world, new industry, with people who have been doing this forever. I’m literally from a rock in the ocean.
JH: You were 15!28
RF: Right. You know nothing then. So you just take these people’s advice, and you realize, This is not who I am. It was the pressure of feeling safe in a box. I never liked that feeling, and so I grew out of that box when I couldn’t take it anymore, and I just went for it.
JH: Is “Good Girl Gone Bad” your favorite album?
RF: No, because that was a transition. I don’t know what my favorite album is — I’m sure if I put all my favorite songs together, it would be a really sick album. Maybe I should do that one day.
JH: You should troll your fans by doing that. Be like, “New album, y’all!”
RF: They would hate me. They would take me down.
JH: I’m not in the Navy,29 but I am Navy adjacent. So I have to ask some questions I saw floating around the message boards.
RF: O.K. [Laughs.]
JH: Is it true you are doing a reggae album?
JH: You are? O.K., are you collaborating with Lady Gaga?
JH: Oh, they think you’re doing a collaboration with Lady Gaga.
RF: Maybe because she followed me on Instagram. It’s not in the books right now, but I’m not against it.
JH: Are you going to collaborate with Drake again?30
RF: Not anytime soon, I don’t see it happening. Not on this album, that’s for sure.
JH: What is the album called?
RF: Uh, I don’t know yet.
JH: If you don’t know yet, then you probably don’t know when it’s coming out?
RF: I don’t.
JH: Do you have any names under consideration?
RF: No, so far it’s just been R9,31 thanks to the Navy. I’m about to call it that probably, ’cause they have haunted me with this “R9, R9, when is R9 coming out?” How will I accept another name after that’s been burned into my skull?
JH: It’s this gift to the fans who have been most hungry for it.
RF: That would be cute.
JH: You are one of our only immigrant pop stars in America, 21 Savage32being another. Did coming from an island that’s 90 percent black make it feel natural to have 40 distinct shades in the first run of Fenty Beauty?
RF: In my own household, my father is half black, half white. My mom is black from South America. I was seeing diversity. That’s all I knew. Growing up, I wanted to be darker, always. So, making makeup, it wasn’t even a thing I had to think about. I didn’t even really know how bad it was, the void in the market for dark foundation, because all I’d seen was black women put makeup on. I don’t even think 40 shades is enough! And so I added 10 more recently, and we’re not gonna stop there.
JH: A few years ago, you started going on a “thicc” journey.33 How did that change how you looked at inclusivity with regard to your fashion line?
RF: It just changed how I dress in terms of my proportions. You wear what looks good on you and that’s it. 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] 46.34 We’re saying we can meet you at any one drop that we put out.
JH: Let’s talk about those monthly drops, which is one of the innovative aspects of this: Fenty will be releasing several new items — from basics to special pieces — exclusively on its website. How did you come up with the distribution model?
RF: Because I’m a millennial, you know? People are always looking for the thing that hasn’t made it online yet. And as a consumer, I hate seeing something on the runway and then having to wait six months for it. I had to wait all that time to get it, do I even…
JH: Love it anymore?
RF: Yeah! 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.
JH: Was there any white knuckling in the LVMH offices when you presented this distribution model? Tradition is a major pillar of that company.
RF: Believe it or not, it’s the thing that actually excited Mr. Arnault. He hasn’t started a brand from scratch for a while. It’s his baby as well. He is so hands-on, which validates how I handle things.
JH: Jahleel said Fenty is being released like a bunch of singles that add up to an album.
RF: That’s a cute analogy.
JH: What do you think is the vibe of the first single?
RF: The first single is really strong and edgy, compared to the drop right after, which is a little more feminine. But the first one, there are a lot of classic pieces as well.
JH: I think you have your Fenty little black dress in there, with the vents and high shoulder.
RF: I see a lot of these pieces as classic pieces. They’re not gonna go out of style.
JH: What are you inspired by as you prepare for the next few drops?
RF: Free postcards or booklets at hotels in Barbados from years ago: You’ll see some of those on our T-shirts. There are also these prints that look like really ancient paintings that we’re making dresses and skirt suits out of.
JH: With all of these pieces, who else do you think is in conversation with them? What should shoppers pair with Fenty?
RF: I don’t care what you pair it with. Whatever you want. 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.
JH: So that little girl that’s saving up pennies for Timberlands, what do you say to her right now?
RF: It’s the thing that keeps me asking: So how much is this gonna cost at retail?35 How can we bring the price down without compromising on quality?
JH: I can’t get over the fact that, you know, the fashion industry is historically so explicitly white, it’s so racist, it’s so classist and it’s so sexist. Have there been moments where, as a black woman, you’ve felt like an outsider in this space? Or does being Rihanna alleviate that?
RF: 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. There are also other factors: I’m young. I’m new to the family. I’m a woman. 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 don’t know if it makes people uncomfortable or not, but that’s not even my business, you know? 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.
JH: I feel like your ability to take on that fight seems so indebted to your mother, Ms. Monica,36 because you often discuss how she is most proud of you when you stand up for yourself. I wonder, does anything surprise her now?
RF: When I told her about LVMH, she just couldn’t believe it. She said, “Oh God, glory, glory to God.” She’s so proud, so happy, and she’s still pinching herself. She carries my makeup in her store37 in Barbados. It’s full circle, because she was the one who brought me into the department store after school — all that makeup, it was fun.
JH: I was at my mom’s feet in a hair salon. I know she’d want to know: Do you have Fenty hair coming?
RF: As soon as I’m ready to give up the two hours of sleep that I get now, that’s for hair. You know we’re not stopping.
JH: As a playwright, I have to ask: Would you act again? Pull “A Star Is Born?”
RF: I’ll probably try a little more,38 but not until I know I can handle a lead and carry a movie on my own, because I’ve been offered —
JH: I’m sure.
RF: I’m always like, “Guys, thank you for trusting me, but Angelina Jolie is over there.”
JH: What else are you afraid of? Do you hold fear at all?
RF: I am afraid of being afraid, because I know that means it’s wrong. If I feel fear, that means it’s not right.
JH: Did you feel fear when it came to working with LVMH and Arnault?
RF: No, I got this pressure to not let Arnault down. I felt like this is a moment in history that I have to live up to. This is my one shot and I only get one time to do it and it can’t be wrong. But I did get fear one time in my life, I can’t remember exactly about what: I remember my mom saying, like, “I see something in your eyes I’ve never seen before.” And I was like, “What?” And she was like, “Fear.” And I started crying. So any time I get that anxiety feeling, I literally try to shove it right back down to nothing.
JH: You visualize it. Before I go, one last question: When are you going to take a vacation from all of this? Is it going to be when you’ve made enough money — is there a number in your mind?
RF: I never thought I’d make this much money, so a number is not going to stop me from working. I’m not being driven by money right now. Money is happening along the way, but I’m working out of what I love to do, what I’m passionate about. Work will change when my life changes in the future but an amount of money is not going to stop that.
JH: If money’s not driving the work, what does the money mean, then?
RF: The money means that I can take care of my family. The money means that I can facilitate the businesses that I want to. I can create jobs for other people. My money is not for me; it’s always the thought that I can help someone else or, in the future, for if I have kids. The world can really make you believe that the wrong things are priority, and it makes you really miss the core of life, what it means to be alive. It could literally be walking outside in the sun. That makes me happy. Like going to the grocery store — you know, there’s a cute little Jamaican market near where I live right now.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Jeremy O. Harris is an actor and playwright whose works include “Slave Play” and “Daddy.”
Makeup: Lauren Parsons at Art Partner. Hair: Yusef at Factory Downtown using Rich Hair Care. Manicure: Jenny Longworth at CLM using the GelBottle Inc. Set designer: Andrew Tomlinson at Streeters. Tailoring: Hannah Wood. Photo assistants: Maya Zardi, Teddy Park and Straton Heron. Digital operator: Nicholas Beutler at Format Digital. Stylist’s assistants: Charlotte Thommeret and Letitia Leporcq. Makeup assistant: Anastasia Hess. Hair assistant: Andrea Naphia White. Set designer’s assistant: David Konix. Production: Holmes Production.
Digital production and design by Hilary Moss and Daniel Wagner. Videos by Kristin-Lee Moolman.