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Elizabeth Wellington: Rihanna is joining a luxury fashion house. But does Rihanna need luxe, or does luxe need Rihanna?

By Elizabeth Wellington, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Fashion Daily News

Rihanna is making fashion history. Fenty, her women's wear line, has joined Marc Jacobs, Louis Vuitton, and Givenchy under the vast LVMH umbrella (ella ella ella).

By joining forces with LVMH, the powerhouse French conglomerate behind the world's biggest labels, Rihanna is blessing high fashion with an inclusivity that Europe's exclusive fashion houses have never seen before.

Rihanna is the first woman for whom Bernard Arnault, the mega-company's chairman and chief executive, built a label from scratch. She's only the second designer who can claim that honor. The first was Christian Lacroix in 1987. Rihanna is also the first woman of color to lead an LVMH maison. According to the Business of Fashion, she's a 49.99% shareholder in LVMH's Fenty.

"Rihanna has always been bold. Never afraid. And now she's a pioneer," said Tuesday Gordon, longtime manager of Center City boutique Joan Shepp. "This is a special moment in fashion for black women."

It's also a win for young fashionistas. And that has the potential to make an even greater impact on the industry.

Fenty - which debuted Friday at a Paris pop-up and which will launch online on Wednesday - speaks to those younguns who wouldn't think twice about pairing a Fenty Japanese denim blazer with a pair of fast-fashion Fashion Nova jeans. It has in mind the young man who may want to wear a corset. And it relates to all who would rather scroll through Instagram and click to buy than thumb through a fashion glossy. Rihanna belongs to the millennials on down.

 

And this makes me wonder: When it comes to cachet, does Rihanna need LVMH as much as LVMH needs her?

Ten years ago, I would have been on the side of LVMH. People were shopping for sport. Labels mattered more than a brand's story. And although Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen's the Row was gaining serious industry traction, we still lived in a world where celebrities were just the faces of the fashion brand. Who cared if they could actually design? Name recognition was queen. Who didn't own a pair of Jessica Simpson's wedge sandals? Celebrities needed established labels in their corner for style cred, and in Simpson's case, it was Vince Camuto.

Brands founded by black celebrities, from Kimora Lee Simmons' Baby Phat - which she plans to relaunch this summer - to Jay-Z's Rocawear, were pigeonholed as streetwear. Sean "Diddy" Combs broke the mold with the success of Sean John, a brand that reportedly rakes in hundreds of millions of dollars in sales annually. Still, the highest retail echelon he's reached is Macy's.

I suspect this lack of respect for celebrity brands driven by hip-hop artists in fashion's most rarefied houses is why rapper/designer Kanye West was once obsessed with pleasing Hedi Slimane, the former creative director of Yves Saint Laurent for whom he wrote his 2013 single "I Am a God." Yeah, I know Kanye thrives on being the center of attention, but I'd bet money a part of him was pleading for the validation in the high-fashion community that black celebrities had never been afforded, no matter how many pieces of clothing they sold.

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