Rihanna’s Fenty Closing is Not the End of Celebrity Brands — It’s a Warning For Fashion to Change Now

The clue came in October. In a call after LVMH published its third-quarter sales figures for 2020, chief financial officer Jean-Jacques Giony told analysts that Fenty, the luxury fashion brand that the conglomerate built from scratch with Rihanna in 2019, was still finding its footing. “It’s not something that is easy,” Giony said bluntly.

Now, Fenty is on pause. It joins countless other brands that have buckled under the pressures of the pandemic.

But it is also part of a fashion industry that has been struggling to find itself in a digital world, since the birth of Amazon, eBay and online shopping.

Rihanna’s success in her Fenty Beauty, Fenty Skin and Savage X Fenty brands is proof that it isn’t just the celebrity name that doomed the Fenty fashion line, though the star now joins the ranks of Gwen Stefani, Jennifer Lopez and Beyoncé, who enjoyed initial success and then struggled — even shuttered — their own brands.

When Rihanna’s beauty line debuted in 2016, it made upwards of $100 million in a matter of weeks. And LVMH is now dialing up their investment:  In addition to the stake it already holds in the beauty and skin lines, under Kendo, it was also announced today that L Catterton, a private equity firm backed by the conglomerate, led a round of Series B fundraising totaling $115 million, as reported by WWD. (This week, L Catterton also emerged as the leading contender to acquire Birkenstock.)

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Rihanna backstage at the Savage X Fenty fashion show in Brooklyn during New York Fashion Week, September 2018. LVMH-backed private equity firm L Catterton just raised a Series B round of $115 million for the lingerie brand.

LVMH’s struggle to make Fenty fashion successful reflects the broader struggle across the industry. Despite its see-now-buy-now approach, Fenty still adhered to eight deliveries per year, a pace that has proven too much for many designers, even prominent, well-backed ones. The brand also dabbled in wholesale, where department store delivery schedules continue to adhere to traditional cycles, which have perpetuated problematic markdowns for the industry.

The failure of Fenty also suggests a failure of the broad, all-category fashion brand in its current iteration. By trying to accommodate everyone in every category, from slip dresses to socks, designers and brands are missing the mark on what it really is that their customer wants. Rihanna found that in Savage X Fenty, by identifying and filling a gap in the market for affordable, inclusive and fun lingerie. Much of today’s ready-to-wear has failed to do this — including Fenty’s, which sat at a price point that even her most ardent fans couldn’t subscribe to.

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Rihanna at a Fenty launch event in NYC, June 2019.

It’s been an open secret that the only way luxury fashion houses are able to stay in business is through its accessories, beauty and fragrances. Tom Ford has propped up his luxury offerings with entry level (though still pricey) lipsticks and scents. Legacy houses like Christian Dior, Fendi, Gucci and Versace have long relied on accessories, especially the handbag but also footwear, to maintain the fashion arm of their businesses. None of these brands have ever been profitable on $3,000 dresses.

Would Fenty still be closing if it was an accessories brand, rather than a multi-category, ready-to-wear label? It’s difficult to guess, especially with the havoc the pandemic has wrought on all brands. But throughout its life, footwear and eyewear remained Fenty’s most successful categories.

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A strappy sandal from Fenty’s latest shoe drop, a collaboration with Amina Muaddi.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Fenty

In December, Rihanna accepted the 2020 FNAA for Collaborator of the Year, alongside shoe designer Amina Muaddi and her stylist, Fenty deputy creative director Jahleel Weaver. The award highlighted not only the brand’s footwear successes but also the power of collaboration, a mechanism that has touched every market of the fashion and footwear industries. It also suggests that a brand’s need for constantly reinventing itself. Perhaps instead of being the guest appearance in a brand, the collaboration might become even more of fashion’s main dish.

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Rihanna with Amina Muaddi and Jahleel Weaver in January 2020, working on the Fenty footwear collaboration with the shoe designer.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Fenty

Fenty’s news comes on the eve of New York Fashion Week, kicking off a fall ’21 season that has yet to see any of the major, structural changes once proposed by the industry’s leaders. For designers — especially independent ones — still trying to make sense of it all, the brand’s closure might act as a salve:  If Rihanna and the deep pockets of LVMH can’t keep up with fashion as it stands, who can?

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