THE CULTURAL PHENOMENON THAT IS SAVAGE X FENTYApr 07 , 2020
If you haven’t been living under a rock for the last two years, you know Rihanna has a lingerie brand. During New York Fashion Week Rih’s Savage X Fenty taped a top secret fashion show that was made available for streaming exclusively on Amazon Prime (where you can now buy the lingerie) on Friday. As I watched, wide-eyed at 3am, I couldn’t help jotting down some of my knee-jerk reactions in an attempt to digest the cultural impact of this event.
To describe it simply would be to say it was a fashion show meets performance art meets dance competition meets burlesque meets music video meets television advertising campaign. Correct – not simple at all. However, the Savage X Fenty show owes much of its format to the once-familiar, now-disgraced annual Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show (rumored to not even take place this year). Victoria’s Secret has come under fire in recent years for not keeping up with new consumer demands for diverse and inclusive casting. Savage X Fenty saw this glaringly obvious gap. All of their shows, including the most recent, featured a healthy variety of strong individuals. There were the familiar faces of lingerie models, Victoria’s Secret alum Cara Delevingne, the Hadid sisters, and Joan Smalls, as well as an amputee, trans models, drag queens, women of all shapes and races. We saw Laverne Cox, Normani and, disturbingly rare, the show was opened by a plus size black woman. The entire cast was shining bright like diamonds thanks to the very recognizable Fenty Beauty (yes, hello, Rihanna also has an extremely successful cosmetics line) Body Lava and Diamond Bomb glitters. Beyond models, there were also dancers (all clad in Savage X Fenty) performing undeniably great choreography integrated into the show, with female dancers and models both center stage, neither playing the prop – a rarity when fashion and dance mix. Performers (also a trademark of the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show; in 2012 Rihanna herself performed) included DJ Khaled, A$AP Ferg and Halsey, who sang at last year’s VS show only to denounce the brand the day before the show aired due to the CMO, Ed Razek, making hatefull comments about LGBTQ+ not fitting in with the Victoria’s Secret fantasy.
Rumors of Rihanna’s own performance at the Savage X show were grossly exaggerated. We see about as much of her as the Hadids. I can’t help but wish she would have given us what we are all shouting for: A NEW SONG, or better yet, announced a new album. Buuuut, at least we get to buy her products directly from the platform we’re watching on. The narrative of the film is centered on the mythos of its founder AND muse. Rih claims Savage X Fenty to be “from my perspective” and that she is expanding the definition of sexy. The show is everything this generation of consumers is clamoring for. Frankly, it’s a simple model for success: a founder that embodies strength and diversity, a streamable, see now buy now production, a Brooklyn location, direct-to-consumer selling, inclusive pricing, inclusive sizing, a diverse cast and a dash of influencer/celeb marketing (the models all posted on their socials). It’s youth culture, pure and simple, for the society of the spectacle that brought us Beyonce’s Coachella Netflix documentary and a Yeezy show in Madison Square Garden. The way was paved. A show like this was a logical move for Savage X. Even the makeup was edgy and expressive (*ahem HBO’s Gen Z centered Euphoria*) rather than the “bombshell” makeup we’re used to seeing with lingerie. It doubtlessly felt much more celebratory of sexuality and beauty than the anxiety-inducing, impossible standards the Victoria’s Secret fashion show thrust upon us in honor of an imagined male gaze.
But is it disruptive, truly? TBH… this show is exactly what I was expecting. While spectacular, it was simply a logical continuation of what Victoria’s Secret started, neatly adjusted to suit the current consumer’s social and political conscience. Certainly, this sort of superficial commitment to representation can be impactful – it is showing young girls a more diverse representation of beauty and sexuality, and creating new precedents that can trickle into tangible change. BUT the show itself is not the tangible change. If we take a step back, is it not the same big corporations making money? Corporations statistically run by… well the patriarchy… Corporations that fund the political regulations this show purports to deny… Yes Rihanna, the face of the brand, is a woman of color with undeniable power, but she is one single person, how does this show empower the 99%?
More specifically, I can’t help but be interested in her production processes. Does she pay her (largely female, again, statistically) garment force in China a fair living wage? Judging from her competitive pricing (on par with that of Victoria’s Secret – who have come under fire for using sweated labour) I’d wager probably not. Sure, the flip side of this argument is that her product is democratic in the sense that it is so accessible to various economic groups. So then does she source her fabrics from sustainable mills? Are they made from recycled fibers? A simple Google search confirms not. Ironically, the show aired on the same day a widely publicized (on social media) environmental march took place in New York, the very same city that played stage to Savage X Fenty. Should we be quiet and praise her for at least addressing one sector of the fashion industry’s offenses? No. I find making necessary demands for the future of our world from a strong trailblazing woman, with a strong investment force behind her, to be perfectly reasonable.
Reviews have been nothing short of deferential and I admit the show had a cultural impact that is symptomatic of changing fashion landscape. It is powerful that bodies that never received recognition before now can see themselves represented within fashion and glamour industries. But is its surface level commitment not just fostering a sense of complacency? At least in the case of VS, who has been an affront to women on every level (sweatshops, dangerous body ideals, ripping off small designers, not to mention parent company L Brands has ties to various powerful males, including Jeffrey Epstein, who have been accused of sexual misconduct), consumers are so furious they are demanding change on all fronts. Because dear Rih is so revered – and at least doing something very right – no one dare question her commandments. When brands act with the smallest acts of basic human decency we PRAISE them for it, because we are so surprised that capitalism can wear the pretty face of social good. This was just a QVC infomercial with extra sparkles and a dash of social conscience pandering to generational demand for change. Let’s not forget there’s still a long way to go, and much room for disruption
With the demise of Victoria’s Secret, comes the rise of Fenty. But at the end of the day it’s simply more consumption, more production, more capitalism empowering the few, oppressing the many and ruining our planet. It’s the circle of life and we just have a new king.
To end on the same eerie note as the Amazon special:
Collection available now.
Words & Graphics: Yolanda Senekal
Images: Getty / Craig Barrit / Kevin Mazur / Dimitrios Kambouris / JP Yim