Why Fenty Beauty is an Important Lesson in Authentic Branding
Beauty Editor Souzan Michael and writer Anne T. Donahue discuss why Rihanna's Fenty Beauty is already way more than a celeb makeup line.
Anne T. Donahue: So here we are again! And by “here,” I obviously mean taking the necessary time to acknowledge Fenty Beauty, which is the most important thing to happen to me…well, ever, if I’m honest. The thing is, why do we care about it so much? I know we’ve talked about the way Rihanna’s approach to life affects our emotional investment in what she gives us, whether music, style, and in this case, beauty. So do you think it’s that simple? As a celebrity, Rihanna does what she wants and keeps her eyes on her own paper, sort to speak — is it a matter of us emulating her style in a bid to do the same ourselves?
Souzan Michael: Before we start can I just say that I’m so glad we’re doing this again?! In case you missed our first chat about Rihanna, you can read it here.
ATD: When you suggested we do this again, I nearly reached through Gchat and hugged you.
SM: I definitely felt it.
SM: Anyway, yes, Rihanna famously has an “eyes on your own paper” approach to, well, being a celebrity. By that we mean that she’s so rarely involved in drama—in general but especially with fellow celebs—the way that, oh I don’t know, Taylor Swift is. In fact, as we now all know and understand, that’s a huge part of Taylor’s branding. (But I won’t get into that.) Whereas with Rihanna, it’s the opposite. And where that becomes especially noteworthy and important is when we consider the fact that in many facets of Rihanna’s career (singles charts, clothing lines, etc.), she’s legit at the top of her game, AKA is constantly breaking records. (If you search #histoRIH on Instagram, you get almost 5,000 posts about this very thing.) So it’s like she’s teaching by example that the best way to excel in your field, whatever it may be, is to keep your head down and focus on your goals, without paying attention to the Taylor Swifts of the world.
ATD: And that’s something I find so admirable about Rihanna’s approach to existence and her approach to business. Two years ago she dropped plans to launch a beauty line, and two years to the day she releases the teasers for it. She’s planned and she’s prepped and she’s organized and she’s a mastermind, but she just lives. Those things are just extensions of her, instead of defining factors — and when I say that, I mean that everything Rihanna does seems organic, like it stems from an intentional vision. With an artist like Taylor, it feels like you’re following her on a map. With an artist like Rihanna, it feels like you’re watching an artist create something masterful. Which is why I’m so excited about this beauty line. Because already, it seems like the cosmetic answer to her work ethos: keep your eyes on your own paper, do you. Even her advertising is steeped in self-expression, not “Be like me!”
SM: I’m so happy you brought up the Fenty Beauty campaign video. Did you love that shot of model Camila Costa saying “You don’t have to be all the same, all the time”? In our last discussion, we talked about how Rihanna seems in control and out of it at the same time (i.e. spontaneous yet calculated), which is similar to what you’re saying about Fenty Beauty feeling organic and intentional. In the beauty landscape, which TBH, has had a pretty bad reputation for appearing fake and disingenuous, how do you think she manages to avoid that “too-corporate” feeling? What does it take? A lot of people are saying the campaign video is rewriting the rules of traditional beauty advertising (hello, can we address the wonderful diversity in the promo vid?), but at the end of the day, Fenty Beauty is a brand that needs to sell products and make money. So why does it already feel so different?
ATD: I think it feels so different because Rihanna’s so different. Even her approach to fashion is on the same level as full-time designers — even her approach to movies. I was listening to Cara Delevingne’s BBC Radio 1 interview for Valerian and she was talking about how Rihanna would give it her all on-set, leave late, and then head into the studio. She pours herself into her projects, which is why we care about them so much when they happen. You can tell when somebody is doing something because it creatively stimulates them and when they’re doing it because somebody’s handing them a cheque. Like, her River Island collections were fine, but you can tell Rihanna is abiding by her own tastes and her own ethos when designing for Fenty.
And she wears that authenticity on her sleeve — literally. She is never “on” (or, she’s a good enough actress never to seem it), she is always Rihanna. And Rihanna is smart and she’s a brilliant businesswoman and she’s a veteran in an industry that’s notoriously terrible. So I assume she’s learned a lot, including that to sell something with your name on it, it reflects who you are, and who you’ve presented yourself as. And Rihanna presents herself as a woman who has evolved past branding in the pejorative sense in the world. She isn’t contrived.
SM: Okay so then my question for you is: how does she know how to pull off collabs and movies and any other way of making money that isn’t her main thing (singing) without seeming contrived and like a sell-out, while other celebs do not? Is there a memo she’s not sharing?! You know she’s my favourite celebrity BY FAR but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that other celebs are smart industry vets and are talented businesspeople. She’s not the only one. Do you think we look at her business ventures (FENTYxPUMA, Fenty Beauty, etc.) through rose-coloured glasses?
ATD: I think there’s an extent of that, yes. We’re biased, and I’m not afraid to say it. But I will also say that I think it’s Rihanna’s removal from pop culture outside of her work that makes her choices seem natural. Her circle of friends is small and, like you said, she stays out of drama or cultural narratives outside of her own. And there’s power in that. She shares herself through her work, not through any other endeavours — not through her nights out or social circles or glimpses of her personal life. And this is also why I think those who aren’t super-familiar with Rihanna were surprised by her philanthropy: she gives so much (both her time and her money), but she doesn’t advertise it. So this makes her popping up in the beauty world, fashion world, the movie world, etc. seem much less strategic: we don’t really know her, so this is our opportunity to. There’s no room for us to inject a story — or her story. Whereas with her contemporaries, there is.
SM: That’s a really great point and one that hadn’t fully occurred to me. Do you remember a few years (around the time she got banned from IG for posting a photo of her topless Lui cover) when she disappeared from all social platforms? And when she returned, it was mostly just to post stuff about her different business ventures. Gone were the days of Rihanna Instagramming bikini photos and videos of herself getting high (ugh I still long for those days, though) and I never really understood why her social media presence was so different after her six-month-long hiatus. Like, I’ve been sitting here, to this day, mourning the days she’d be at the club drunkenly tweeting Lil Wayne lyrics. But you’ve just made me realize that, like everything else, that was a choice she made for an actual reason and not just because she was mad at Instagram. She’s been much more strategic about everything since then and if you do the math, that was around the time that Anti was initially supposed to come out. (As we now know, it didn’t actually get released until a full two years later LOL. #memories.) But my point is, the more private she becomes and the less she shares on social media, the more she a) shares through her work and b) the more in control of her brand she is. Maybe the half-year #freethenipple-related ban was a blessing in disguise? (JK!!! Still mad.)
ATD: No, that’s the thing! It’s a conscious trade-off, and Beyonce does it too. Artists like Rihanna and Beyonce share only what needs to be shared, and only enough of their personal lives to remind us that they’re people. Because, when Rihanna does open up — like that Vanity Fair piece a few years ago — she’s very honest, and very vulnerable, and very authentic, but she’s also very in control. And I think you can be both of those things, but I think it takes somebody who’s hyper-aware of themselves and of the industries they’re in to do it successfully.
SM: I want to shift focus to her clothing line (FENTYxPUMA) and her beauty line (Fenty Beauty) specifically. FENTYxPUMA is about to show its third season, so it’s still such a new line, but it’s got a legit spot during NYFW, everything sells out instantly, and even before the first-ever show, editors and celebs flocked to the presentation. Rihanna was kind of instantly accepted by the fashion crowd and FENTYxPUMA isn’t regarded as a “celebrity clothing line.” It reminds me a little of Victoria Beckham’s clothing line, in that the fact that she’s famous is kind of an afterthought, second to the fact that she’s a designer showing a collection. But VB had to prove herself and prove that she was legit in a way that doesn’t seem to be expected of Rihanna.
ATD: Truth! I remember Victoria Beckham being made fun of hugely for getting into fashion. Like she’d just woken up one day and decided to pursue it—which, for the record, would’ve been fine if she had.
SM: And now Fenty Beauty is being talked about in the same way. People are seriously ready to replace their tried-and-true products with Fenty, without even swatching anything! I know that’s partly because Rihanna Navy is crazy-loyal, but there’s a lot more going on. Why do people just assume her products will be legit? It seems like a lot of trust to place in someone, especially for such a savvy, skeptical (in a good way!) generation. How’d she escape the “celeb clothing line” and “celeb makeup line” curse?
ATD: I think because Rihanna’s own makeup and sense of style is so solid. She knows herself. Or, she’s convinced us all that she knows herself. (Either is A-OK.) So when she launches something that’s meant to reflect her own tastes, that’s a stamp of approval in and of itself. In the same way Rihanna would never be seen wearing shitty makeup, there’s that silent guarantee that her own makeup line won’t be shitty. Her name is on it. Like, literally. I’d be shocked if Rihanna lent her last name to something that she wouldn’t wear herself — your last name is personal. Even more than your first or stage name because it’s tied to everything that made you, you.
And it’s trust. Rihanna’s fan base is loyal for a reason. In the same way she’s never released a bad album, she takes her time to release clothing, makeup, all other things. Plus, she’s shown growth over time, the way all great artists do — and I mean that even in the products she promotes. Rihanna’s lent her name to a lot of things over the course of her career, and you’ll notice that list has gotten shorter and far more streamlined. She learned while she still had time to learn, and now she’s applying those lessons to a brand that means that most. Hers.
Or maybe I’m totally in left field and am seconds away from writing a movie about her life.
SM: Before we wrap up so I can text you to see if we should actually write a movie about her life, I want to ask: as someone who loves makeup as much as you do, what are your hopes for Fenty Beauty?
ATD: My biggest hope is that it doesn’t constantly sell out before I can buy everything.