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All Hail Fenty: How Rihanna Became a New Kind of CEO

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Celebrity | July 19, 2018 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Celebrity | July 19, 2018 |


Last week, Forbes declared Kylie Jenner to be one of a new era of self-made women, fast on her way to becoming a billionaire thanks to her popular make-up line. It didn’t take long for Twitter and our own commenters to point to the many holes in this claim, from Jenner’s family wealth to the questionable numbers on that billion-dollar claim. While there were still those who commended Jenner’s success as a businesswoman, making money hand over first before the age of 25, the louder voices in the room rightly questioned the narrative. How does one get such a glowing, unimpeachable profile as an entrepreneur when their product is built on pre-existing financial security, the consistent appropriation of black women’s beauty standards, and generally iffy quality? I don’t wear make-up myself but even I know of the reputation of Kylie Cosmetics: Cheap packaging, ripped off advertising, limited colour range, and drugstore quality. But hey, it makes money and that’s all that matters, right?

Make-up has always been a money-spinner in modern business. The products may change and fashion shifts with the time, but lipstick is forever. Celebrities have also always found excellent branding opportunities in the field. For models, actresses and socialites, make-up offers a new foot in the door to relevance and profit. There will always be gaps in the market that need filling and ways that can be spun to reflect a star’s image: Iman called out double standards in beauty for black women and made products the big companies wouldn’t; Drew Barrymore strengthened her burgeoning earth mother glow with peppy products at an accessible price range, exclusive to Wal-Mart; Jeffree Star turned his waning internet star mileage and racist reputation into make-up gold by latching onto the drag trend; Kat Von D already had the persona of the tattooed rocker gal so the make-up was made to match. For Kylie Jenner, she had to mould herself to fit the products she and her team knew would sell well, hence her dramatically plumped up lips which provided Kylie Cosmetics with a sturdy injection of cash. Authenticity it was not, but it worked.

But then there’s Rihanna and Fenty Beauty.

It could be easy to read those early announcements of Fenty and think of them as a quick celebrity cash-in, one where the star would just let their name be slapped on a hastily made product for maximum profit. How many times have we seen that happen? One of the problems people had with the narrative of ‘self-made businesswoman’ Kylie Jenner was her seemingly off-hands approach to her own business. Nobody for a minute imagined Jenner hunched over make-up samples, achingly choosing the right shades, or sourcing the right ingredients for those lip kits. Given those kits near identical contents to Colourpop’s lipstick, it’s tough to imagine them being anything other than over-priced repackaged make-up one can buy anywhere. Then again, that’s also exactly what people expect from celebrities who enter this field. So, even those who love Rihanna were probably just a tad cynical.

In a short period of time, Rihanna has moved the goalposts for the rest of the make-up world, and she did it by sticking to the simplest of objectives: Be inclusive.

Fenty’s debut line famously included no fewer than 40 shades of foundation, encompassing a far wider demographic of skin types than the average make-up line. Rihanna said she wanted to make a product that everyone can use, and through the sheer range of shades, it seems she has. Check out the Fenty website and not only will you see all 40 shades but a corresponding model wearing the foundation, just so you get the full effect. That alone offers a greater diversity of models than half the major brands put together. Various news outlets reported with surprise how stores were selling out of the darker shades in record time. Nobody else seemed all that shocked. Rihanna certainly didn’t.

Fenty’s line also includes lipsticks and glosses (including a shocking scarlet lip paint called Stunna that my Twitter feed swears by), eyeliners and eyeshadows, brushes, and much more. The pricing is reasonably affordable given the range and celebrity name attached. Reviews are mostly very positive and social media coverage is generous. Fenty’s own Instagram page is a combination of professional models of all races in the products, normal consumers who are cheered on in the captions, lots of Rihanna fabulousness, and even the occasional meme. It’s not just a promotional opportunity; it’s a communal playground with its own cheer squad.

Women with acne who find solace in Fenty’s foundation are given internet high-fives by the brand and its users; women running their own businesses and charities are given a time to shine; young men are celebrated for their beauty prowess. It seems so simple a strategy to put your customers front and centre in the social media marketing, spreading the message of how these products truly are for everyone, that you wonder why every business on the planet doesn’t do it. It doesn’t hurt that Fenty’s social media presence is so Rihanna-esque: Wickedly funny, glamorous but not unapproachable, and exactly who you want in your corner. I doubt Rihanna herself is running Fenty’s Instagram page, but the tone is so spot-on that it seems perfectly plausible that she could be.

The Bad Girl Riri herself is the heart of this strategy. She wears her own product, makes it look effortlessly good, and shares details on application to her fans. Unlike, say, Kim Kardashian West, whose own make-up line is popular but built more on a brand of exclusivity, you completely buy that Rihanna is the kind of woman who applies her own make-up. even if there is a professional doing the work, you can’t help but imagine her micromanaging the experience in the best way possible. Crucially, her make-up is both on point in terms of trends but timelessly gorgeous. This isn’t make-up designed to look good in Instagram images, with six filters added on top, and nowhere else.

This ethos was carried over into Rihanna’s next business venture, the lingerie line Savage X Fenty. This line is almost as extensive as her make-up: You can find a bra for every occasion or sexual encounter, from casual day in the park to full-on boudoir shenanigans. There’s mesh and lace and feathers and leather and cupless bodysuits and underpants of all shapes to fit all sizes. There’s also a line of kinky products, from whips to tassels. The nude underwear is actually nude for more than one skin tone. The bra sizes go from 32A to 44DDD, and the professional models used to advertise them are diverse in size, shape and race. For women of a certain cup size, it’s near impossible to buy a nice bra or at least one that doesn’t look like some sort of crude catapult. Savage is open to all: Why shouldn’t you be able to get a cupless corset or silk robe just because you’ve got a massive pair? Given how most lingerie companies still rely on models who don’t seem to need a bra, Rihanna has once again proven the obvious: Being inclusive sells.

Fashion and the beauty industry love to preach about inclusivity and diversity but it seldom wants to do the actual work involved to make it happen. Clothing lines latch onto the body positivity movement but refuse to allow models larger than a size 12 to represent it. Models older than 40 are still novelties, while the default faces of mainstream beauty remain cisgender 21 year old women with straight hair, small noses and skin the colour of a peeled apple. They talk up a good game but still charge extra on clothes that go above a size 16 (and end somewhere around 22, if you’re lucky).

This approach has never made sense for a number of reasons. Its exclusionary tactics turn beauty basics into markers of the elite. It hugely limits our public perceptions of beauty, femininity, style and visibility. It’s also just bad business. Shockingly, women over a size 16 have money and want to look good. Dark skinned black women want foundation that matches their skin tone. Women who wear hijab like lipstick and highlighter. Whatever size you are, sometimes you just want a super fancy bra!

Fenty Beauty reportedly racked up sales of $100m in its first 40 days. Time Magazine cited it as one of the best inventions of 2017. This was great business but for many customers, it was also a personal revelation. Here was something they’d always wanted, always needed, but had been told was too ‘niche’ to be a reality. Large swaths of women with good money to spend and a demand for something nobody would supply finally had a basic beauty product the big names wouldn’t provide. After years of being told such a varied range of foundations was unfeasible, too expensive, there’s no market for it, and every other excuse under the sun, Rihanna just did the work then made everyone else step up their game. There’s literally no excuse for any other brand to be so limited in their own range and who they market their products to and with.

Celebrity lifestyle and beauty brands are ten a penny, but Rihanna’s managed that tricky task of not only offering something that fits with her public image but creating products people want that aren’t readily available elsewhere. It’s so simple, but Rihanna was the one to do it. Truly, a self-made woman.

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(Image from Giphy)

(Header photograph courtesy of Getty Images)

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Kayleigh is a features writer for Pajiba. You can follow her on Twitter or listen to her podcast, The Hollywood Read.