Willo Perron, the creative director and designer who works with Kanye West, Jay-Z, Drake and Rihanna, got his start in the graphic design game on the smallest possible scale — 8.5 by 11 inches. As a young man growing up in Montreal, Perron made flyers for club nights, punk and rave shows. He says some of the best designers with whom he’s worked — Brian Roettinger, responsible in part for Jay-Z’s “4:44” album art; Peter Saville, who did all of Joy Division’s most famed imagery — began their careers designing covers for 7-inch singles or cassette tapes.
“At that time, it was the only real visual,” Perron says on a recent afternoon during a phone call from Mexico City, where he’s taking a quick break between gigs. “When you’re doing a club night, it’s lights and a DJ. The thing that you had that was a visual was the flyer.”
Presently, things couldn’t be more different. Perron now works on the world’s largest formats: Rockefeller Center, where he staged the Alexander Wang spring 2020 show; the MTV VMAs for Rosalía’s debut performance at the awards show, and, most recently, Barclays Center in Brooklyn. That’s where he art directed and designed the set for Rihanna’s Fenty x Savage runway show, which is being lauded as one of the highlights of New York Fashion Week.
There’s the most obvious reason why: It’s Rihanna’s show.
But putting aside her own cultural cachet, a focus on inclusion, star power, (Migos, Tierra Whack, DJ Khaled and many more performed), letter-perfect choreography and visuals drew huge buzz. And they were all capped by a veil of secrecy generated by the no-phones-no-photos rule. It preserved exclusivity, maintaining the element of surprise for when Amazon released a documentary on the Fenty x Savage show, which is streaming on the platform today.
For the past decade, Perron has created all the sets, scenic design, lighting, video content and creative directed Rihanna’s concerts and performances: the Anti tour — with its floating bridge — the Diamonds tour; the episode of “SNL” in which she performed “B—h Better Have My Money” — those were all him. So when Rihanna was in the planning stages of the Fenty x Savage show, it was a given she’d use Perron for this one, too. “We’re pretty familiar with each other,” he says.
In the initial conversations between his team and Rihanna’s, they discussed how they could go from a more conventional fashion show, which Rihanna has done with Savage and Puma x Fenty in the past, and transform the presentation into something much larger.
“We said, ‘How do we start treating this more like entertainment, versus a fashion show?’” Perron says.
They started by looking at what the Savage brand itself was doing in its advertising and marketing. Much of the Savage campaign was shot in Morocco, giving Perron and his team the idea to create a set whose design was inspired by architecture styles in the country.
“For the photo shoots, which is where we took a lot from, the look was North African, Mediterranean, the very southern points of Europe, so if you look at a lot of the architecture of the scene, it kind of feels like it could be set in some sort of Mediterranean landscape,” he says. In addition to the Mediterranean inspiration, Perron drew from big, Hollywood musical performance pieces.
“There’s a huge choreographed component to this. A lot of the verticality of the set has to do with being able to see as many people and dancers in one frame versus doing this flat, conventional runway show. If you look at the vertical wall with all the arches in it, it could be something out of a Busby Berkeley [film],” he says, in reference to the American director known for kaleidoscopic choreography during dance numbers.
Perron kept Rihanna and her team in the loop throughout the process, he says. They’d get together for meetings where Perron showed her 3-D models and renderings of the stage design. “She’s super involved,” he says. “She looks at everything we do. We back-and-forth everything with her.”
The Fenty x Savage show has drawn comparisons to the only other lingerie show that can compare in terms of size, scale and audience numbers: Victoria’s Secret. But when asked about whether this was something Perron discussed with any of his colleagues, he says he’s never even watched a full VS show, and still doesn’t agree with the associations.
“It’s not a runway, it’s not solely model-focused. In my part of it, which is really scenic and the look and feel of the show, it’s kind of contrarian. It doesn’t have video, it doesn’t have a lot of the confetti, laser video that maybe a VS show would have,” he says. “I think the message is completely different also. The message for Savage x Fenty is it has a broader breadth in its inclusion and seeing beauty in a wider spectrum.”
By the time Amazon released the Fenty x Savage show early this morning, Perron was on to the next thing. He’s designing Roc Nation’s new offices, and is creative directing the 2019 Pornhub awards. This breadth of work shows his comfort level working on all sizes; whether he’s designing a couch for Kanye West’s Yeezy offices in Calabasas, Calif., or putting together a show for 19,000 people at Barclays Center. But tucked away somewhere in his Los Angeles home, he’s still got some of his favorite flyers. After all these years working on huge formats, the little squares of paper still pervade his mind. He says he isn’t a collector of anything, he just happened to stow them away and never threw them out.
“I’ll just keep them as influence,” he says. “I should definitely go through them at some point.”
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