HERZOGENAURACH, Germany — “Women are the future,” an upbeat Bjørn Gulden told WWD at the Puma headquarters in Herzogenaurach, Germany, which was in turmoil on Tuesday, following the visit of its new women’s creative director: Rihanna.
The seven-time Grammy Award winner and CFDA’s Fashion Icon laureate, who will officially take up her new role in January, flew in to Puma’s headquarters on Monday night for her first creative session with the design team, picking out colors and fabrics, discussing styles and the line’s overall direction.
As part of a multiyear partnership with the activewear firm, Rihanna will tackle Puma’s fitness and training line, which includes apparel as well as shoes, “design and customize classic Puma styles and create new styles to add to the Puma product portfolio,” the company said.
Dressed in a cream ensemble that included a bunch of pearls wrapped generously around her neck and descending softly on a vintage satin bustier, an Yves Saint Laurent hooded sweater, track pants and a brand-new pair of Puma sneakers customized for the occasion with a crepe sole, the singer already showed off her talent for mixing chic with sporty.
“I’m very excited about this. Whether it’s apparel or shoes or accessories, I want to modernize it by highlighting the classics and going from things that make Puma Puma — give it a youthfulness, make it hip, basically [make it] Rihanna,” the singer told WWD, while taking a short break from countless meets and greets with the German activewear brand’s managing board and the hundreds of employees who gathered to snap a few pics of the affable performer.
Calling her new assignment “a little bit surreal,” the singer vowed “to come up with cool things that don’t even belong in Puma.” “It could even be down to suspenders,” she laughed. “We can experiment and take risks, that’s what I’m most excited about — the creative freedom.”
Gulden, Puma’s top executive noted that the brand has historically had a big female following, citing the Speed Cat, Rihanna’s childhood favorite, as an example.
“Women are much more active today, they are fitter and lead a healthier lifestyle, and retailers understand that; they are increasingly giving more space to women’s products, and so we see this as a growing segment,” he said.
The brand’s women’s category accounts for less than 50 percent of sales at present, but the ailing sporting goods maker is counting on its new wing-woman.
“Signing Rihanna is a fantastic step for Puma,” Gulden said. “Her global profile, her charisma and individuality, her ambition — all these things make her a perfect brand ambassador for our brand. Rihanna is an icon for the young consumer — male and female. Obviously, the age group between 14 and 25 is what we are all targeting, and she speaks to that. Every research we have done shows her on top of the list,” said the executive.
Gulden said Rihanna “hit it off with the design team right away.”
“She speaks the language of design and creativity, and that’s fun to see. I can already tell, she brings a lot of energy to the table.”
In addition, the 26-year-old is to act as the company’s global brand ambassador, joining ranks with Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, the world’s fastest man, and football star striker Mario Balotelli, among others, while also fronting Puma’s ad campaign for fall 2015.
The Barbados native has previously modeled for Gucci, Emporio Armani and Balmain.
The venture is the latest in a series of Puma’s efforts to boost sales and burnish its brand image.
The activewear maker, which is controlled by French group Kering, is in the throes of a total makeover, eager to reposition itself as a performance sports brand “that also sells lifestyle — with sports as its anchor,” as Gulden, who took up office in July 2013, put it.
The executive has been adamant about improving the brand’s distribution, including the opening of stores in India, China and the U.S., launching new products and spending big on image and marketing, which is weighing on profits.
Rihanna’s visits coincided with reports that Kering earlier this year was in discussions about possibly selling the active brand.
The company saw its net earnings decline for the past three years, but at last posted an improvement in sales in the third quarter of this year.
“Just don’t measure success by the quarter, we are in for the long run,” said Gulden, who expects rosier times ahead. “I’ve always said 2014 would lay the basis for the turnaround, 2015 would actually see the turnaround, and I feel very comfortable going forward. Rihanna is part of a strategy of renewing the brand and she was the last piece missing to go to the global market with a story. For 2016, our product range is where it should be.”
Although Puma declined to reveal the cost of the Rihanna pact, which is the first of its kind for the brand, it is estimated that marketing costs in the third quarter ate up 35 million euros of the company’s earnings before interest and taxes, or $46.4 million at average exchange for the period, following the launch of the “Forever Faster” campaign, billed as the biggest media push in the company’s history.
Rihanna, who revealed the partnership via her social media network, will likely put the world’s third-largest sporting goods maker — after Nike and next-door neighbor Adidas — ahead of its competitors, at least in the digital spheres.
The singer boasts 14.1 million followers on Instagram and 38.3 million followers on Twitter.
Known for her daring outfits — including a nearly nude crystal gown she wore to the CFDA Awards — Rihanna is no stranger to the fashion business.
The multitasking performer has done a collection with British high-street retailer River Island, which climaxed in a show during London Fashion Week, and struck a deal with MAC Cosmetics, the beauty giant’s first long-term creative relationship with a celebrity. The new venture will likely take her fashion icon status to the next level.
“Puma has such cool stuff, it’s already going in the direction of the new, youthful, hip underground designers and tastemakers. This is the right place for me to be. I just want to make Puma my taste. That’s the plan,” she said.