Rihanna is a master of marketing — and it is creating envy throughout the innerwear world.
The multihyphenated singer, songwriter, actress and fashion entrepreneur’s highly publicized Savage x Fenty fashion show and subsequent Amazon launch generated slews of media coverage and praise for its seemingly groundbreaking diversity in terms of model casting and product offering.
While Rihanna’s efforts are certainly praiseworthy, industry executives say, the fact is she isn’t doing anything that isn’t already in the market from other brands — nor was her show, in the end, that much different than Victoria’s Secret’s annual — and in recent months, much criticized — spectacle.
Nonetheless, Rihanna has given the industry a jolt — and companies are poring over her show and launch to learn from her.
Whether it was a well-thought-out business move or just good luck to host the show as lingerie giant Victoria’s Secret decided to put its own fashion show on hold — amid increasing scandal with parent company L Brands — fans didn’t seem to care.
“Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty fashion show was an authentic celebration of women and a great example for the intimate apparel industry,” Mary van Praag, president of the intimate apparel group Chico’s FAS, which includes Soma Intimates and the new direct-to-consumer brand TellTale, told WWD.
Still, it’s not hard to draw parallels between the Savage x Fenty show and the iconic Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show — in many ways the shows were more similar than different.
Like the models, which included Gigi and Bella Hadid, Cara Delevingne, Alek Wek and Joan Smalls — all of whom walked in both the Victoria’s Secret Fashion show and Rihanna’s show. Or musician Halsey, who performed in both shows in the last year. Or the style of bras for sale at Savage x Fenty. Similar styles are available at Victoria’s Secret.
Diversity is, however, without a doubt one of the biggest differences between Savage x Fenty and Victoria’s Secret. (Most of Victoria’s Secret’s Angels are still quite skinny, although the company did hire its first plus-size model, size 14 Ali Tate Cutler, in October.)
But while Rihanna has been at the leading edge of promoting women with a variety of skin tones, her brand is far from the only one to be inclusive in terms of body size, an issue heavily promoted by brands like American Eagle Outfitters’ Aerie, Adore Me, Wacoal and ThirdLove, among others.
Even so, Rihanna is getting much of the credit for revolutionizing the intimates industry — one that is still dominated by Victoria’s Secret. According to market research firm Euromonitor International, in 2018, Victoria’s Secret was the market share leader in the women’s intimates apparel category, both the U.S. and internationally, with 24 percent and 4 percent of the market, respectively. That same year, Victoria’s Secret sold $7.4 billion worth of bras and underwear.
Victoria’s Secret is also the most engaged intimates brand on Instagram, according to Stylophane, a digital marketing agency that tracks user engagement across fashion and beauty brands. Victoria’s Secret received more than 14.7 million likes on Instagram posts in September 2019, according to Stylophane. Savage x Fenty, in second place, was just a fraction of that with just over 2.9 million likes the same month.
All of which begs the question: Just what is Rihanna’s brand offering that isn’t already out there?
The answer might simply be just a little bit more of Rihanna.
“The core strength of Savage x Fenty is very much Rihanna,” said Cora Harrington, founder and editor and chief of the Lingerie Addict blog. “The products themselves are similar to products that other brands carry.”
Harrington, who also wrote the book, “In Intimate Detail: How to Choose, Wear and Love Lingerie,” pointed out that other brands with greater size ranges will sometimes get criticized for not doing enough, not being diverse enough.
Savage x Fenty offers bras in cup sizes from A through H. But so do a number of other brands. Natori has bras in A through H cup sizes, while ThirdLove and Chantelle go up to an I cup. Wacoal bras are available in AA through K cup sizes. Panache bras run in D through J cups. Online lingerie and swimwear brand Figleaves has more than 130 different bra sizes in D through J cups.
“But the difference is, those other brands don’t have Rihanna,” Harrington said. “In terms of popular consciousness or a visible public presence, Savage x Fenty is moving into that space that Victoria’s Secret once occupied. Last year, [models] were talking about how they wanted to walk the Victoria’s Secret show. Or how the Victoria’s Secret show was a goal. And what we see now are models and other people saying, the Savage x Fenty show is their goal.”
Victoria’s Secret, owned by parent company L Brands, declined to comment for this story. But even with all its woes and increasingly criticism, Victoria’s Secret has some competitive advantages, including the 1,143 retail stores across the U.S. In some parts of the country, Victoria’s Secret is basically the only option for bra shopping — aside from the Internet. That leaves few alternatives for women still seeking a bra fitting in real life.
“Department stores were the place to buy bras, then Victoria’s Secret,” said Guido Campello, co-owner of lingerie boutique Journelle and co-chief executive officer of Cosabella. “People would just start with Victoria’s Secret, because there were so many stores.”
And while Victoria’s Secret’s slice of the pie is getting smaller — down from 32 percent of the U.S. market in 2015 — competitors have nowhere near the same market share. In the U.S., Fruit of the Loom has the second largest percentage of market share, with just 5.1 percent. American Eagle Outfitters’ Aerie held just 3 percent of the U.S. market in 2018, according to Euromonitor, up from 2 percent in 2017.
Ayako Homma, fashion and luxury consultant at Euromonitor, said it’s too soon to tell how much market share Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty will take — the company hasn’t even been around for two full calendar years. And since Savage x Fenty doesn’t have any physical stores — (products are available on savagex.com and Amazon) — the current market share is likely a fraction of even smaller players like Aerie.
Rihanna, however, is the mindshare leader — at least right now — and the one person that seems to be untouchable.
While the Victoria’s Secret show has increasingly been criticized for catering to the male gaze, viewers seem intent on labeling Rihanna’s show as one constructed for the “female gaze.” Although few can articulate just what that means.
“I’m pretty sure there are still men tuning into Rihanna’s show to watch women in their underwear,” said Emma Parker, founder of British-based lingerie company Playful Promises. “It’s a strange idea that men only like to look at women with one body type. I don’t think male sexuality is that reductive.”
Parker, whose company Playful Promises has been selling petites through H sizes and using transgender models long before it was fashionable to do so, admits it’s “a little bit upsetting” to see Rihanna get so much attention for a movement that already existed before the singer-actress-mogul entered the market.
“Some of the things she’s getting credit for we’ve already done before,” she said, but added that on the whole it’s a good thing for the body positivity and inclusion movements.
Still, other critics argue that the quality of Savage x Fenty products is nothing spectacular and that the brand’s popularity is in direct relation to Rihanna’s involvement.
Fenty declined comment for this story.
But TechStyle Fashion Group, the company working with Rihanna to create the Savage x Fenty line, said it has heard nothing but praise for both the brand’s message and actual products. The firm reported that 88 percent of the collection’s shoppers said they’d recommend the products to a friend, according to customer surveys, while 81 percent said the products were a good value for the price. Meanwhile, the product return rate was just 8 percent.
Either way, Playful Promises is just one example of a brand that has been going airbrush-free and using a diverse array of models for years.
“I think that’s part of the power with Rihanna,” Harrington said. “Other brands with similar, or even greater size ranges — but without Rihanna — are often criticized for not doing enough.”
Wacoal America is one example. The intimates company, which is owned by Japanese-based Wacoal International Corp., has been making bras in A through I cups for 30 years.
“When it’s a new company, or you have a celebrity name, or you’ve come up with some sort of special online idea — which sometimes we think of as gimmicks — it’s fashionable for the press to give them coverage and give them credit, even though they’ve been around for a very short period of time,” said Bob Vitale, who has served as Wacoal America’s ceo for more than seven years.
But Vitale is also a man in an industry that is thirsty for a female leader. When Vitale steps down ceo of Wacoal America next March, Mitch Kauffman, the company’s current president, will take the reins. Victoria’s Secret is also — at least right now — run by a man, Tory Burch alum John Mehas.
Some critics say the problem is too many men are running the show in the lingerie industry. Harrington is quick to refute this idea as “fallacious.”
“Most of the lingerie brands that I’m aware of, that I interact with, have women designers, women in the top positions,” she said. “The assumption that people are having, that most lingerie companies are run by men, is something that’s been created whole cloth by p.r. teams and doesn’t actually reflect the realities of the industry.”
Examples include Aerie global brand president Jennifer Foyle, Lively ceo and founder Michelle Cordeiro Grant, True & Co. ceo Michelle Lam and Knix founder and ceo Joanna Griffiths. Head of buying at Figleaves Jenni Burt took over in September after longtime ceo Miriam Lahage stepped down. Both of them are women.
Still, when there is a man in a leadership position at a lingerie company, consumers have been quick to criticize — at least of late.
“The idea that a male-dominated culture is going to tell women what’s sexy, what sexy should be, is just ineffective. It just falls flat on young women today,” said Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist.
Just look at ThirdLove, the San Francisco-based intimates brand that came under scrutiny earlier this fall after allegations arose of a toxic workplace stirred up by cofounder David Spector. (Until then Spector’s wife, cofounder and co-ceo Heidi Zak, had been and remains the face of the brand.) This was strikingly different than the image the company had worked so hard to create as the “antithesis of Victoria’s Secret,” as ThirdLove described itself in the full-page ad the company took out in The New York Times last fall, trying to distance itself from Victoria’s Secret.
Zak responded by saying that the men who do work at ThirdLove are “feminists.”
At Wacoal, Vitale pointed out that while there are some men in the c-suite, 100 percent of the design team at Wacoal are women and that being a man hasn’t left him at a disadvantage.
“That sounds like discrimination in reverse to me,” Vitale said. “I’d like to believe that I have a lot of knowledge about many areas of our business. I’ve been doing this for 42 years. I’m not so sure I’m somehow disadvantaged in being a man. I am disadvantaged in that I can’t go in the fitting room and try them on. But I’m not designing the product.”
In the midst of all this, Rihanna emerges as a powerful woman at the head of an inclusive lingerie brand.
Harrington, of the Lingerie Addict blog, pointed out that critics of Rihanna are few and far between, in part because many of her fans on the Internet are known for attacking naysayers of the Savage x Fenty brand.
“Which is also a silencing tactic,” Harrington said. “No one wants to be on the receiving end to dozens, hundreds of fans in their comments section, calling them names and being terrible.”
And, she added, little is known about TechStyle Fashion Group.
“While much of the p.r. is focused on Rihanna as the face of the brand, the actual brand manager, the ceo’s, the design team, all the people behind Rihanna who are doing the work of developing and designing and making the brand, we’re not really sure who those people are,” Harrington said.
In fact, some might be surprised to find out TechStyle was created and is run by two men: Adam Goldenberg and Don Ressler.
Savage x Fenty is a joint venture between Rihanna and TechStyle, but Goldenberg added, “We have a dedicated team that we built out for Fenty.”
TechStyle also provided information on Savage x Fenty’s employee demographics, which breaks down to a workforce that is comprised of 75 percent women, while 82 percent of the company’s management is made up of women. Female leadership at Savage x Fenty includes the brand’s ceo, Rihanna, as well as chief marketing officer Natalie Guzman, vice president of design Mireille Gindrey and vice president of production Chantel Terrell.
At TechStyle, 63 percent of the workforce is female and 58 percent of management is female.
Regardless of TechStyle’s employee demographics, Rihanna is still very much the face of Savage x Fenty. And female leaders — especially in the lingerie industry — seem to resonate more with consumers who want to feel like they’re being represented.
“There’s an honesty about Rihanna and it feels like she’s representing us,” said Yarrow, the consumer psychologist. “There’s a sense of intimacy with her. She allows herself to be a little bit more vulnerable and imperfect, which makes other women feel connected to her.”
Those imperfections and that sense of inclusivity come out in many forms. The diverse array of models in the Savage x Fenty show went beyond just ethnic backgrounds, extending into physical size and shape and circumstances. There were transgendered models, like Laverne Cox; pregnant models, and models with disabilities, such as Lauren Wasser and Mama Cax. And while the Victoria’s Secret Angels look like they’re all airbrushed — even on the catwalk — Rihanna’s cast didn’t shy away from showing off stretch marks, prosthetic limbs and baby bumps.
“It’s much more athletic and energized, which is how I think women want to be seen,” said Candace Corlett, president of WSL Strategic Retail, a New York-based retail consultancy firm. “It’s certainly not the sultry Victoria’s Secret approach.”
Another noticeable difference is that the Victoria’s Secret show does its best to portray the Angels as exclusive, as an ideal woman to be reached, while Rihanna’s models are more inclusive; they seemingly represent everyone.
After each Angel walks down the runway during the Victoria’s Secret show, the camera pans to her famous parents or partner. There are shots of Gigi Hadid’s mom, former “Real Housewives of New York” and model Yolanda Hadid, cheering on her daughter. Or Kendall Jenner’s parents snapping photos on their cellphones. Or Maroon 5 lead singer Adam Levine cheering as his wife Behati Prinsloo walks down the runway. Or Sofie Rovenstine tearing up in behind-the-scenes footage when she’s telling her mom she can’t believe she was booked for the Victoria’s Secret show.
This is noticeably absent from Rihanna’s show, even with the Hadid sisters in tow.
Not only that, but the Savage x Fenty show is more of a fashion musical than a traditional lingerie show, as Rihanna aptly described it in the behind-the-scenes footage. Women are seen dancing to heavily choreographed numbers while sporting the Savage x Fenty line, illustrating that the frocks are both comfortable and sexy at once.
“What she stole was that it was entertaining and a spectacle in a way,” Yarrow said. “There’s still fantasy in that show, which is what Victoria’s Secret has always been known for. But it’s a fantasy for women to feel good enough the way they are.
“Fundamentally, women want to look good for men,” Yarrow continued. “They’re always going to want to look good for men. They want to look good for women, too. They just want to look good. That’s just part of being human, especially when you’re young. The popularity has more to do with the psychological and emotional component to the brand.”
Another thing that Rihanna is doing is making the world of lingerie fun and sexy — while still being inclusive.
“One of the problems you have in the marketplace is that there’s an old world of sexy lingerie that people want to push down now and get away from,” said Campello of Journelle and Cosabella. “Rihanna makes lingerie fresh and exciting. She’s an inspirer.”
There’s also the fact that the trend of inclusion is still relatively new. American Eagle Outfitters’ Aerie was one of the first to ditch the airbrushing and use real women as models back in 2014.
“We’re still pretty much surrounded by size zero in fashion and advertising,” Corlett said. “I don’t think we’ve reached saturation of including women of all sizes. Rihanna hasn’t invented inclusion of large sizes. But she certainly is supporting it and I think it needs all the support it can get.”
That could be why even Aerie global brand president Jennifer Foyle has good things to say about Rihanna. Foyle praised Rihanna for “continuing the conversation around inclusivity.”
“We were one of the first to allow women to see themselves reflected in global campaigns for their passions, community impact and real selves and have worked to create a world where inclusivity is celebrated and all people feel represented,” Foyle said. “Together with like-minded leaders we can continue to create impactful change.”
In the end, though, the purpose of Savage x Fenty isn’t to take down Victoria’s Secret. The point is to sell products.
“This is marketing. This is about selling products,” Harrington said. “Savage x Fenty has a brilliant marketing team to recognize that opportunity. And while the message of body positivity and the message of inclusivity, I’m sure is legitimate and I’m sure is genuinely felt, it also sells a lot of garments.”
Now the big question is whether Rihanna can take the buzz around Savage x Fenty and turn it into a growing, sustainable business.
While Homma of Euromonitor said it is too soon to tell just how much market share Savage x Fenty has — or will take — what is apparent is how smaller brands are disrupting the intimates market.
“What’s different now is social media and the impact it has on consumers’ decision of purchasing,” Homma said. “Before those brands came out, Victoria’s Secret used to dominate the market. It was pretty much impossible for new and smaller players to compete with Victoria’s Secret. But now Victoria’s Secret is really struggling in the era of the #MeToo movement and also body positivity. More smaller and niche players, like Rihanna…are using new concepts, which could be size inclusivity or comfort, everyday wear; using those new concepts and they’re able to disrupt the market. I think that really changed the game.”
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