Puma put its cards on the table in the high-stakes game of celebrity collaborations Friday, properly launching the Fenty Puma by Rihanna collection during New York Fashion Week in the 8 p.m. time slot at 23 Wall Street. Maybe it’s fairer to say that Rihanna put Puma’s cards on the table. She is the German athletic company’s highest-profile collaborator by a long shot and they are clearly happy to have her as “creative director,” a title she assumed in December 2014 when Puma, which is controlled by Kering, signed her to a three-year contract.
“There’s no doubt that this is Rihanna’s direction,” said Bjørn Gulden, Puma’s chief executive officer, before the show. “This is Rihanna’s show.”
“It’s a lot of room to be creative,” Rihanna acknowledged during a post-show interview. “Puma trusted me in a major way that a lot of companies wouldn’t.”
He said it; she said it, but ultimately the clothes confirmed that Rihanna was calling the shots on this one. It was not a shy collection.
Fearless when it comes to her personal style, Rihanna’s wide-ranging yet distinct point of view has baited megabrands before: Dior named her a brand ambassador last year; she’s worked with MAC Cosmetics, and designed a collection for high street retailer River Island. She wears vampy glam — pearls, corsets, boas — as well as boyish street — Raf Simons, men’s wear, Vetements — always with a tough, semismutty edge. And she does more than just pull it off.
So which look would she pull for Puma?
It was Japanese street, loaded with goth, erotica and sport — takes on wrestling gear, boxing shorts and robes, tracksuits, and hoodies galore. “It’s definitely not performance wear,” Rihanna said backstage, wearing a dramatically oversize fuzzy gray hoodie and black-and-white Formstrip stiletto booties. “But it’s inspired by sport culture and street fashion.”
Almost everything was black and white, matching the set of black, white and mirrored trees designed by Stefan Beckman. The runway filled with smoke as the models walked out, the first wearing a black hoodie with extralong sleeves, black lipstick, a white Puma sweatband choker and aggressively laced-up, white over-the-knee sneaker boots.
Oversizing was key to the sweatshirts, satin parkas, and sweatpants that were a cooler, weirder distant cousin of the original Juicy Couture style. But so was undersizing, with cropped tops cut so high the bottom of the models’ breasts hung out and high-waisted thong briefs. Corsets came layered over sweatshirts and variations on tracksuits included a black zip-up maxidress with a white strip across the bust and lace-up sailor hoodies and pants.
There were women’s looks and men’s, but Rihanna pointed out that the majority of the collection was unisex “because I like to wear men’s clothes,” she said. “I designed a little selfishly.” Copious amounts of black velvet and faux teddybear fur, on exaggerated outerwear and backpacks, imparted a tacky luxe sensibility.
Puma wanted Rihanna and it got her: sexy, sporty and confident about bad taste done well. The look felt like her unfiltered, or, more accurately, filtered through Puma branding — the intention is a mutually beneficial commercial enterprise. Many items featured either the Puma logo or Fenty in vaguely Japanese script. The lineup was well-merchandised for the seemingly bottomless market for gritty street sweats and bomber jackets. Some clever accessories seemed destined for bestseller-dom: zip-up and sweatband chokers, stand-alone sweatshirt hoods, updates slated for May on the creeper that sold out within hours when it was released last September, and the Fenty Trainer, which goes on sale Feb. 26, the day Rihanna’s Anti tour starts.
Most of the world is on a first-name-only basis with Rihanna. Fenty is her last name (her given name is Robyn) and she chose to use it for the Puma collection so no one gets sick of hearing RiRi. “I didn’t want to oversaturate people with the Rihanna brand,” she said, launching into a bit of self-mocking. “’Rihanna-Rihanna-Rihanna. Buy this; buy that. Rihanna has this; Rihanna has that. Get it because it’s Rihanna.’ I wanted people to want the product in a sincere way, not just because it’s a celebrity product but because they genuinely love it.”
No matter how the chips fall, Fenty Puma by Rihanna is a huge move for Puma, putting it in the fashion game currently dominated by its competitors Nike, which works with Riccardo Tisci, and Adidas, which has Stella McCartney and Kanye West. On the subject of West, whose Yeezy Season 3 extravaganza was the day before Fenty Puma by Rihanna’s show, Gulden brushed off the idea that there’s friendly competition between the performance brands/collaborators. “[West] probably raises competition for the category in general, but for us, we would like to do more for the female consumer,” he said, noting that Puma has historically resonated with women. “We did the research and Rihanna popped up everywhere as the celebrity most influential with our female customer.” To that end, in November Puma reported a notable uptick in third-quarter women’s sales tied to the launch of Rihanna’s Creeper in September.
Asked the same question about a friendly competition with West, a frequent musical collaborator of hers (she’s featured on his new “The Life of Pablo” album he streamed as part of his fashion show Thursday), Rihanna said, “Usually I do love to compete with the guys. That’s my thing. I don’t like to compete with girls. Guys play hard and they’re also in another realm of respect, but with Kanye, he’s my brother and I always want him to win. I have a soft spot for him.”
“Kanye is not Adidas and Rihanna is not Puma….What I do for Puma is to slay every other sports brand out there in general, not the collaborators.”
In order for Fenty Puma to slay, it has to sell. The fashion show was the first time any retailers had seen the collection. Gulden said Puma planned to meet with retailers the following morning for feedback. The collection will be priced above average for Puma. “That was intentional,” Rihanna said. “If you could get it at Puma already, then I probably shouldn’t [put it in the collection].”
How pricey will Fenty Puma by Rihanna be? “We’ll talk about it tomorrow,” was all Gulden would say.