I stood alongside the crowd at the foot of a giant stage, looking up in awe at a brilliant hologram. Rihanna strutted towards us, dressed in a lace corset. Shadows danced across the room as her image struck burlesque poses. It seemed that Rihanna might’ve been there for real, larger than life.
Last Friday, Rihanna celebrated the launch of Savage X Fenty, her highly anticipated lingerie line, with a Brooklyn pop-up shop. The event, which was held in what seemed to be an empty warehouse at the corner of South 3rd Street and Kent Avenue, was preceded by a winding line of guys and girls dressed in their Friday best, wrapped around the building and down the block. The line bustled with conversation, and everyone was eager to get a look at the collection without having to wait for the items to arrive via mail.
When we entered the building, a hush fell over the crowd. I had been expecting a lot of noise, between the clanging of cash registers and customers running about, vying for the last available piece of underwear, but I realized that the actual shop was in a second back room. Instead, this first layer offered a display of the brand. The warehouse was dim, lit mostly by moody red and shifting spotlights. Videos of women in the lingerie were projected onto the walls, flickering to reveal shots of blurry limbs and flashes of smiles. The images changed with the sound of static and feedback, momentarily sending the lighting into shades of violet and lilac.
Outside, a woman with a headset, who had handed out the entry wristbands, told me that the music had been specially curated for the event. The soundtrack did not disappoint: wordless, sensual beats echoed through the chamber of the room, reminiscent of Rihanna’s 2016 single “Needed Me.” In and out of the music, the voices of the models from the films drifted through the room. The entire warehouse felt like some kind of sultry art exhibit, not a pop-up shop. Rihanna and her team had captured sex appeal— not overexposed, perfume-scented, man-made sexy, but the root of women’s sensuality — and placed it in a dark chamber for us to behold.
The lingerie industry, once dedicated to promoting the cigarette-for-dinner, no-ass-having ideal of beauty, has been going through a moment of “realness,” whatever that is. American Eagle Outfitters pledged not to retouch their underwear ads; Victoria’s Secret is experiencing a noticeable loss in popularity; retailers now insist on selling us images of what they claim truly reflect our own actual bodies.
As much as these “real” models are meant to represent the common woman, they often exclude the plus size community, and people of color. Recognizing a similar market inefficiency to utilize for her Fenty Beauty line — which sold five times more than Kylie Jenner’s, released around the same time — Savage X Fenty’s plan is to provide underwear that has nudes for all skin tones, and a more inclusive size selection. Currently, the collection offers bras in sizes 32A to 38DD, underwear up to a size 3X, and other lingerie from extra small to extra large. (They’ve also stated plans to increase their size range very soon.)
As an artist who’s rarely left the spotlight since first appearing, Rihanna’s empire is largely dependent on brand loyalty. We’ve watched her grow up, changing from a teenage girl finding her way in the industry, to a woman known to dominate multiple. We’ve seen the Barbados born singer diverge from music to fashion and beauty with an ease that reveals not only her personal smarts, but the cultural importance that only a woman like Rihanna can bring to the table for girls everywhere. To succeed in pop music, the cosmetic industry, and the fashion industry all at once is for Rihanna to command terrain that has been historically carved out for white businessmen, who think first about their white consumers.
We watched Rihanna persevere through the Chris Brown news; we cringed alongside her when Drake confronted her onstage a few years back. Rihanna has always exemplified resilience in the face of the men who try to cast shadows on her. That translates to her lingerie, as she — and the people also responsible for designing and marketing the line — attempt to show what an inclusive female gaze can bring to our modern idea of sexy. In a world filled with sales pitches, it asks: Why not trust Rihanna, who you already know and love more intimately than other celebrities, as opposed to another corporation or tertiary celebrity?
We may live in a capitalist hellscape, but Rihanna always manages to make the burn feel good.
Almost everyone I talked to was surprised that a line so inclusive could still look hot. I still shudder when I see department store racks filled with frumpy beige bras, the only color the underwear industry seems to be able to think of when designing bras over a D cup. Around the shop, I saw electric blue and green lace, bodysuits with skin revealing cutouts, and barely any beige, aside from a few bras meant to match lighter skin tones. “A lot of people in the industry are doing that, but they didn’t focus on the sexy factor,” a woman named Emily said. “That’s a small part of the industry, but it’s huge for women’s confidence.”
Another girl, Amanda, proudly showed me a high waisted piece of underwear she had found. “I’m walking away with something that I know I’m going to look good in,” she said. “I feel like it’s designed by someone who’s invested in feeling good as a woman, instead of designed by someone who thinks it’ll be good to their eyes.”
Inside the building, another line formed to get into the actual shop, which was in a separate room. Customers emerged into a bright scene, a clinical white in contrast to the exhibition before. Everyone scrambled, running their fingers over the purple fuzz of a robe, or passing a pair of lace panties to a friend. One customer turned to me, holding up two bras for me to compare. “Which one do you think will have more support?” she asked, and then answering her own question, “I think this one, right?” The camaraderie of women’s shopping that I love was encouraged here, as I watched strangers stop to take pictures for one another, and to ask about sizing.
To my surprise, the shop even had dressing rooms. Friends and partners alike waited patiently outside the curtains, holding plenty of merch for those changing inside. People posed for photos in front of a giant scale marked ON THE REG on one end, and BLACK WIDOW on the other — names of the capsule collections within the lingerie line. Everywhere, I saw different kinds of people, all looking happy with their new purchases. We may live in a capitalist hellscape, but Rihanna always manages to make the burn feel good. I didn’t need a new bra, but I walked out with one. It seemed like the appropriate gesture.