Rihanna’s reign as the muse of fashion

Rihanna can hardly ever be seen in a look that isn’t “Phresh Off the Runway.” Beyond her acclaimed R&B music and entrepreneurial ventures in beauty and apparel, Robyn Rihanna Fenty brings trendsetting looks and creative fashion choices to the red carpet and everyday streetwear alike. Her style has changed over the years. But the one constant is her willingness to take chances and challenge the norms of fashion through her bold looks. 

The release of two-time platinum single “Pon de Replay” also marked Rihanna’s debut on the red carpet in a halter crop top and low-rise boyfriend jeans, matching the trend of the low-rise bottoms popular in the early 2000s. She appeared in a similar outfit at the MTV VMAs that year — early on, Rihanna’s style followed trends of the time as opposed to setting them. 

Rihanna’s red carpet debut, pictured above, following the release of “Pon de Replay.” (Graphic: MICHELLE FU/The Stanford Daily)

Rihanna’s fashion stardom emerged with the release of her third studio album, “Good Girl Gone Bad,” or around the time she began to work with stylist Mariel Haenn. Her outfits began to take on an edgy and flirty aesthetic — a style that endures today. During the promotion and release of this album in 2008, Rihanna could be seen in short cropped hair and darker, edgier looks; for example, her pairing of Balenciaga gladiator sandals with a black blazer and mini skirt for BET’s “106 & Park.”

“Rated R” conveyed more somber and angry emotions than her previous albums and highlighted her re-emergence after a publicized end to an abusive relationship. For example, the album began with an ominous introduction: “We say, welcome to the mad house!” Another song, “Russian Roulette,” contains despairing lyrics like “as my life flashes before my eyes / I’m wondering if I will ever see another sunrise.” 

Her style at the time paralleled the tones in this album and reflected Rihanna’s developing penchant for both men’s suits and the crossover between haute couture and high street — meaning, brands accessible to the public with high price points. Continuing the edginess, Rihanna appeared with a partially shaved head, and donned a sleek Dolce & Gabbana tuxedo with gloves and platform pumps for the 2009 Met Gala — a bold menswear-inspired look. A Topshop and Christopher Kane print dress was worn by her in Soho. 

Rihanna’s androgynous 2009 Met Gala outfit. (Graphic by MICHELLEFU/The Stanford Daily

Rihanna kept her streetwear look throughout the early 2010s. During her “Loud” tour, Rihanna wore a simple Givenchy t-shirt dress with knee-high Tom Ford snakeskin boots out and about in New York. She also began working with stylist Mel Ottenberg, who sought to showcase Rihanna’s creative expression through her fashion.

“My whole thing was she’s so beautiful, she’s so over the top, she doesn’t need so much stuff,” Ottenberg said to the New York Times. “We can strip it down.”

Simultaneously, she wore stunning and glamorous outfits to the red carpet. Miuccia’s backless, crocodile-leather-inspired gown was a big hit at the Met Gata 2012. 

Also in 2012 was the release of her seventh album, “Unapologetic.” She began the album with her song “Phresh Off the Runway” which chronicles her own rise in the fashion world. 

One of Rihanna’s most iconic looks was the sheer gown she wore to accept her 2014 Fashion Icon of the Year prize from the CFDA. This prize was an indication of how Rihanna dominated that year’s fashion scene, from becoming Balmain’s newest face to the cover of Vogue, to being named Fashion Icon of the Year by the CFDA. The head of her design team, Adam Selman, created a show-stopping garment bedazzled with 230,000 Swarovski crystals — a look that transcended and shattered fashion norms on modesty and female celebrity attire.

Rihanna was a true fashion icon of the year when she accepted her Fashion Icon of the Years award. (Graphic: MICHELLE FU/The Stanford Daily).

The designers also made Rihanna a muse. Olivier Rousteing of Balmain said of his spring campaign in 2014, that it was “celebrating my age, my inspiration, my love, Rihanna.”

This cultural moment would not be the end of Rihanna’s groundbreaking outfits. Rihanna’s outfit to the 2015 Met Gala — themed “China: Through the Looking Glass” — weighed nearly fifty pounds, the bulk of it composed by an astonishing yellow fur coat from featured designer Guo Pei. Rihanna wore a carefully constructed dress from Rei Kawakubo for the Met Gala 2017. 

We all remember her Met Gala 2018 look for Heavenly Bodies. It was a pope-inspired outfit. The singer wore a Margiela jewel-encrusted robe with matching Louboutin heels and a matching papal mitre. 

Rihanna continues to defy norms. 

She wore a Miu Miu crystal mesh set with her baby bump to show off in May 2022. This was a shocking departure from the norm of boring maternity clothing that conceals the belly. Her iconic streetwear style made waves when she appeared in a slate-blue ribbed knit Alaïa set that consisted of a crop top and a low-waisted maxi skirt to show her pregnancy, which she accessorized with a blue camouflage Dior saddle bag. 

Rihanna’s baby bump-boosting two-piece set. (Graphic: MICHELLEFU/The Stanford Daily

Other notable maternity outfits include her first reveal of her pregnancy to the press, decked in a Chanel pink puffer coat without a shirt and low-rise Vetements jeans, and her appearance in Gucci’s Fall 2022 fashion show in Milan, in which she wore dragon-embroidered jeans, a latex crop top and a lavender faux fur coat.

Rihanna’s last album, “ANTI,” dropped in 2016. She has been launching her own fashion ventures since then, including Fenty Beauty makeup and Savage x Fenty fashion lingerie empire. While many fans would like to see her return to music, Rihanna remains a pop culture icon — whether through her iconic outfits, or media presence through her brands — and she will continue to subvert expectations.

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