With her power pipes and full-on attitude, Rihanna has become fashion’s most exciting new muse. So how does it feel to have her dress you for a day? Plum Sykes finds out.
On a wintry December afternoon the Alexander Wang SoHo store is temporarily closed, no customers allowed. A bodyguard is scoping the place out like a character from Homeland. He looks suspiciously from Wang, dressed in droopy black jersey, who is sitting next to me on a black leather couch scattered with black mink cushions, to the lush fox-fur hammock hanging in the center of the store, and back again. His eyes narrow as he scrutinizes the twelve-foot-high black teddy bear in the window for hazards. “I need to know where the nearest hospital is,” he whispers. A convenient hospital is quickly located.
The guard is laden down with a heavy-looking backpack.
“Can I take your bag?” offers the salesgirl kindly. “No, thank you,” says the guard. “I keep this. I have in it whatever She needs.”
She—I knew, we all knew, because we had been waiting at least five long minutes for her—is Rihanna. Everyone who works for the singer-slash-megastar, I later discover, refers to her as “She,” like vicars refer to God as “Him.” And the reverence fits, at least today—she’s just been told that she has had as many number-one singles (thirteen) as Michael Jackson in Billboard’s Hot 100. It took Jackson nearly 23 years. It’s taken Rihanna seven. She’s sold 50 million albums and 180 million singles, and won six Grammys. Pretty extraordinary for a Barbadian tomboy named Robyn Rihanna Fenty who never took singing lessons.
Fashion-wise, Rihanna’s a hit-maker for the masses and the designers. The Rihanna Effect was all over the spring collections. Peter Dundas for Pucci showed leather boxer shorts worn with jeweled jackets, and adorned his red-carpet frocks with beaded black harnesses. Balmain’s Olivier Rousteing, who has Rihanna starring in his spring ad campaign, showed what amounted to an entire Rihanna wardrobe on his runway: baseball jackets worn with sheer tops and skinny houndstooth pants; eighties-inspired denim minidresses cinched at the waist. Tom Ford’s bejeweled teeny-tiny dresses and thigh-high gladiator sandals said Rihanna loud and clear.
So, the point of my sitting in the Alexander Wang store awaiting RiRi, as she’s often nicknamed, is that I—and everyone at Vogue—feel that her taste is so cool, so right for now, that we want to know how to pull it off. If you can possibly imagine it, Rihanna has agreed to style me. It was going to be a fashion fairy tale—the coolest singer in the world sprinkling some stardust on this English working mother.
We don’t have to wait for long. Contrary to her reputation, Rihanna is rather punctual. I glimpse a slight girl slipping through the door of the store, followed by a mini entourage of assistant, friend, and two drivers.
“Hiiiiii!” gushes Rihanna to Alexander, enveloping him in her arms.
“Heeeyyyy!” she says to me, giving me an unexpected cuddle.
The atmosphere in the store goes from Homeland to Cheers in about 30 seconds.
Let me describe Rihanna to you. Once I unwrap myself from her, I ask her to stand back so I can study her, which she gamely does with a grand gesture—feet apart, hands shoved in pockets, huge grin. Her laugh, a ridiculously infectious combination of singsong tinkle and island cackle, is the background accompaniment. Everything is funny to Rihanna.
But back to her look: Rihanna is slim, with the figure of a dancer, almost flat-chested. Her face is cherubic. She has an adorable button nose; full, bow-shaped lips painted vamp-red. Her perfect skin glows with health. Her light caramel eyes are lined with an immaculately drawn catlike flick of kohl. “I do them myself,” she explains. Could she do my eyes? “Jen. Get me my eyeliner from MAC,” she commands her personal assistant, who zips straight to the MAC store around the corner. Rihanna’s long, wavy black hair is shaved close to her head on one side. “It’s not my hair, but the girl who donated it, she’s the bomb,” says Rihanna. “Black girls never let anyone see this,” she adds, pulling apart the locks at the back of her head to show me the intricate workings of the false hair, which is woven into a net attached to her own. “I have two main hair people I work with. They’re always with me. I’m like, ‘I’m bored! I wanna change my hair!’ That’s the good thing about a weave. You can do whatever with it.”
I’d say Rihanna is about five-eight, but she is wearing four-inch pointy-heeled Saint Laurent black suede booties with leather ties wrapped around her ankles. “I can dance in them,” Rihanna says. “It’s not about pain. It’s about the commitment. I say to myself, ‘I want to look like this,’ and worry about the pain later. I’ve had nights I had to tiptoe home and the balls of my feet wouldn’t even allow me to stand.” She is dressed in a denim “suit”—or a very modern, Rihanna-ish version of one. Made by a designer named Jen Kao, the suit consists of high-waisted, skintight dark denim pants and a matching shirt that is left unbuttoned and reaches almost to her knees. Underneath she wears a polo-neck black bodysuit with a chunky gold chain at her throat. Her gold hoop earrings are saucer-size. She has a gold snake-shaped bangle on her arm. Rings and henna-style tattoos are layered across her fingers and hands. “My jewelry’s all fake—from Claire’s. Or I get it from my mom’s boutique in Barbados. Her shop’s called FAB-U-LUS.” (I love that Rihanna, who, according to Forbes, earned $43 million last year, wears throwaway jewelry.)
Rihanna looks brilliant, and so original. “Rihanna,” I tell her. “I feel drab, frumpy. I feel mommy-ish and totally uncool in every fashion way possible.” The intensity of these feelings increases with every second I spend with Rihanna.
She scrutinizes me for a few seconds, taking in my very average skinny jeans, nice-ish satin top, and dated knee-high boots. She says, “I’d never want to dress anyone exactly like me. I just want you to be you with some Rihanna inspiration. Girl! You need to be sassified!!!” She falls momentarily into the accent of her native Barbados. Rihanna is straight out of Pygmalion. Most of the time, she speaks with the perfect diction of a girl transported to Connecticut at sixteen, as she was by record producer Evan Rogers after she auditioned for him. When she’s excited or with her old friends, her island accent comes out.
Rihanna takes to her styling role with unstoppable verve. “Boom! Oversize jacket!” she says, grabbing a black leather man’s jacket from a rail and holding it up to me. It looks enormous. “Isn’t this too big?” I ask her.
“It’s fierce. This is dope leather. More than anything, I like a jacket. You can do anything with a great jacket, the bigger the better. You can have any silhouette underneath. It gives you an attitude. It makes a gown look cool.” She is sounding authoritative. I could learn something from her about fashion. “I love baggy things. I wear men’s clothes, men’s shoes, oxfords, creepers.”
A man’s jacket, Rihanna tells me, is the backbone of her wardrobe. Those giant coats she wears with teeny undergarments—all men’s. Although she remembers that for her fifth-birthday party in Barbados her mom, Monica (who was a “closet rebel” and dressed like a young Diana Ross then), put her in a red floral dress with a tulle petticoat, blue hose, and tiny white loafers with tassels on the toe, her mom’s efforts to keep her in “proper” dresses didn’t last. Rihanna was going her own way from an early age—musically and sartorially. “I did sing a lot as a child. A lot. I practiced hard to maneuver my voice. I love singing. I love it, and it doesn’t feel like a chore. It’s an expression. I never wanted to be famous. I just wanted my music to be heard all over the world. Then it happened and the fame came with it. I can’t ever imagine feeling used to it.”
In her teens, Rihanna started experimenting with men’s clothes. “When I was thirteen or fourteen, I didn’t want to wear what my mom wanted me to wear. I was very much a boy in my style, my demeanor. All my friends were guys. I loved things that boys did. I loved being easy with my clothes. I loved wearing hats and scarves and snapbacks on my head. It was my way of rebelling. I wanted to dress like my brother. After a while, it was just easier for Mom to dress us both the same. We wore the same jeans, the same T-shirts.” Rihanna’s rebellious streak has certainly not left her. She’s had her fair share of drug- and boyfriend-related tabloid headlines. “I don’t go out of my way to be a rebel or to have that perception, but a lot of the decisions I make, a lot of the direction I want to move, is against the grain, or against society’s tight lane, and I’m aware of that sometimes. It might not be fitting with the norm, but that’s OK for me.”
I tell Rihanna that, secretly, I have often wanted to try men’s clothes in shops but have never had the guts to ask.
“Plum! You will never be stylish if you don’t take risks,” Rihanna scolds me. Rihanna is quite bossy for a 26-year-old. But if I could look like her, who cares? “If you go into a men’s shop and try something, they would look at you like, that’s a bad bitch,” she says. Being a bad bitch in Rihanna-land is a good thing.
She grabs four or five different men’s jackets and coats for me to try, all huge and slouchy with hoods or giant collars. Then she pulls a classic Rihanna combination—gray sweatpants, black silk tee, pale-pink satin bomber jacket. This is the RiRi look I want to nail more than anything. Every picture I’ve seen of Rihanna in sweats, she always looks as cool as she looks comfortable—my idea of heaven.
We head to the changing room. The personal assistant reappears with a bag of black kohl liners, and Rihanna sits me on a stool while she applies my eye makeup. “I’ve never done this on anyone before,” she says as she works. Meanwhile, one of the entourage declares that this moment must be recorded for posterity—which in Rihanna’s world means future Instagram posts—and records the makeup session on an iPhone.
I was convinced the sweatpants thing was going to work brilliantly. It was going to be so easy, aesthetically, mentally, and maintenance-wise. It would all go in the washer-dryer. It would be my new uniform. I pull on the gray sweatpants. Rihanna rolls up the bottoms to make them a little shorter. I add the silk top, the bomber jacket, and a pair of chunky high heels that Alexander has chosen. I feel good. As I change, Rihanna chats about how she has evolved this signature look.
“It all started in dance rehearsal,” she explains. “When you’re on tour, you go to rehearse wearing sweats and sneaks. Then you practice your song in the heels you are going to wear that night. I realized, Wow, that looks cool! I have a friend who is literally searching for cool T-shirts for me all the time because I’m obsessed.”
I walk into the dressing area and look in the mirror. Oh, dear.
“I look like I’m going to the gym. In a bad way,” I say.
“Yes. You look awful,” says Rihanna. Like a Greek chorus, the mini entourage nods agreement.
Clearly it is going to be much harder to dress like Rihanna than I’d thought.
She holds a black embossed alligator tunic up against me. It deadens my complexion. “No. You look too pasty,” she says, then tries it on herself, her caramel skin glowing against the sharp leather. It looks great over her skinny leotard. The bodysuit is clearly Rihanna’s idea of a modern foundation garment. What had given her the idea? “I was making Good Girl Gone Bad”—her third album—“and for the ‘Umbrella’ video I wore lots of leotards. I took it to the stage and then added it to the collection I did for River Island”—a British brand for which she designed four collections. “I like shirts that are really formfitting and that don’t come out of your pants.”
Feeling slightly demoralized by this whole Rihanna experiment, I put my OK-ish jeans, boots, and top back on. But Rihanna is not going to give up. She wants me to get one Alexander Wang look sorted. I try on coat after coat until I come to a superslouchy knee-length one in shaved shearling with a huge high-tech glazed-cotton hood and a modern sheen to it. It feels wonderful. I look in the mirror.
“I love it,” I gasp. I don’t like to sound like a show-off, but I look seriously interesting in that jacket. I would never have chosen it. It was totally Rihanna’s idea, and it works. The androgynous male silhouette with my skinny jeans and boots looks glamorous, laid-back, cool. Everything you could want Rihanna to make you is in that jacket.
“If I saw you walking into Starbucks in that, I’d wife you!” shrieks Rihanna. When I inquire exactly what that means, an enormous amount of cackling in her group commences.
“Walk out the store in it!” says Alexander, thrilled we have finally found a look that works.
I head for that door like quicksilver—Alexander doesn’t have a second to change his mind about the coat. Now Rihanna wants to take me to the Tom Ford store uptown for a party look. I tell her I am going to an art opening in Chelsea followed by a Christmas party at Estée Lauder group president John Demsey’s house. I want to look different. I am sick of wearing dresses to parties. They don’t feel right anymore.
“I want you elegant,” declares Rihanna in the private room at Tom Ford. “Try these,” she commands, pulling thigh-high black suede stiletto boots off a top shelf. I do. Suddenly my average skinny jeans look awesome.“Now these!” she says, tossing a pair of cobalt-blue, high-heeled alligator sandals at me. “You’d wear these with jeans and a man’s jacket.
“This is what a guy wants,” continues Rihanna. “When it feels like it’s yours and it feels like it’s you, that’s what works. You want to look like you are not just someone in cool clothes. . . . You could wear this on a date.” (This for the benefit of single readers—I’ve been married seven years.)
Then Rihanna makes me suffer, trying endless revealing dresses. She puts me in a scarlet fringed top with a red satin pencil skirt. She loves it. I think I look like someone who’s been made over for The X Factor. I protest. It is freezing cold outside, and a storm is blowing in. I need coverage. Finally we settle on a pair of skinny black cigarette pants and a thin black cashmere roll-neck sweater. She clips a huge gold cuff on my left wrist and a two-inch-thick gold choker around my neck with ridges of crocodile skin molded into it for interest. Shoe-wise, she has no mercy—I am to wear a pair of black-and-gold eyelet strappy gladiator sandals with four-inch needle-like gold heels. I check out my reflection in the mirror. The look is very Paloma Picasso circa 1986. It is unbelievably chic. I don’t care that my toes will be frostbitten within seconds of stepping outside.
Rihanna throws a voluminous black cape with huge golden zippers over the top of the outfit for the cold. The cape adds a dramatic proportion. This is a great look for a cocktail party. We also discuss underpinnings—does Rihanna ever wear underwear? I ask her (she isn’t wearing anything under her bodysuit, which is totally backless). “If I’m wearing a top, I don’t wear a bra,” she says. “If I’m wearing a bra, I just wear a bra.” We depart the Tom Ford store amid peals of laughter from the assorted staff who have been helping with the mission.
Our final stop is with designer Adam Selman, 31, who has created more than 50 of Rihanna’s costumes and—testimony to his talent, Rihanna’s eye, and the dynamic between them—showed his first collection last September. I ride downtown in a car with Jen, who tells me she is “on call” 24 hours a day for Rihanna. Rihanna loves Jen so much she has said that if Jen has a baby, she’ll build a custom crib for the baby on her tour bus. At the top of a steep, scruffy staircase on Twenty-ninth Street, Adam, who is dressed in jeans and a hoodie, says, “The first thing I ever made for her was a dress for one of her videos. You saw it for literally two seconds.” His collection consists of floaty satin pajama bottoms, slouchy knee-length slip dresses with spaghetti straps, and tiny little bras with forties-style knickers to match. Rihanna walks in, now with a fabulous mink thrown over her denim suit. “I got it in a vintage store in Texas,” she says. It has an old-fashioned silk lining with the original owner’s initials embroidered into it. It looks like the kind of coat one of Tom Wolfe’s Social X-rays would have worn to go shopping at Bergdorf’s.
Rihanna starts pulling clothes from the rack for me. “Rihanna,” I say. “I can’t try on any more clothes. I just can’t.”
“Now you know how I feel,” she replies.
Instead, we discuss her Instagram phenomenon. What does it mean, I ask her, to have eleven million followers?
“Instagram is my way of communicating to the world,” she says. “When I’m on tour, I keep fans in the loop. I don’t really think about it too much. Literally, I can be sitting in a car and be bored, so I do a selfie just because I’m bored. Or if my dog is running around in circles and I think that’s funny, I put it on Instagram.” As for who Rihanna follows on Instagram? “I follow girls from the Middle East. It gives you ideas.”
By now we are running late. Rihanna has to get her hair redone, and I have parties to attend. But Rihanna needs to eat, so she goes to Da Silvano for a snack. We sit (plus silent entourage) at a back table while food miraculously appears for her without anyone having actually ordered anything. Rihanna has been coming here since she moved to New York. As she tucks into a plate of squid, she chats about what is going on in her life. She’s just moved to New York full time, leaving L.A. behind “completely,” and got an apartment downtown. “I’ve downsized. I want a smaller closet. I want simpler. I want to just take it back to what’s important.” She likes to be able to walk Manhattan’s streets, although one time when she was walking home from a nightclub she realized she was being followed by a cop. He couldn’t believe she just wanted to walk. (She’d sent her car and security guard on ahead.) “When I’m on tour, if I walk out of the hotel to go to Starbucks, it’s like, thousands of fans are walking there with me. It’s a lot. And that’s why I don’t do much on tour. I just hide out in my hotel.”
She wants to start a fashion label soon. She thinks fashion is a big part of her success. “It’s not all down to my voice. There’s people with way more talent than I when it comes to singing. Bigger voices. But people want to know who you are. Fashion is a clear indication, a way to express your attitude, your mood.” She has a charity foundation called the Clara Lionel Foundation, her grandparents’ names combined, which helps kids. “I have a very firm relationship with God and I believe in Jesus, and I stick to that.” Having said that, Rihanna is no nun. Minutes later she tells me about her latest favorite T-shirt, which is printed with a semi-nude photograph. “Do you wanna hear something messed up?” she asks. “I just found out yesterday that was me!!! That is an old naked picture that they blew up and put. . . .” She dissolves in laughter, unable to finish the story.
I check my watch. Nine o’clock! I’ve missed both parties. I leave Rihanna, who seems embedded at Silvano, her hair appointment slipping further and further into the ether. I swing by my hotel, slip into the Tom Ford outfit, and head off to a restaurant downtown to meet old friends for supper. I feel changed: a newer, better me. My feet are like icicles, but it’s worth it. I’ve been RiRi’d. “You look very Fashion Intellectual,” says one of my friends that night. My sister fiddles with the giant golden zippers on the cape and says, “You look like Michael Jackson. In a good way.”
Early the next morning I leave the hotel dressed in the new Alexander Wang coat, black skinny velvet pants, black biker boots, and a black turtleneck. I have a large glossy alligator tote in racing green with me and gold hoop earrings. I am totally channeling Rihanna for the flight back to London. I decide to grab a coffee. Amazingly, someone takes my photograph as I walk down the street. Maybe this Rihanna thing is really working. A few minutes later, I’m in the car speeding to the airport, and the driver asks, “Are you a doctor?”
“No,” I say.
“You look like a doctor. You get in the car, I think, She looks like a doctor.”
“I’m not a doctor.”
“Oh, you’re a dentist.”
Finally I tell the driver that I work in fashion. Before I can add, “And actually today I’m dressed as Rihanna,” he says, “You dress like a dentist.”
This Rihanna thing is going to take way more practice.
Here’s what those designers have to say about her. “There is no one else that excites me more,” says Alexander Wang, sipping an iced coffee. “It’s raw, it’s smart, it’s everything pop culture needs to move forward.” Mr. Ford declares from his London studio, “She can throw on combinations you can’t imagine other people could possibly wear, and look great. In the fashion world she has inspired a very, very loose mix of random items.” Peter Dundas, on a train ride between Pucci offices in Milan and Florence, calls her “a very talented dresser, in the way that Kate Moss is. She’s an amplified version of what a lot of girls want to look like, but she’s always a step ahead of the game.” “My e-mail to her asking her to do the campaign said ‘Balmainriri,’ ” says Olivier Rousteing on the line from Paris (a riff on Badgalriri, Rihanna’s Instagram account, which has eleven million followers; her Twitter account has 34 million). Olivier tells me Rihanna is his muse. “My goal is, I love ’er!” he enthuses in accented English. “I love my brand! I love my clothes! And I want them everywhere! And Rihanna is everywhere! We both love social media! We love to text!!! She is the new Wonder Woman!!!”
by Plum Sykes | photographed by David Sims :Vogue