How Rihanna took us to fashion church in 2016

If her memes are any indication, Rihanna is the go-to avatar for female fantasies. The singer can put “bad gal” in her Instagram handle without a single layer of irony.

To be Rihanna is to eye-roll magnificently and get your revenge daydreams directed by Harmony Korine. For her, appropriate emotional responses include throwing stacks of cash at a TV exec, accessorising with wine glasses, and rolling up limousine windows to silence street harassers. Unattainable except in gifs, that’s her personal brand.

Nowhere is this more evident than her personal style. Much ado has been made about Rihanna’s uncanny singular ability to make runway pieces – no matter how self-parodic – look like well-worn, universally flattering basics, and vice versa. A brief excerpt of fashion only Rihanna can pull off: a costume change from Hood by Air to Vetements, in one night and that heart cap in red fox fur by Saint Laurent. But even so, Rihanna’s talent for wearing clothes has thus far only gotten her acclaim for being an excellent muse. 2016 was the year she turned it into a lucrative fashion design strategy.

“Rihanna’s talent for wearing clothes has thus far only gotten her acclaim for being an excellent muse. 2016 was the year she turned it into a lucrative fashion design strategy”

Rihanna was far from the only celebrity to dabble in fashion design. In fact, Vogue declared 2016 the year of celebrity fashion designers, due to pop culture dominating Google’s top searches for fashion design. But most of the list could thank notoriety or good old fashioned personality cult for this (#1 was Rachel Roy, better known by her Christian name “Becky with the good hair”). Foiled by her own flawlessness, Beyoncé’s Topshop Ivy Park release received more attention for being proof of her superhuman productivity, than the designs itself. Meanwhile, Kanye’s Yeezy Season 4 was widely rumoured to be an omen that Kanye had done the impossible, and become boring. And not even on purpose.

Rihanna, surprisingly, did not make the list. But even with the fashion world plagued by high-concept trolling, widespread mutiny, and coupes d’etat, her Fenty x Puma shows at New York Fashion Week and Paris Fashion Week attracted undivided attention from the fashion press. The actual reviews of both her collections ranged from near-arousal to Nabokovian labyrinths of onanistic snark that would lose zero meaning if replaced by a single shrug emoji.

As usual, the word “zeitgeist” was used and abused, mostly about the streetwear. Obviously, she had cleverly extracted the best streetwear trends: peacocking sportswear logos, gender-fluidity, chokers, corsetry, side-lacing, too-long sleeves, sneakers, gothic letters, kink-tinged everything – even the most critical reviews begrudgingly listed this as a highlight. But to equate a fluency in streetwear trends with the zeitgeist is lazy at best and out-of-touch at worst. It also only ascribes zeitgeistiness to half of her concepts – the “goes to the gym,” in short, of “Wednesday Addams goes to the gym,” and “Marie Antoinette goes to the gym.”

Any way you vivisect, the zeitgeist is present: with the revival of the opulent aughts, isn’t “Marie Antoinette goes to the gym” an equally apt descriptor for the resurrected Juicy Couture tracksuit, which, if somehow reimagined by Shayne Oliver, may not look too different from Fenty x Puma SS17? To remix that, Gucci’s renaissance, Nobuyoshi Araki x Supreme, various Japanese street tribes, erotic photography, 90s hip hop, the increasingly NSFW piercing trend and come out with two decent runway collections means this had to have been done subconsciously.

“The Fenty x Puma collections were demonstrations of Rihanna’s reflexes for coolness – the ability to toss the trendiest pieces of her closet onto the runway and realise an aesthetic fantasy no-one can replicate”

Don’t underestimate how difficult this is. Grafting together a fuckton of 2016 trends and hoping for the best could go horribly wrong – you could just as easily end up with lace-up furry Russian tracksuits embroidered with shibari’d Pepe the Frog, or Courtney Love x Nasty Gal. It would look costumey, try-hard, already dated at conception – mortal sins in a year that worshipped authenticity and insouciance. 2016’s fetish for authenticity dominated everything from the US presidential election to the It Girl hierarchy: the whore-Madonna complex has long since expired, 2016 was the year of snakes vs. pettiness, white feminism vs. intersectional feminism, fluency vs. pandering. Nowhere was this dichotomy more evident than in the downfall of Taylor Swift, hastened by Kim Kardashian’s social media savvy but ultimately self-inflicted. In this climate, a personal brand that simultaneously delivers fantasy and realness would wither without Rihanna’s characteristic lack of fucks.

Some critics were determined to point this out – “Fenty ready-to-wear is not high-minded or multilayered. And that’s perfectly fine. It’s just stuff,” wrote the Washington Post about her first season. But this almost goes without saying; high-mindedness was never the point. High-concept, reinventive fashion is inherently nerdy, obsessive, perfectionist territory; in short, it cannot happen without a huge display of effort and over-intellectualization which is antithetical to Rihanna’s brand. But unlike the auteur, the curator appears effortless – and Rihanna’s talents for curation and enhancement are hard to beat. The Fenty x Puma collections were experiments in mindlessness, demonstrations of Rihanna’s reflexes for coolness – the ability to toss the trendiest pieces of her closet onto the runway and realise an aesthetic fantasy no-one can replicate.

Backstage at her show in Paris, Rihanna explained the secret to her creative process: “I thought to myself, ‘Just design what you like to wear.’” Like Rihanna herself, it’s deceptively straightforward. But who else could pull that off?