Rihanna attended the British Fashion Awards this week looking every bit a winner in a custom, mint green Fenty dress complete with matching cape and gloves. Her ready-to-wear-line, which launched this spring, picked up an award for best Urban Luxe label.
Wondering what that means, exactly? You’re not alone.
According to Vogue, the euphemistic-sounding trophy “was created by the British Fashion Council to honor contemporary labels that elevate the concept of casual.” Last year, the prize went to Virgil Abloh of Off-White and Louis Vuitton.
Though Fenty is owned by French luxury conglomerate LVMH, which also runs haute couture houses like Dior, Fendi, and Givenchy, Rihanna’s line was not entered into the running for awards like Brand or Designer of the Year. Some took the “Urban Luxe” win as a snub, or an attempt to erase a black designer from the mainstream.
“The industry put on a performative display of celebratory brouhaha once the announcement was made (“Rihanna is the first black woman to head a luxury brand for LVMH!)” Mario Abad wrote in Paper. “But to pigeonhole Fenty as ‘Urban Luxe’ feels lazy and seems nothing more than an attempt to reinforce tired streetwear notions and cliche ‘urban’ tropes.”
“Other categories within the awards shows like Designer of the Year and Brand of the Year—which both went to Bottega Veneta—didn’t include a pre-descriptor on what type of designer or brand it was,” Essence’s Nandi Howard wrote.
Tembe Denton-Hurst, a freelance style writer, told The Daily Beast that the award’s branding reminded her of when rapper Lil Nas X’s record-smashing “Old Town Road” was removed from the Hot Country Chart. (Billboard’s explanation: the song about riding horses and wearing Wranglers “did not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.”) Many accused the music chart of discrimination.
“At the end of the day, we know what it’s being called ‘urban,’” Denton-Hurst said. “Especially with someone like Rihanna, because of what she’s done and who her persona is, she hasn’t sacrificed her identity to conform. She’s the face of her brand, a performer who has this luxury fashion house, there’s this level of that old guard fashion world that doesn’t want to give her the authority of being a womenswear designer.”
A representative for the British Fashion Council did not respond to The Daily Beast’s inquiry on what makes Fenty “urban luxe,” but wrote in an email, “The Fashion Awards 2019 invite a global voting panel of 2,500 key members of the fashion industry to put forward their preferences for each award and nominations were made in ten categories with the five brands/individuals receiving the most nominations shortlisted in each, across two rounds of voting. The British Fashion Council is not responsible for nominating winners in these categories.”
For her part, Rihanna seems thrilled. She accepted the award onstage with her collaborator, stylist, and “gusband,” Jahleel Weaver. The singer later said via press release, “Thank you to the British Fashion Council for this wonderful opportunity which means so much to me as a young black woman. This is a great achievement for our brand.”
Of course, her label gets enough exposure through being run by an international pop star that it hardly depends on accolades like this one for business.
Nicole Benefield, an assistant professor at FIT and who has consulted for design teams at Ann Taylor and Gap, said that “urban luxe” is often used behind the scenes to describe, “something that’s taken from hip-hop or influenced by street style.”
“I’ve been using the phrase for at least 10 years, because in fashion we tend to categorize things,” Benefield said. “It helps people digest what the big picture is if you put things in a bucket. Things might ooze out of the bucket, but it gives context. It’s becoming more of a common term [for] something that started on the streets and bubbled up into the mainstream.”
Though the newest iteration of Fenty hawks stilettos, not sneakers, Benefield remembers Rihanna’s first dabbles in the industry as decidedly streetwear-inspired.
“Originally, we heard about Fenty as a collaboration with Puma, and the lingerie line [Savage],” the professor said. “All of those are rooted in that industry, hip-hop and urban culture. Now that LVMH has stepped in and taken her collection, it looks more regular or mainstream, but I think there’s still that undertone of lawlessness to the fashion. That’s what Rihanna does.”
Benefield understands criticisms of the Urban Luxe Award, but believes it’s a step in the right direction for a notoriously exclusive industry.
“There isn’t a lot of black representation in fashion, and to bucket a black designer under one umbrella makes it seem as though we can’t be part of the masses,” Benefield said. “But at the same time, I saw Rihanna accept her award with Janet Jackson and Tyler the Creator, and then Naomi Campbell came right after her. As an African-American woman, I can see where we have a platform, someone that other, younger black designers can look to and say, ‘I can get there one day, and when I get there, it’ll be part of the other [mainstream] bucket.”
“High/low” has long been a word thrown around to describe a rich person brave enough to pair their Chanel with H&M jeans. In 1971, Yves Saint Laurent presented his Libération haute couture show, which referenced flea market finds and vintage kitsch. At the time it was a gutsy move that garnered establishment condemnation, but points with cool kids like Paloma Picasso, whose vintage-filled closet partly inspired the looks.
Anna Wintour’s first Vogue cover, a 1998 Peter Lindbergh portrait, found Michaela Bercu in a couture Christian Lacroix jacket and department store Guess jeans.
“High fashion has always drawn from different sources,” Véronique Hyland, fashion features director for Elle, said. “Streetwear is not new, it’s just the nomenclature that’s new.”
Fashion and hip-hop culture have been intrinsically linked since the late 1980s, when rap acts like Salt-N-Pepa and Run-DMC gave designers shout-outs in their lyrics. It’s a tradition that’s kept well alive by the likes of Jay-Z, Migos, and Kanye West, who infamously became a clothing designer himself with Yeezy. Now, houses like Gucci team up with Harlem designer Dapper Dan and Fendi collaborates with Fila, an Italian sportswear label partly popularized by LL Cool J’s fandom.
Whether these “hi/lo mash-ups,” as Net-a-Porter brands Fila x Fendi, count as cultural exchanges or appropriation continue to be debated. Still, it’s undeniable that the term “streetwear” is sometimes used to incorrectly describe work solely because it’s made by a black fashion designer—no matter what the clothes look like.
“When designers put artisanal fabrics and expert tailoring down a runway, they should not get looped in with brands that focus on graphic T-shirts and hoodies,” Vice contributor Mikelle Street wrote in 2017.
It’s a point creatives have echoed. Last year, Pyer Moss founder Kerby Jean-Raymond tweeted, “To all the writers newly covering Pyer Moss, thank you and welcome. Please refrain from calling us a streetwear company. It’s lazy and singular, we are more, you are more.”
In a GQ profile from April, Jean-Raymond went on to explain that his team cut stockists “by 90%” in favor of finding buyers who would “show Pyer Moss in total.” As the designer said, “I’m tired of people just picking up T-shirts, and sweatpants, and shit like that, and calling us a streetwear brand.”
Last month, Matthew Williams, who is white and the creative director of 1017 ALYX 9SM, politely asked during a Business of Fashion panel to not be dubbed a streetwear designer.
“It’s a very loaded term, like luxury [is],” Williams said at the event, adding, “I come from California, where skateboarding and surfing and a time when rap music was really growing in the ’90s, that was all part of my formative years. To me that naturally influences my taste, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not inspired by fashion and art and all of those things.”
Perhaps because of this, the fashion blog Hypebeast dubbed Williams’ latest capsule “skate-indebted.” The pieces, like a black crocodile crossbody fanny pack or camouflage long-sleeve shirt, would not look out of place on Pete Davidson—which is to say the aesthetic adheres to the trickle-down definition of “streetwear-inspired.”
Bureaucratic categorizations aside, the triumph of Rihanna’s big night out has not been lost on her #Navy fans, who will take any reason to celebrate their star (and chastise her for not releasing any new music).
Many of the sources contacted in this story admitted they had not watched or followed what happened at the British Fashion Awards, which implies most of the clothing-buying public could care less what genre her styles do or don't fall into.
As Hyland, the Elle editor, put it, “Consumers are not categorizing [clothes] as much in their minds. There’s less men’s clothing versus women’s clothing, or ready-to-wear versus streetwear. You’re going to see a luxury consumer also shopping at Lululemon for a pair of leggings. It’s not as siloed as it used to be.”