When Dior announced that Rihanna would be the new face of their brand, starring in their Spring advertising campaign and the fourth installment of their "Secret Garden" film, it came as no surprise—just add it to the list of accomplishments on her fashion curriculum vitae.
The 27-year-old singer has become high in demand amongst brands, designers and fashion editors alike. She’s now the Creative Director of Puma and recently released her first advertising campaign. Last year, she accepted the CFDA’s Fashion Icon Award in an barely there Swarovski crystal dress by Adam Selman still making a fashion statement and putting the designer on everyone’s radar. She’s served as the muse and face of Balmain under the reign of Olivier Rousteing. She’s graced the cover of American Vogue four times. She’s a front row regular at fashion shows for Prada, Stella McCartney, Alexander Wang, Chanel, and, of course, Dior. And in an industry that’s known to make cultural references without attribution, she’s constantly making them learn.
She schools by wearing a doobie wrap to the American Music Awards, including an ode to Lil Kim during her iHeartRadio Awards performance, and by Josephine Baker being the inspiration behind her CFDA awards dress. Compared to the Dior girls before her—Jennifer Lawrence, Natalie Portman, Marion Cotillard, and Mila Kunis—Rihanna stands out. Her style is more distinctive and risk-taking and she represents a milestone for the Parisian fashion label: Rihanna is the first black woman to front a Dior campaign.
If you see a visual of a girl or a guy who may be of color, it helps you believe that it’s not all about Caucasians. — BEthann hardison, fashion activist
In the brand’s nearly 70-year existence, this marks the first time a black woman has been their campaign. Dior has gotten called out by various figureheads in the industry like fashion activist Bethann Hardison and casting director James Scully for exclusively casting all white models for their runway shows. It was only after his first seven collections that Raf Simons cast black models for the first time. After much backlash, there were six black models in Simons' Fall 2013 Couture show, but since then there has been a decline—no more than three models per show.
While Rihanna's Dior campaign is undoubtedly an historic fashion moment, it's more reflective of her A-list, global appeal than an active attempt at inclusion by an industry long criticized for its lack of diversity. Rihanna is one of the biggest celebrities in the world right now, and this is just proof of the power and influence of the celebrity in the fashion industry today. Take for example: A$AP Rocky for Salvatore Ferragamo or Lupita Nyong’o for Miu Miu. Brands want to align themselves with that caliber of cool, while the presence of multicultural models on the runways remain a constant fight for actual diversity over tokenism.
"We have to be very careful when it’s a celebrity that has gotten a marketing deal versus something that has an impact on the broader perception," says Washington Post fashion critic Robin Givhan. "Perhaps, there is a certain degree of influences that it has but I don’t know that I’ve seen it. There’s been a good number of Rihannas and Beyoncés and other stories of that caliber on magazine covers and in campaigns and yet there’s still this conversation about diversity in fashion. I find it hard to measure the impact that they’ve had."
Bigger strides were made when Malaika Firth was the the first black model in 19 years fronting the Prada Fall 2013 ad campaign or when Naomi Campbell and Jourdan Dunn fronted the Burberry campaign for Spring 2015, as they are models working in the industry. While there has been progress, it's been at a lethargic pace.
In 2015, casting more than one or two black models in runways shows is still not the norm. There’s more work to be done, especially behind the scenes with casting directors and their definition of beauty and being stuck on the idea that only one look can represent a brand or collection. Fashion activist Bethann Hardison recently had a CFDA panel discussion on racial diversity on the runways and stated that even television is more diverse than fashion right now.
"We have to keep on talking about this so that people don’t get so comfortable in their decisions like 'it’s okay, let’s not bring that up,' or 'why do we have to talk about a race?'," says Hardison. "All of that nonsense, all of that privilege nonsense. This is not a Woody Allen movie, let’s get it going here."
One thing that Rihanna said regarding her campaign was how it was "a big deal for her, her culture, and for a lot of young girls of any color." And she’s right—it is a big deal for girls to flip through magazines and see both someone who looks like them and someone who doesn’t as that’s how the real world is made up.
"Visuals are very important; visuals are subliminal. If you see a visual of a girl or a guy who may be of color, any color, since I’m all about diversity—it could be Middle Eastern, it could be Arab—as long as you see something like that, it helps you believe that it’s not all about Caucasians," says Hardison. "Subliminally, you will begin to open up your mind, open up your heart, open up your energy to just seeing and allowing others to be in the world that can possibly influence you or be okay with you."
Tahirah Hairston is a writer based in Brooklyn, NY. You can follow her on Twitter @tahairyy.