Victoria’s Secret was built from the male gaze, while Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty is all about what women want. Focused on what women want, Rihanna’s two year old online lingerie brand makes Victoria’s Secret looks tame. To get your head around it all at Savage’s annual fashion show, women strut out in crotchless teddies, sheer bras, and heart- shaped nipple pasties to the pulsating music of Travis Scott and Lizzo.
Victoria’s Secret famed annual fashion show was cancelled in 2019, after reigning since 2001. This could partly be due to its declining viewership and lack of immediate ‘material impact’ on Victoria’s Secret sales post-broadcast. When you take a closer look, you begin to notice huge differences between the upstart and its 43-year-old predecessor.
While Victoria Secret’s show was known for skinny supermodels, featuring the most beautiful women in the world, while your everyday girl could only wish to look like a Victoria Secret model. The brand was selling an unachievable reality. Savage on the other had embraces diversity, a movement that shook social media and almost every well-known fashion and beauty brand in the world. The lingerie brand speaks diversity in every form, featuring women and men of all sizes, skin tones, and ages, including pregnant and drag queens.
In some ways, Savage is an expression of Rihanna’s own public persona, carefully cultivated over the past 15 years of her career as a pop star. Inspired by women before her, such as Madonna and Mariah Carey, Rihanna often performs in sexy outfits coupled with a message about women’s empowerment. As CEO and creative director of Savage, Rihanna wants to create a brand where women are firmly in control of their body and sexual experience. The day-to-day operations at Savage are run by co-presidents Christiane Pendarvis and Natalie Guzman.
In the post-#MeToo era, marketing an overtly sexy brand is a tricky business, but Savage draws a distinction between sex-positive and “sexy” defined by a male-dominated culture. Victoria’s Secret began to decline in 2016, after years of dominating the women’s underwear industry, partly because its oversexed marketing catered to the male gaze, rather than how women saw themselves. (This was exacerbated by reports of misogyny and sexual harassment at the company and the CEO’s close relationship with accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein.) The rapid decline of Victoria’s Secret created space for new lingerie brands to emerge. But while other recent female-founded underwear startups such as ThirdLove and Lively have played down sexuality to focus on comfort, Rihanna has chosen to lean into sexiness—on her own terms. “She’s unapologetic,” says Pendarvis. “What she does is for herself and not for someone else. That’s what we try to embody at Savage: Giving that power and control back to all women.”
Confidence is sexy
While Savage’s Instagram feed and fashion shows tend to feature the sexiest pieces in the collection, Pendarvis, who leads product design, says the brand is actually focused on creating a wide array of aesthetics. Alongside the plunge bras with cutouts, there are comfy bralettes and unlined T-shirt bras. “We don’t shy away from sexuality—it’s part of the female identity,” she says.
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Part of what makes Savage radical in the lingerie sector is that it makes the case that all people—regardless of their shade, shape, or size—deserve to feel sexy. Savage’s branding and advertising is incredibly diverse. Pendarvis, who has worked for plus-sized brands in the past, says that Savage takes a painstaking approach ensuring that the lingerie looks good and fits well across the size range, which goes from 30A to 42H in bras, and XS to 3X for underwear and pyjamas.
In its fight to take on Victoria’s Secret, Savage has an advantage: In a rapidly changing retail landscape, it is a digitally native, data-driven brand. And from the start, Savage has chosen to partner with Amazon, the internet’s largest retailer.
Every year, Savage streams its fashion show through Amazon Prime, then makes products from the show available to purchase instantly on Amazon’s website. Pendarvis says this is just a portion of the total collection, so Amazon customers have an incentive to visit the Savage website and become members to get better prices. “It’s a symbiotic relationship,” says Pendarvis. “Rihanna is a major draw, so they get a lot of content and views of the fashion show. And it allows us to showcase our assortment and gives us exposure.”
While Rihanna’s high-end fashion brand, Fenty Maison, is abruptly shuttering just two years after she launched it with the French luxury conglomerate LVMH, Savage’s approach seems to be resonating with its core audience. The lingerie brand has grown quickly, generating an estimated $150 million in revenue in 2020, with 200% year-over-year growth and 3.9 million followers on Instagram. That growth is about to accelerate.After centuries of men making women’s lingerie, Rihanna has flipped the script: She’s designing men’s lingerie from a female gaze.