The spotlight flared out onto the audience, blinding the crowd as the music swelled. And then there was Rihanna in a black mesh full-body suit and velvet miniskirt, center stage on a raised podium and surrounded by dancers — all wearing the latest Savage X Fenty lingerie. This was technically a fashion show, meant to coincide with the launch of Rihanna’s latest line for her clothing brand. But it was more about the spectacle. And since this was Rihanna, the event delivered, with cameos from celebrities like Gigi and Bella Hadid, a debut song performance from Halsey and model moments from crowd favorites like Laverne Cox and Normani.
“We want to make people look good and feel good,” Rihanna shared in a statement about the line. “We want you to feel sexy and have fun doing it.” The show made that clear.
Rihanna is an elusive icon; she guards her secrets — and maintains her music, fashion and beauty empire — closely. After entering through a metal detector into Brooklyn’s Barclays Center on Wednesday night, guests had to surrender their phones into locked fabric pouches: no photo, no video, no texts, no Instagram. (The horror!) Like the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show before it, the Savage X Fenty show is positioning itself as a special, live event for celebrity and media attendees that will air later to the general public. (For Savage X Fenty, that’s with Amazon Prime Video on Sept. 20.) But where Victoria’s Secret relied on the traditional runway formula, adding oomph to the production with sets from stars like Harry Styles and The Weeknd and making the models don ever-bigger wings, Rihanna has reshaped that template into her own type of variety show, now in its second year.
Inside the stadium’s echoing entrance halls, guests milled around in their most outlandish fashion: clunky bejeweled sandals with glittery socks, sheer babydoll kimonos, nude bodysuits, layers of chunky gold chains. Someone walked by with an elaborate ostrich-feathered hat two feet tall, turning heads: actress Dascha Polanco. Beauty YouTuber James Charles wore a pair of delicate stilettos. Sisters Nicky and Paris Hilton, in contrasting mini dresses, stuck together. With no phones in hand, all anyone could do is eye each other with an unflinching up-down.
In a roped-off section, Rihanna’s chosen celebrities (like Ashley Graham, Diane Von Furstenberg, Skrillex) walked a red carpet and posed for photos. But ultimately we were all in for the same production, taking our seats in a stadium transformed. The set looked like a minimalist’s version of Mykonos, or the remains of a lavish villa stripped down to its purest form: white walls and open-air stairwells crisscrossed the stage, matched by a four-story block of arched windows just ready for its “Cell Block Tango” moment. A male announcer’s disembodied voice urged attendees to “bring that energy.” Then the light flashed, Rihanna appeared and the show began.
It started with a heavy bass, the dancers hitting balletic poses before Rihanna joined in to raucous applause. Too soon, she was gone, replaced by Big Sean as he descended from one of the set’s staircases while rapping “Clique,” shirtless in a silky trench coat and joined by fellow rapper A$AP Ferg. Victoria’s Secret veteran Gigi Hadid led the charge in lingerie as the stage filled up with models, who often turned out to be dancers disguised in neon body suits and corsetry. There was Cara Delevingne, caressing a line of women in lime-green lingerie. There were the three Migos in silver suits, who performed from a pool of real water, splashing to their song “Pure Water.” Laverne Cox made her mark in a hot pink leotard, to audience applause. Singer Normani, in a polka-dot set, led a dance troupe. Other songs sampled from Brazilian baile funk and Jamaican dance hall as the dancers posed and twisted in rhythm, dramatic lighting showing off individuals of all sizes and abilities, from catwalk regulars like Alek Wek and Joan Smalls to women like Paloma Elsesser putting body diversity on full display, in line with Rihanna’s history of representative casting.
The headliner was pop singer Halsey: barefoot in a silky black rob, she debuted her new song “Graveyard” while dancing a sensual pas de deux. (After performing at the Victoria’s Secret show last year, Halsey called out the brand for a lack of inclusivity. Her appearance here seems like a direct retort.) Bella Hadid, regal in a sparkling cape and head wrap, stalked down stairs with purpose. DJ Khaled, Fat Joe, Tierra Whack and Fabolous performed a high-energy rap medley. “Rihanna, we love you!” Khaled shouted repeatedly as he walked off. When Rihanna came out to bow, she instantly got her standing ovation. But the show wasn’t really over. Once the ropes were removed and the phones unlocked, guests and stars mingled: models snapped photos outside the doors, and Paris Hilton acquiesced to fan selfies while chatting with James Charles. It took a long time for Barclays to clear out from guests on a post-show high.
In the streamed show that future audiences will see, close-ups will reveal the details of the lingerie itself. But at the live event, the theme was undergarments as power dressing for women claiming their freedom to move. There were no rogue wardrobe malfunctions, no broken garters, no inconvenient strap adjustments: the lingerie functioned as a supportive background for the women in it (or, at least, the dancers and models sold that appearance well). Beyond the products, Rihanna has turned the static display into a dynamic one. Yes, it’s still a show focused on women’s bodies at their least clothed; the male gaze is inevitable. But the progress is in the inclusivity and creative staging. Next year, we’ll keep hoping for new Rihanna music, too.