Around 14 years ago — I do not remember the exact date or precise occasion — I attended a benefit at New York’s Apollo Theater. There were speeches given, honors bestowed, per usual at charity galas, but the only part of the evening that I can recall distinctly is the arrival onstage of a radiant teenager. When her name was announced, the adolescents seated in the upper mezzanine — what the Brits call “the gods” and the French call “paradise” — responded with delirious shrieks. To most of us in the orchestra section, the name of the young woman was still unfamiliar. Within a year’s time, or maybe even less, this newcomer — who of course was Rihanna — would become as famous as so many of the other superstars, from Ella Fitzgerald to Jimi Hendrix, who had preceded her on that fabled stage.
Rihanna’s visual autobiography, Rihanna (Phaidon), does not linger on that brief phase of semi-obscurity. Her story more or less opens with a collaged double gatefold devoted to her childhood in Barbados (she was a cheerleader and a pageant winner) and then leapfrogs to 2011, the year of her Loud tour. As much objet d’art as book, the 15-pound, 504-page behemoth can even be ordered with a sculptured lectern crafted by artists Niki and Simon Haas, aka the Haas Brothers, costing over $6,000. Save for the occasional, laconic caption, Rihanna has virtually no text. As if to emphasize the superfluity of the written word, the title, chapter headings and page numbers are bisected horizontally with strike-through lines. “My fans are young, and they’ve got ADD. They’d rather look at pictures than read, let’s be real,” Rihanna explained during the book’s launch party at Manhattan’s Guggenheim museum.
Thanks to skillful editing, the lush photographs do succeed in telling her narrative, wordlessly and kinetically, almost like a flip-book. Throughout, there is a consistent point of view, probably because most of the informal, intimate images were shot by a single photographer, Dennis Leupold. (We learn this only by combing through the credits on the final page.) In an era when it is not easy to leave a paper trail, Rihanna has been a remarkably meticulous archivist of her own life. Not only does she reproduce her school report cards (“Is sure of herself and displays a positive attitude”), but she also inserts booklet-size facsimiles of both the storyboards for her 2015 video Bitch Better Have My Money and of the cards handwritten to her by the smitten fashion designers who routinely ply her with swag.
Rihanna, in turn, seems besotted not only with these créateurs but also with the entire luxury fashion industry — she is, after all, ensconced at its epicenter (LVMH owns her Fenty label). She shows herself at fittings in couture ateliers, cavorting with models after the Fall 2014/2015 Chanel presentation at the Grand Palais in Paris, on location for a Dior commercial (at Versailles, no less) and in the midst of her preparations for galas benefiting the Met’s Costume Institute and the Council of Fashion Designers of America. Anna Wintour makes two appearances in the book: once in the front row of Miu Miu (Rihanna styled her hair in a matching bob for the occasion) and a second time standing with Rihanna in the receiving line for the Met’s 2019 “Heavenly Bodies” gala. André Leon Talley shows up, too, as does Manolo Blahnik — five times on two pages. Rihanna even reproduces as another small facsimile insert a letter from Manolo’s niece Kristina, scribbled on the company notepaper, in which we learn that the Blahniks declined the entertainer’s invitation to attend her 2016 concert at Wembley Stadium. One arresting black-and-white photo portrays Rihanna alone and tiny, surveying the world from an exterior balcony at 30 avenue Montaigne, Dior’s celebrated flagship address in Paris.
In another little booklet insert, we see the evolution of the Dior ball gown and matching coat that Rihanna wore to the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. This mini brochure starts with an elegant pencil sketch of the all-white ensemble and ends with the pristine, completed look on a dressmaker’s form. (The effect of Rihanna in that billowing dress, which she accessorized with narrow white sunglasses, was so spectacular that I concluded my book The International Best-Dressed List: The Official Story with an image of her gliding down the red carpet in it, like a Winged Victory come to life.)
Ironically, given Rihanna’s prodigious abilities to both consume and produce fashion, in her book, she is at her most alluring when she is depicted immersed in water, wearing next to nothing. In an otherworldly double-page spread, she frolics like a nereid in the Dead Sea. And in a later photo, one of the last in the book, she floats in the Caribbean like Ophelia, faceup, surrounded by an aureole of coruscating tropical light.
Shop Rihanna’s Style