Savage X Fenty, Rihanna’s two-year-old online lingerie brand, makes Victoria’s Secret look tame. 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. But when you take a closer look, you begin to notice stark differences between the upstart and its 43-year-old predecessor. While the Victoria’s Secret show was known for skinny supermodels, Savage embraces diversity in every form, featuring women and men of all sizes, skin tones, and ages, including pregnant women and drag queens.
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.
Today, Savage announces exclusively with Fast Company that it has landed $115 million in Series B funding from L Catterton, a private equity firm connected to LVMH, bringing Savage’s valuation to more than $1 billion. Part of this funding will fuel Savage’s upcoming rollout of brick and mortar stores, which will bring Savage’s digital experience to life. Savage’s goal is nothing short of creating a lingerie empire.
Sexiness From The Female Gaze
Savage is just one part of Rihanna’s business empire, but it is arguably the one with the potential for the most growth, given its mass-market price point. Her other brands—Fenty Beauty, Fenty Skin, and the now-closing Fenty Maison—are all built in partnership with LVMH, whose expertise is in creating luxury brands. With Savage, Rihanna is interested in creating an accessible brand with prices that start at less than $10 a bra. She built the brand in partnership with Tech Style Fashion Group, known for its portfolio of affordable subscription-based brands, such as ShoeDazzle and Kate Hudson’s activewear line, Fabletics. For $49.95 a month, which can be used as store credit, Savage customers can unlock cheaper members’-only prices.
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, women of color who previously worked in senior roles at Gap and Dermstore respectively. But Rihanna is intimately involved with product development and branding. “We don’t think about her as the ‘face of the brand,’ which implies she’s the celebrity endorser,” says Pendarvis. “She’s intimately involved with everything we do, from picking fabrics to creating the fashion show.”
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.”
Everybody Deserves to Feel 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. “But we want to give women the freedom to define it however they choose. For some women, they might be a product that is more casual and comfortable. And it might change over time, or even over the course of the day. How she wants to show up with a partner may be different from how she shows up lounging around the house on a Saturday.”
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, featuring many Black and brown people. This is in itself revolutionary: Scholars point out that Black people, especially women, have historically been desexualized to the point of being dehumanized.
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 pajamas. It is common for brands to create one prototype of a garment, then scale it up or down to different sizes, but this can create distortions, particularly in the largest sizes. Savage avoids this by designing several versions of each garment for smaller and larger sizes, so the aesthetic and comfort of the product is consistent across the range.
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. Historically, fashion labels have had a contentious relationship with Amazon, which is known for slapping vendors with high fees and unfavorable terms or copying best-selling products through its private label brands. But Rihanna believes Savage can leverage Amazon’s enormous reach to its advantage—while also reimagining the traditional fashion show, which is on the decline.
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.”
And with this new infusion of cash, Savage is plotting how to continue to expand its distribution to acquire more customers. Brick-and-mortar stores are a key part of this vision. Pendarvis points out that unlike other garments, it can be difficult to figure out whether lingerie fits, and many of their customers hesitate before buying products online. She says that, much like everything else the brand does, they will use customer data to make decisions about where to open stores and what products to carry within them: “We have a leg up as a digitally native brand because we have a lot of information about what our customers want.”
Given that the pandemic is still raging, and many consumers aren’t comfortable shopping in stores, the Savage team is negotiating when to debut the stores. It’s also worth noting that consumer shopping preferences change quickly: Some digitally native brands, such as Rent the Runway, were once bullish about opening physical stores but ended up closing them later. But if Savage’s stores do take off, they will give customers a chance to physically step into the world that Rihanna has created, one where the old rules of sexuality and lingerie no longer apply. For instance, there’s likely to be a men’s section in the store. Last year, Savage launched a capsule collection full of silky boxers and smoking jackets. It was so popular, the brand decided to make it a permanent part of the assortment.
After centuries of men making women’s lingerie, Rihanna has flipped the script: She’s designing men’s lingerie from a female gaze.