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Rihanna at Dior Resort AW14
Rihanna at Dior’s Resort AW14 show in Brooklynvia

What Rihanna’s Dior campaign means for fashion

The singer will become the iconic house’s first black representative – here’s why it matters

Just after fronting the first ever digital magazine cover – AnOther’s special tablet edition, created by Dazed founder Jefferson Hack – Rihanna has claimed another world first. On Friday, Dior announced that the singer was to front a film and print campaign for their Secret Garden series, lensed by legendary photographer Steven Klein in the Palace of Versailles, an appointment that will make her the first black spokesperson of the fashion house in its almost 70 year history. “It is such a big deal for me, for my culture, for a lot of young girls of any color,” the singer said yesterday. “To be acknowledged by Dior means a lot, as a woman.” But what does it mean – not only for Dior and the vision of its outsider creative director Raf Simons – but for the fashion industry?

To start with, the house is far from the first fashion brand to harness the star power that Rihanna can bring. The CFDA Fashion Icon winner was recently announced as the creative director of PUMA, has posed for Armani Jeans and was the face of Balmain’s SS14 campaign, with designer Olivier Rousteing citing the singer – also his muse and a close friend – as the ultimate 21st century supermodel. “Today people are looking at Rihanna like they were looking at Naomi Campbell or Claudia,” he told the Independent last year. “I think having Rihanna in the campaign is like having Cindy Crawford or Christy Turlington, but for my generation."

What defines this generation? Increasingly, social media, of which @BadGalRiRi is a reigning champion. Despite its frequent deletion due to her NSFW selfies, she’s got 16 million followers on her Instagram profile, her pictures regularly racking up half a million likes, with another 42 million fans on Twitter. It’s the type of digital influence that hasn’t gone unnoticed, as social media continues to break down the boundaries between high fashion and popular culture. “Customers don't care any more about reviews or hard-copy publications,” Tom Ford told of fashion last year. "They care what picture Rihanna just Instagrammed while she's naked in bed, what new shoes she has on, how she's talking about them. That's what they respond to." You need only look at the Swarovski crystal covered Adam Selman dress she wore to the CFDA awards last year to see the online ripples her actions create (1,310,000 Google results for “Rihanna crystal dress” and counting).

After working with the likes of Natalie Portman and Jennifer Lawrence for their celebrity fronted campaigns, Dior’s next choice was unexpected, despite RiRi’s appearances on a couple of the house’s front rows. Since Simons’ appointment in 2012, Dior has been set on breaking the rules, rebelling against Paris’s infamous conservatism. The designer has made showgoers travel to Brooklyn (gasp), hired cinema’s enfant terrible Harmony Korine for a perfume ad, transformed the anarchistic, abstract artworks of friend and collaborator Sterling Ruby into gowns, and brought kinky latex thigh high boots to couture. The creation and release of a documentary, Dior and I, about Simons’ first show for the house, gives an unprecedented insider look at the mechanics of one of the most prestigious fashion brands in the world. Its candidness demonstrates both how Simons is using his outsider ethos to make his mark in Dior’s rich history, and the increasingly modern manifesto of the house itself – it’s willingness to connect with people beyond the privileged few who attend its shows.

While Simons hasn’t spoken out against majority-white casting in the way someone like Rousteing has (“What the fuck, you put just one black girl in to make sure you’ve ticked a box?” he asserted in our Winter 2014 issue) even having been called out for the lack of black models on his own runways before making an effort to diversify them, his era for Dior is defined by a constant questioning and redefinition of the idea of the brand’s ‘woman’. It’s a vision that now includes Rihanna. Despite the controversy that tends to surround some of her outfit choices (and her selfies) – something that once would have mortified a prestigious French fashion house – the industry seem relatively unfazed. If anything, Rihanna’s self belief endears her to it; Anna Wintour declared the singer as evidence that “incredible style can help take a talented young woman from a small island to the world stage, and along the way spark a lot of conversation about elegance and empowerment.”

Ultimately, Rihanna is a woman who has a great sense of ownership over her body and the way she chooses to display it. That self assuredness and power truly ties in to the woman Simons creates for at Dior, and although wildly different in terms of genre, it’s undeniable that she shares the attitude of the musical rebels the designer – who spent a youth sewing Black Flag and Kraftwerk patches to his clothes­ – has taken inspiration from at the house, including the likes of David Bowie, Throbbing Gristle and Sonic Youth. But while we celebrate the landmarks that are overcome in fashion, it’s important not to forget about the hurdles that remain. In a recent Dazed interview, legendary model agent Carole White spoke frankly of the time it takes to kickstart a black model’s career, admitting that she doesn’t think “diversity has got much better over the years.” While choosing a black celebrity with the kind of power as Rihanna to front a campaign should be applauded for breaking down one more of fashion’s boundaries, it can hardly be considered a great casting risk of the kind that supposedly keeps more models of colour off the runways. It can, however, set a precedent – with the overwhelmingly positive response encouraging any fashion houses still stuck in their ways to change their line-ups to reflect the multicultural world we live in. God knows we’re ready for it.