On Monday, the day before Rihanna’s 30th birthday, she posted an Instagram story of herself wearing a custom T-shirt that said “I hate Rihanna” and, in smaller font, “Don’t trust anyone under 30.” This moment was the perfect summation of what makes her a style icon: It was self-aware, funny, and internet-y, and it used fashion as a medium through which to communicate. You can also buy it for yourself. Ironically, it’s exactly why we love Rihanna.
A celebrity like Rihanna has to showcase her style in five radically different settings: the stage, the street, the red carpet, fashion week, and social media. Rihanna’s special skill is her ability to shine equally, and with consistency, across all five. In 2014, she was honored for this talent with the CFDA Fashion Icon award, which she accepted wearing a now-infamous shimmering, see-through Adam Selman gown. Last year, she was honored by Parsons wearing the sartorial opposite: an oversized suit by the young designer and Parsons alum Matthew Adams Dolan. It is a measure of her control over her image that both looks felt “so Rihanna.” They demonstrated a confidence in her physicality, whatever that may look like, as well as a willingness to take risks.
Today, there is arguably no Met Gala fashion moment without Rihanna, nor any awards show worth viewing. The street is her runway, and the runway her street. Her influence is calculable: she was selling out “ugly” Fenty x Puma sneakers long before the trend had a name, and continues to boost the brand’s sales year over year. The same goes for her other — notably varied — collaborations including River Island, Stance, and Manolo Blahnik.
One could argue that Rihanna is just a paper doll for the many stylists and design teams working for her — that she doesn’t deserve all the credit. But if that were true, we’d have a lot more icons like her. She does, in fact, have a team of people like Mel Ottenberg helping her pull outfits and sift through the many obscure pieces she is no doubt sent daily. But the people she surrounds herself with are a measure of her taste. These stylists are there to help amplify Rihanna; she did the groundwork.
But when I think of Rihanna and fashion, my mind doesn’t go to the red carpet or the runway first. It goes to where I personally interact with her style, which is on Instagram. This is, of course, because Instagram is where most of us get our celebrity information, but also because Rihanna is incredibly good at Instagram, and uses it to share high fashion or new, never-heard-of designers in a way that everyone can understand and get behind. For example, after she wore a yellow Guo Pei couture dress with a 16-foot train to the Met Gala in 2015, she shared a slew of memes that fans made of the outfit, from “doges” in yellow capes to jokes about how she looked like an omelette.
Instagram also allows Rihanna to use her style to stand for something, which is an integral part of being an icon in 2018. On International Women’s Day, for example, she posted a photo of herself wearing a pink hoodie that read “P***y grabs back,” which she paired with a pink tutu top, jeans, a hat with a middle finger on it, and a fur boa. Looks such as these draw attention to her politics, rather than distracting from them.
Scrolling through Rihanna’s Instagram recently, I kept thinking about “absolute unit” — a fashion meme, specifically in menswear, to describe things that are oversized. Rihanna’s outfits often impress with their sheer volume, from the puffy pink Giambattista Valli dress she wore to the 2015 Grammy awards to her most recent Comme des Garçons Met Gala look. She did the oversized look — a style you now see all over the runway — first and best.
Icon is an overused term, but we use it when language fails us to describe those who stand for something bigger than themselves. What makes Rihanna iconic is that she isn’t afraid to take up space, in any realm. She’s the one true absolute unit. It’s awe-inspiring.