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Rihanna’s Lingerie Show Challenges the Victoria’s Secret Model

Rihanna’s guests sipped bubbly rose as they waited for her runway show to begin Wednesday night at New York’s Fashion Week. The venue at Brooklyn’s Navy Yard was appointed with surreal decor—a glass atrium filled with lab equipment, strange botanical domes and even an indoor pond. A woman with a headset warned onlookers clustering near the platform, “It’s not going to be what you think.”

She was right. As the models appeared, it became clear this was not your typical lingerie show. The women who crept, twisted or marched down the catwalk were tall and short, big and small, of all colors and sporting plenty of tattoos. Two of the models were pregnant. A mashup of runway presentation and performance art, the display was a big reveal for the singer’s collection under the Savage x Fenty brand (Rihanna’s real name is Robyn Rihanna Fenty). The rundown included bralettes, bodysuits and slips, and everything in between. It was a consciously subversive challenge to an industry still clinging to archaic definitions of beauty.

The 30-year-old Barbadian-born singer began her lingerie line in May, putting body “positivity” front-and-center. Her label sells maxi robes, mesh thongs, lace catsuits and bra styles ranging from push-ups with underwire to airy bralettes. Prices range from $12 undies to $84 corsets, and the label carries a wider range of sizes than most brands. Bras are available from size 32A to 44DD while other apparel is offered in sizes from XS to 3XL.

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“Women should be wearing lingerie for their damn selves,” Rihanna says on the Savage website. “I want women to own their beauty.”

Savage x Fenty is a partnership between Rihanna and TechStyle Fashion Group, the retailer behind JustFab and Kate Hudson’s Fabletics. Savage has a subscription service called the Xtra Savage Membership, which provides discounts on all styles and early access to new items. It costs $49 per year.

Rihanna says she’s trying to transform an industry dominated by Victoria’s Secret, a brand that’s been slow to adapt to cultural shifts amid the #MeToo movement and fashion’s broader embrace of bodies of all shapes and sizes.

Victoria’s Secret has hewed to its “Angels” and “Bombshell” branding, as almost every style—from unlined lingerie to sports bras—comes with a push-up option. Its “What is Sexy” campaign last year fell flat as anachronistic in a fast-changing cultural environment.

Victoria’s Secret parent company L Brands has seen shares plummet 53 percent this year, and same store sales—a key measure—have declined since 2016. The company cut its profit forecast last quarter ahead of the all-important holiday season. It’s also losing the chief executive of its Pink brand, which had been a lonely financial bright spot.

As Victoria’s Secret struggles, more adroit rivals are springing up, including  ThirdLove, True & Co. and Adore Me, which offer a variety of both products and models. Perhaps the biggest threat comes from Aerie, the lingerie label from American Eagle Outfitters Inc. Like Savage, Aerie has used the messaging of acceptance—that women of all shapes and sizes are beautiful in lingerie. The company has also benefited from the financial heft of its parent in building a distribution network and marketing campaign. Aerie ended last year with $500 million in sales.

Following Aerie’s lead, Rihanna may pose a significant threat to Victoria’s Secret—especially since she’s already proven her ability to disrupt. Her cosmetics brand, Fenty Beauty, has been a smash hit since it hit stores last September. Research firm Slice Intelligence said early sales outpaced Kylie Jenner’s Kylie Cosmetics and Kim Kardashian’s KKW. It helps that Fenty Beauty is operated by Kendo Holdings, an incubator owned by luxury behemoth Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessey, and is sold on its own website and at Sephora’s specialty beauty stores—another LVMH unit. Products range from tubes of lip glitter to hyper-reflective eye shadow.

But for now, the singer’s focus is on sexy underwear. At the Navy Yard, her show brought out the stars, including supermodels like Joan Smalls and the Hadid sisters. Eventually Rihanna appeared for a victory lap with her models—performers and attendees alike were bathed in sweat after a hot, humid night in Brooklyn, quite the opposite of the manicured, feathers-and-glitter world of lingerie shows of old.