Turning point

Rihanna is the new face of Dior … and it’s about damn time

This is a moment to be celebrated, but it should also be kept in perspective

The newly-released campaign is the latest installment in the luxury fashion label’s “Secret Garden” series, featuring the singer traipsing through Versailles in all of her stylishly edgy glory. Rihanna runs through the Hall of Mirrors in a flowing red ball gown, flashes of skin peeking out the back. She poses seductively against a mirror in a cropped fur vest, her lips painted an iconic deep red and her eyes peering out through a black-netted birdcage veil. In another image, she takes in her appearance in a long-sleeved, high-necked gown that sparkles glamorously from head to toe.

The images, shot by Steven Klein, are stunning, not at all a surprise for both a brand known for its elegance and a singer whose beauty and sense of style, while sometimes controversial, have been widely celebrated. Rihanna shared several sneak peeks of photos and videos, like the one below, from the campaign with followers of her Instagram account on Thursday and Friday.

@Dior #SecretGarden4 By @stevenkleinstudio #ThePalaceOfVersailles #sneakpeek

A post shared by badgalriri (@badgalriri) on

But the March news announcing Rihanna as the newest Dior superstar was overshadowed by the historical moment it also marked: her campaign would be the first time a person of color had been chosen as the face of the couture brand.

“It feels fantastic. It is such a big deal for me, for my culture, for a lot of young girls of any color,” Rihanna told MTV News in March. “I think to be acknowledged by Dior means a lot, as a woman, to feel beautiful — to feel elegant and timeless.”

And it does mean a lot. This is a moment to be celebrated, but it should also be kept in perspective. The influential brand is almost 70 years old, and this is the first time a person of color has been tapped to serve as its ambassador.

Since Raf Simons took over as creative director of Dior in April 2012, he has set about injecting a new energy and freshness into the brand. But it wasn’t until his seventh collection for the house that he put a black model on the runway. (Dior declined to comment for this story.)

Diversity hasn’t come easy to the fashion industry, so every step forward should be celebrated. But it’s also important to note that, while improvements still need to be made by all brands, other fashion houses have managed to embrace black ambassadors before now. Since 2006, Versace, Gucci, Armani, Givenchy, Miu Miu, Louis Vuitton, Alexander Wang, Balmain, and Calvin Klein have all featured people of color as the face of their brands.

Ambassadorships are not the only place where the fashion industry has fallen short. Critics have also noted the lack of mainstream black fashion designers; fashion shows have been so predominately white season after season that activist and former model agency owner Bethann Hardison founded the Diversity Coalition in 2013 to campaign for more models of color on the runway; and there is an ever watchful eye tracking who’s gracing the glossies.

“Much has been made in the news media and within fashion itself of the lack of ethnic diversity among models, but in many ways, the situation on the runway simply reflects an even more extreme situation in the power structure of the industry itself,” Vanessa Friedman wrote in The New York Times in February.

In its 2014 Diversity Report, the Fashion Spot revealed that fashion magazines are still lacking when it comes to black cover models. After examining 44 major print magazines, they found that black fashion models only made the cover 119 times, compared to the 567 appearances by white fashion models (these numbers do not account for appearances by black celebrities). Vogue featured four cover stars of color in 2014—Rihanna, Lupita Nyong’o, Joan Smalls, and Kanye West—which was an improvement from previous years, but not by a whole lot.

Rihanna is a fabulous choice for Dior’s new campaign—she manages to infuse her own edgy sexiness into the brand while also looking classically Dior. But she’s also an easy choice. The singer was named CFDA Fashion Icon of the Year in 2014 and was dubbed “Fashion’s Most Exciting Muse” by Vogue.

The harder test is to normalize diversity, to make the brand ambassador list of a major fashion label like Dior not just contain the one black “It” girl of the year, but several influential faces of color among the list of Jennifer Lawrences, Natalie Portmans, and Charlize Therons. We’re still in a period in fashion where every milestone is remarked on with headlines reading that someone is “making history.” But it’s 2015 and about time that fashion brands embrace diversity as a commonplace requirement and not a singular achievement that gets them a round of glowing press.

Dior, Rihanna is a great—and long overdue—first step. Now, keep the momentum going.

Related gallery:

Rihanna’s style through the years

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