*This publish is part of our on-line discussion board on Madam C.J. Walker for the centennial anniversary of her dying.
Madam CJ Walker Product Commercial , (Permission: Madam CJ Walker Household Archive)
Because the summer time of 2017 drew its final breath and the style world gathered in New York City for style week, international celebrity Rihanna launched her cosmetics line, Fenty Magnificence. Bought solely within the US on the brand’s website and at luxury beauty emporium Sephora, Fenty turned the most important beauty launch in the store’s historical past. Ladies of shade flocked to the retailer to get matched in their Fenty shade only to seek out that the shops couldn’t hold sufficient merchandise on their shelves to satisfy the demand. Boasting over 40 shades of foundation to enrich a diverse vary of pores and skin tones, Fenty Magnificence earned a staggering $72 million in gross sales in its first month and was named one of many 25 Greatest Innovations of 2017 by Time Magazine. Beauty manufacturers that had previously ignored Black ladies shoppers scrambled to determine the best way to faucet into what they now realized was a lucrative market.
Thought-about a groundbreaking second within the beauty business, Rihanna’s success drew comparisons with one other Black female entrepreneur, the sweetness pioneer Madam C. J. Walker. Indeed, there can be no Fenty Beauty if not for the work Walker did over a century ago to increase the contours of the sweetness business to satisfy the calls for of Black ladies shoppers. While well-liked remedies of Walker’s life typically concentrate on her financial achievement, her biggest legacy got here from the best way she reframed the search for beauty not as fantasy or escapism however as practical and political. As we mirror upon the centennial of Madam Walker’s demise, how can we evaluate Fenty’s influence not simply when it comes to sales, however in mild of Walker’s unwavering commitment to reworking Black ladies’s lives?
The life histories of the two ladies at the helm of these manufacturers intersect in compelling ways. Both had troublesome childhoods–Walker was affected by poverty and the dying of her mom, whereas Rihanna contended with debilitating complications and a father with drug habit. Nevertheless, their respective roads to entrepreneurship couldn’t be extra divergent. Walker, a former washerwoman and single mother, beloved to boast that she began her journey to financial autonomy with “$1.50 in my pocket.” Rihanna, then again, turned a businesswoman at the peak of her singing career. The women also have very totally different relationships to their merchandise and types. Though she started out with restricted assets, Walker was each the founder and proprietor of a producing firm and a nationwide system of magnificence faculties. Then again, Rihanna does not own Fenty, however has an integrated partnership with LVMH, a luxurious goods conglomerate that recognizes her because the brand’s founder and artistic director, and provides her an fairness stake within the company. Rihanna leveraged her success with Fenty Magnificence to launch a brand new trend label with LVMH. The new style house can be the primary one launched by the conglomerate since 1987 and would make Rihanna one of the crucial highly effective Black ladies within the style business.
Madam Walker emerged on the scene on the dawn of the 20 th century, after white-owned beauty corporations tried unsuccessfully to capitalize on Black ladies’s wishes to precise their trendy identities by way of engagement in shopper culture. Not surprisingly, the identical culture that produced lynch mobs and segregation would depend on racist tropes that portrayed Black ladies as inherently grotesque and in want of fixing. Ads included earlier than sketches of girls with dark pores and skin and unkempt hair who turned white ladies with bone-straight hair because of utilizing their beauty products. Despite condemnation from some race leaders who accused Walker of selling a Eurocentric magnificence best, Walker’s early ads emphasized improved hair health and manageability, not straightened hair. As an alternative of racist caricatures, she positioned her undeniably Black body on the middle of her company’s visual narrative. These deliberate decisions challenged what Kobena Mercer calls the “ideologies of the gorgeous,” aesthetic beliefs that relegate Black ladies, notably these with Africanized features, outdoors of its desired norms.
Fenty additionally relies upon visual narratives to destabilize the connection between whiteness and wonder. Whereas beauty corporations like MakeUp Endlessly, MAC, and CoverFX have been offering a wide range of shades for over a decade, Fenty did what most luxury brands have been unable or unwilling to do: it positioned Black ladies on the middle of its magnificence narrative. Rihanna, like Walker, used her personal body and star energy to assist gross sales. With over 60 million Instagram followers, she had a built-in viewers that might have been unimaginable to Madam Walker. Nevertheless, Fenty’s advertising campaigns not solely included Rihanna but in addition featured Black models like Duckie Thot, Slick Woods, and Leomie Anderson. The model additionally marshaled a staff of Black social media influencers to create a buzz about their merchandise.
Featuring Black ladies was just one approach that Rihanna centered Black ladies in the brand. She additionally took on one of the essential battles in retail–the allocation of shelf area. A lot of the different magnificence brands that provide a variety of basis shades solely promote them on-line, marginalizing dark-skinned shoppers and rendering them unable to make an in-store purchase. Nevertheless, Rihanna insisted that Sephora carry all 40 basis choices in retailer. This seemingly insignificant transfer turned Fenty shows in Sephora into gathering areas.
I keep in mind my first visit to Sephora soon after the Fenty launch. Black ladies swarmed across the products, swatched them on their wrists, and requested full strangers for feedback. There was an atmosphere of playfulness in addition to a sense of safety, of being seen with out being made a spectacle. Some ladies admitted to having never visited Sephora before but came to witness the Fenty phenomenon because they felt that for the primary time, a brand genuinely cared about their beauty wants. For Rihanna, this was one of the shocking and welcome features of the Fenty launch. She recalled in a 2017 interview, “I never might have anticipated the emotional connection that ladies are having with the products and the model as an entire. Some are finding their shade of basis for the primary time, getting emotional on the counter. That’s something I’ll never recover from.” As Bianca Williams, writer of The Pursuit of Happiness: Black Ladies, Diaporic Goals, and the Politics of Transnationalism, notes, pleasure and play can serve as a liberatory praxis for Black ladies who are often denied such issues of their on a regular basis life.
Fenty Magnificence continues to be in its infancy as a model, nevertheless it might study a terrific deal from the Walker Manufacturing Company on methods to rework emotional connection into action. Madam Walker initially found it troublesome to seek out retailers prepared to sell her products, so she employed Black ladies to serve as gross sales brokers and sent them to the locations where Black ladies have been already gathering—magnificence salons, church buildings, and membership meetings. This allowed Walker to offer dignified employment for Black ladies who had few profession choices outdoors of domestic service. Within the first half of the 20 th century, racial and gender inequalities restricted most African American ladies’s labor alternatives to family labor which did not pay properly or permit them to spend time with their families. Madam Walker gave African American ladies the privilege of working for and on behalf of different Black ladies. As a former laundress, this was a source of great delight. On the National Negro Enterprise League’s 1914 convention, Walker seized the chance of Booker T. Washington’s sudden invitation to deal with the gang and proclaim, “I am not merely glad in earning profits for myself… I’m endeavoring to offer employment for lots of of the ladies of my race.” The gross sales agents shortly discovered that working for the Walker Firm came with a duty, not simply to raised their very own lives, however to comply with in the footsteps of their leader who from the inception of her company, prioritized philanthropy and civic engagement.
As Madam Walker stood before her sales agents during her keynote at their 1918 conference, she lauded them for being “a few of the greatest ladies the Race has produced” and reminded them that regardless of how proud she was of their financial success, “their first obligation is to humanity.” She further defined, “I shall look forward to finding my brokers taking the lead in each locality not solely in operating a successful business, however in every movement within the interest of our coloured citizenship.” The women responded immediately to this call by collectively drafting a telegram to President Wilson expressing their robust stance towards lynching. Generations of gross sales agents and beauticians would comply with in their footsteps by serving as leaders and key mobilizers in numerous iterations of the Black freedom wrestle.
As a beauty entrepreneur, Rihanna ought to be recommended for her dedication to creating positive Black ladies of all hues have access to magnificence products and for forcing an business fixated on whiteness to acknowledge Black ladies. Nevertheless, the so-called Fenty Revolution is incomplete if it stays within the realm of aesthetics. Most of the challenges that Black ladies faced on the flip of the last century stay in the present one. I hope that Rihanna, who has already demonstrated a commitment to philanthropy and schooling–two points Madam Walker championed–will capitalize on the emotional connection Black ladies have together with her model to help create a extra lovely future.
Copyright © AAIHS. Is probably not reprinted with out permission.