• Courtney E. Smith

Rihanna’s Nipple Instagram Was Groundbreaking For Fashion

Courtesy Def Jam Records

There are no more inspirational quotes. There are no more massive joints. There are no more phucks to give (or not give, more accurately). There is nothing to see, there is nothing to heart, for Rihanna doesn’t have an Instagram. Yet on the evening of June 2, Instagram was flooded with topless photos of the star. So, what happened?

Rihanna’s stock in the fashion world has been on the rise since she teamed up with stylist Mel Ottenberg in 2011 and her meteoric rise reached new heights when she was named this year’s CDFA Fashion Icon of the Year. The award was given in recognition of “her contributions to the fashion industry as well as her philanthropic partnership with the MAC AIDS Fund’s Viva Glam campaign.” CDFA CEO Steven Kolb called her “fashion’s most exciting ambassador in recent memory.” His words rang true upon Rihanna’s arrival at the gala, wearing a completely sheer dress made of mesh and 230,000 Swarovski crystals.

On the night she collected one of fashion’s biggest honors, Rihanna chose to wear something that showed her support for the activists behind the hashtag #FreeTheNipple, started by Scout Willis in protest of Instagram’s policy against female nudity on the platform. Their usage terms ban images that are “nude, partially nude, discriminatory, unlawful, infringing, hateful, pornographic or sexually suggestive photos.”

Instagram had censored at least one of Rihanna’s photos and disabled her account previously. Instagram told E! News, “This account was mistakenly caught in one of our automated systems and very briefly disabled. We apologize for any inconvenience.” But after that incident, Rihanna’s account disappeared forever. She moved her ongoing selfie relationship with her fans to Twitter.

According to Tom Ford, that may have been a huge tactical mistake by Instagram.

In an interview with Ford said, “[C]ustomers don’t care anymore about reviews or hard-copy publications. 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.”

“It doesn’t mean I don’t care about reviews, but today, a lot of people who are reviewing are bloggers,” Ford continued. “There’s no longer the hierarchy of an editor in chief on top who hires people with a knowledge and a history and an ability to write and disseminate that information to the rest of the population. Everyone has a voice now, so the person with the loudest voice is the one people listen to.”

It’s an interesting look into the mindset of Ford, whose luxury brand has to constantly juggle decisions about which press outlets gain access to their exclusive fashion week shows, how to create effective social media campaigns and craft an appropriate brand image in an ever-evolving digital landscape. It is telling, but not surprising, that Ford would see Rihanna as more powerful than the platform, Instagram, she used to push her sartorial sense.

To the general public, Ford is best known as the guy Jay Z wrote a song about (“I don’t pop molly/ I rock Tom Ford”) and some are inclined to pigeon-hole him into menswear design because of that association. In the fashion world, he became a star when he was hired to lead Gucci’s women’s ready-to-wear line in 1990 and spearheaded a reinvigoration of the brand. He is also known for shocking the fashion industry with a line of porno-chic advertisements that are an obvious precursor to every aspect of Rihanna’s fashion rebellion.

Porno-chic was the result of Ford’s collaboration with his longtime muse Carine Roitfeld and photographer Mario Testino. It was sexed-up imagery shot in a voyeuristic style — much like an Instagram selfie but with the best light direction in the world and done on immaculately designed sets. One of their most scandalous was one in which the famous Gucci G is shaved into a model’s nether regions.

When the Gucci Group took over Yves Saint Laurent, Ford became that brand’s creative director as well and pushed their marketing in that direction, including an advert featuring a naked Sophie Dahl for Opium perfume that is the eighth most complained about ad of all time. Detractors find it to be too sexually suggestive.

And, of course, sexually suggestive is a style that Tom Ford carries on today with his eponymous fashion line. In the ad below for his Natalia purse, he puts forward the purse — and nothing else. This is not an image that Instagram finds to be in violation of their policies.

On the same night that Rihanna was named Fashion Icon of the Year, Ford won the biggest award of the night. He was given the Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award, named for the man who hired him into Gucci. But the two could not exist without each other. Ford’s blueprint is what Rihanna is advancing.

In Vogue’s March cover story on the singer, Ford pinpoints what sets Rihanna’s style apart from his. “She can throw on combinations you can’t imagine other people could possibly wear, and look great. In the fashion world she has inspired a very, very loose mix of random items,” he says. Where Ford does a clean, single-focused brand of sexuality, Rihanna is all over the place.

That is what she did with her rebellious CFDA outfit. On its surface, it’s just another shocking look from Rihanna. Looking deeper, she explores a host of political statements: The obvious middle finger to Instagram; the juxtaposition of high and low fashion by pairing a durag with a gown and evening gloves; the message of women’s liberation in the flapper cut of the dress, endorsing the brazen and sexually aggressive women of the 1920s; and Rihanna’s on-going style obsession with Josephine Baker, whose birthday happened to fall on June 2.

At this year's awards, the CFDA also gave away their inaugural Fashion Instagrammer of the Year Award, shining a spotlight on how powerful the platform has become for burgeoning photographers. The winner, Patrick Janelle, Instagrammed a lone photo from the gala. It was Rihanna, with nipples plainly visible.

This story was originally published in April 2014.

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