You can’t deny the influence that black and brown people and black culture have had on the beauty and fashion industry over the years. But a few notable visionaries took an idea, acted on it, turning it into a trailblazing business that would change the trajectory of the beauty and fashion industry. Here we’ll review some of them from Madam C.J. Walker to Rihanna how it started to how it’s going now.
It’s hard to say precisely how or when it started, but it’s safe to say that one of the first African Americans to change the beauty and fashion industry was Madam C.J. Walker. Born Sarah Breedlove in Delta Louisiana on Christmas Eve in 1867 to formally enslaved sharecroppers, Walker seemed to always have a determination in her for greatness.
“I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there I was promoted to the washtub. From there I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations….I have built my own factory on my own ground.” – Madam C.J. Walker, 1912
Like many people, Walker suffered from scalp issues resulting in hair loss. Her aliment fueled her first invention that became a tipping point into an entire line of African American hair care productions in 1905. Walker’s empire eventually expanded with more products, manufacturing, training for sales beauticians and more, making her the first self-made black millionaire.
Walker paved the way for many other black-owned beauty brands like Supreme Beauty Products and Fashion Fair Cosmetics owned by John H. Johnson and Fenty Beauty and Fenty Skin owned by self-made billionaire Robyn Rihanna Fenty.
Robyn Rihanna Fenty, better known as Rihanna, was born on the island of Barbados in 1988. Growing up in Bridgetown, Rihanna aspired to be a famous singer, and in 2005, Rihanna got her big break after signing with Def Jam records, quickly bursting onto the scene and charting on Billboard. In 2017, Rihanna ventured outside of music, starting her first fashion brand Fenty under the luxury fashion brand LVMH (Moet Hennessey Louis Vuitton).
That same year, Rihanna launched her groundbreaking cosmetic company Fenty Beauty under LVMH’s Kendo Brands, with Rihanna owning fifty percent of the brand. Fenty Beauty exploded in the industry with a wide array of products making noise for its inclusivity of 50 shades for all skin tones. Fenty Beauty’s expansive shades brought awareness of an issue that women of color have been talking about for years, not having access to products that match their skin tone. Fenty Beauty’s inclusivity opened the door for many other brands to expand their shades and provide more beauty products for all people of color.
Wasting no time in 2018, Rihanna launched Savage X Fenty, a lingerie brand created for various sizes that major brands overlooked in shades that matched all skin tones — again bringing more exclusivity to another area where it was hard for women of color to find a proper “nude” to match their skin tone. Rihanna also took fashion presentations to the next level with Savage X Fenty by making her shows an immersive experience with known and unknown models, dancers, singers, rappers, and more choreographed in a performance environment steering away from a traditional runway. Rihanna even struck a multi-year deal with Amazon’s Prime Video, allowing the public to stream her Savage X Fenty fashion presentations, getting in front of millions who would never have the opportunity to see a production in New York or Milan.
In 2020 Rihanna expanded Fenty Beauty with Fenty Skin skincare brand. And indeed, her latest business venture helped levitate her to be recognized by Forbes as the wealthiest female musician and the second richest female entertainer behind Oprah Winfrey, with her empire now worth $1.4 billion.
Both Madam C.J. Walker (how it started) and Rihanna (how it’s going) have paved the way for a drove of black and brown beauty and fashion entrepreneurs. Their tenacity and method of inventing an inclusive product to super-serve a need has proven to be a catalyst for success in the industry. Their business “model” will inspire future entrepreneurs for years to come.