The first and second times that Jahleel Weaver met Rihanna, they bonded over shoes. In 2007, when Weaver was a student in New York with a part-time job at the cult downtown Jeffrey boutique, he sold her a pair of Christian Louboutins. (The classic, “Pigalle” pointed-toe court in bronze, with graffiti on the side.) Four years later, Weaver was assisting stylist Mel Ottenberg, who was dressing Rihanna for a recording of the chatshow Good Morning America. “So this was, like, 4am, and she complimented me on my shoes,” remembers Weaver. “They were Raf [Simons] for Jil Sander brogues, black with neon-pink soles. One of my favourite pairs of shoes of all time.”
Now, Rihanna’s Fenty empire is about to drop the hottest shoes of 2020. Amina Muaddi is Louboutin rebooted for the 21st century: a 34-year-old Jordanian-Romanian with half a million Instagram followers who launched what she proudly calls her “100% ethnic-minority female-owned luxury company” less than two years ago. Muaddi’s Gilda shoe – a bare, sparkling sandal with a sculptural heel – was identified as the second most-wanted accessory in the world for the last quarter of 2019 by global fashion search engine Lyst. (First place went to the Gucci double-G belt.)
It was Weaver, Rihanna’s man-on-earth for all things fashion, who brought Rihanna and Muaddi together. As deputy creative director of Fenty, Rihanna’s LVMH-backed, Paris-based maison, Weaver is charged with translating RiRi’s iconic status into clothes. “Rihanna is a woman who represents fearlessness, and in our culture that’s so powerful,” says Weaver. He saw Muaddi’s shoes on social media, and messaged her to say he wanted to buy a pair for Rihanna.
Rihanna in the flesh is “very warm and very sassy,” says Muaddi. “If I design a shoe, I want Rihanna to want to wear it.” Both women share a taste for punchy, graphic looks in which masculine elements – shoulder pads, oversized sweatshirts, leather – are offset by teeteringly high, precious-looking heels. Muaddi often wears trainers in the daytime – “classic Nike, or Yeezy, probably with an elegant pant” – but “a sneaker isn’t a dancing shoe, to me. I never, ever wear flats at night. Heels have a kind of magic, like a superwoman suit.”
Every pair in Muaddi’s first Fenty shoe drop has a formidable 10cm heel, but she insists they are comfortable enough for the dancefloor, thanks to the signature flared heel shape. When Muaddi launched her label she reimagined the stiletto heel shape, which “didn’t feel modern enough. I looked at flared heels, but they looked too chunky, too vintage – so I combined the two.”
The result – an asymmetric hourglass, like a champagne flute with a Toblerone-chunk of pyramid at the base – spreads the pressure of the heel over a wide surface area, making the shoes more comfortable and grass- and grating-proof. For her first Fenty shoes, Muaddi has streamlined her eponymous heel into a flared cylinder silhouette – kind of a long, hand-rolled cigarette, if you like. Every style is Rihanna-approved: rope straps to fasten up the calf, squared-off toes, backless mules.
“Everything that you think Rihanna would be – when you meet her, she’s that,” says Weaver. “Everything that she puts out in her public persona is right there. She’s kind and she’s funny. She’s demanding, but also very generous. With last year’s launch of the Fenty Maison, Rihanna became the first black woman to lead a fashion brand for LVMH, the world’s largest luxury conglomerate. Bernard Arnault of LVMH pledged “a talented and multicultural team supported by the group resources” to the new brand.
“From the moment I learned about the partnership with LVMH, I was thinking about the history that RiRi is making,” says Weaver. “This is a cultural shift in terms of representation at the highest level, in our industry. This goes way past fashion.”
Diversity and representation “always [have] been and always will be part of my goal and my mission,” says Weaver. “To not just take my opportunity and to be tokenised, but to extend those opportunities to others. That’s always in my mind, and in Rihanna’s”
The global scale of the Black Lives Matter movement since the death of George Floyd has intensified what was already “a constant conversation” in the most diverse luxury house in Paris. “Rihanna uses her power to show the possibilities for black people and to nourish those opportunities for me and for other people. This is so huge, that you kind of have to start in your own back yard. Start with what mentorship and leadership that you can provide. Showing the path to change is, and will continue to be, part of our work. It could be partnering with historically black colleges, or developing links between business and minority youth.”
“Look, I’ve been talking about diversity from when I was able to talk, because that’s me – I am diverse”, says Muaddi. “Brown people like me have always known how important diversity is. Maybe for white people it didn’t cross their minds until it hit them in the face, I don’t know.
“But I’m not trying to lead, I’m just trying to do the right thing in my business, and that means having diversity in my team and in my campaigns. I am happy that the world is waking up and if what I do sets an example that’s great, but this is not about looking good on social media.”
Amina’s lockdown companion, French bulldog Alfie, is snoring in the background during our Zoom conversation. “This has been one of the most challenging times of my life,” she says, “but also a time that has brought growth.”
Even before the pandemic brought the fashion cycle to a standstill, Muaddi was pushing back against the speed of the trend cycle, presenting just two collections each year. “Everything was moving too fast. It’s not fair on the consumer if a luxury product is quickly out of date. Now we’ve had a pause and a reset, and fashion is starting up again almost from zero. That’s kind of scary. But it’s also an opportunity to do things differently.”