The Bad Girl and the Lady: Rihanna and Lupita Nyong’o

How two very different style icons are setting the tone for the 21st century.

April 08, 2014

Last month, right smack in the middle of a perfect storm of fashion week chaos and Hollywood award season drama, two style icons from two different worlds took their seats side-by-side on the front row of Miuccia Prada's super important Miu Miu show in Paris: Rihanna and Lupita Nyong'o. Dressed to the nines, the two women —RiRi in a plunging blouse that revealed her chest tattoo and a multi-colored fur jacket that resembled a muppet; Lupita covered up to the neck in a jewel-crusted maroon blouse and a prim beige overcoat—expressed two very different sides of femininity with their wardrobes: the bad girl and the lady. While Rihanna looked like she might've rolled in from last night’s party and Lupita looked ready for church, both of these young women of color are redefining modern style for women today. Here we break down just why we appreciate their polar-opposite yet equally fearless style.

Rihanna, The Unlikely MVP

During Paris Fashion Week, Rihanna arrived at the Balmain show in a look that later appeared on the runway, showed up to Lanvin in an outfit by the fashion house with a completely different haircut, then, a little later, cut loose at Balmain’s afterparty in a fishnet top with nothing underneath. And that was just in a 12-hour window. The unpredictability and chaos that follows @Badgalriri, in her stylistic whims and personal life, wouldn't normally make her a prime candidate for the Fashion Icon Award bestowed by the CFDA, a fairly stodgy organization helmed by Anna Wintour that’s previously honored more traditional fashion figures Nicole Kidman and Iman. But Rihanna’s style influence is undeniable, having infiltrated everything from high fashion to streetwear to large retail chains, and even the CFDA get that.

Since she released her seminal 2007 album Good Girl Gone Bad, a title that foretold her personal and style metamorphosis, Rihanna has been bulldozing conventional paths to fashion superstardom, reinventing the definition of “iconic” with every stylistic corner she’s turned. And there have been a lot of them: #ghettogoth Ri, streetwear Ri, red carpet glam Ri, avant Ri—the list goes on. For all of her experimental streaks, though, Rihanna can also nail classic and “pretty” any time she wants to. Case and point: her Alaïa look for the 2013 Grammys, pictured below. She’s at her creative peak, though—and all the more exciting to watch—when she’s playing the role of the bad gal.

In that zone, there isn’t a fashion risk Rihanna won’t take: from barbed wire to oversized suits, sneakers (before they became posh with the fashion set), veiled snapbacks and beanies, exposed underwear, and even a burqa—which, in retrospect, is one of the few things she’s worn that, understandably, didn’t earn her praise. Likewise, there’s no hair color or cut with which she hasn’t experimented. She’s pulled off grey hair, blonde hair, a mullet, a doobie wrap, Jheri curls, a pixie cut—and that was just last year. As we learned from her recent Vogue profile, Rihanna doesn’t limit herself to women’s clothing. She’s swears by the powers of men’s jackets and calls herself a “tomboy.” She was also one of the first mainstream artists to champion streetwear, wearing oversized hoodies and graphic tees, and proudly mixes high and low items.

Of course, Rihanna’s bad girl image has been just as much a lightning rod for criticism. But, like everyone else, she’s a work in progress. That sentiment applies to her ever-evolving style and gradually improving design skills as well. Her collections for River Island were increasingly better with each release—and, as she revealed in her Vogue profile, the experience was like riding a bike with training wheels: Rihanna wants to eventually have her own line. That move seems within reach for Ri, who is no stranger to the inner workings of the fashion industry. Rihanna has also been a muse for countless designers-- a subject that Anna Wintour addressed in the opening letter of Rihanna’s last cover issue— including her stylist Adam Selman, whose first two collections were based on what she’d wear. And, as the current face of Balmain, Rihanna’s strong style was stamped all over their spring collection.

Perhaps the most compelling aspect of her style is that, as some of her pop peers parade around in costumes—trying to one-up each other in the process—or heavily rely on entire designer looks, Rihanna's clothes reflect her own personality. Her constantly evolving style, a cavalier mix of runway, streetwear and underground subcultures, is more like a mirror of her identity than a reaction to run-of-the mill trends. Rihanna isn’t a picture-perfect product of pop’s machinery—her image is a revolt against it. It’s raw, authentic, and challenging, even when that’s not in her best interest. She dresses for herself, no fucks given. marissa muller

Lupita Nyong'o, Rookie of the Year

Though her debut role as "Patsy", in Twelve Years A Slave, was physically grueling, emotionally taxing and anything but glamorous, Lupita Nyong'o's striking presence and natural beauty shone through like a diamond in the rough. And in a time of formulaic and stale red carpet style, Nyong'o has usurped the Hollywood scene with unprecedented speed and grace. Nyong'o truly cemented her style status at the Golden Globes red carpet, when she stunned in a caped crimson gown from Ralph Lauren worn with a severe side-part fade and minimal jewelry. Jennifer Lawrence might've taken home the statue that night but Lupita's flawless look was the talk of the town. Nyong'o then embarked on a red carpet hit parade, rocking looks from Prada, Givenchy and Gucci with poise and easily topping best-dressed lists. High fashion labels took notice, recognizing Nyong'o's potential as a new type of style star. This spring, Miu Miu cast Nyong'o alongside fellow film ingénues Elizabeth Olson, Elle Fanning and Bella Heathcote for their advertisements campaign. The campaign, which comes at a time when Bethann Hardison and Iman are lobbying for diversity in the fashion world, feels like a shift in the narrow racial paradigms of high fashion. With her shorn locks, impeccable ebony complexion and muscular physique, Nyong'o, who resembles a demure Grace Jones, is an unconventional beauty by old Hollywood's blue-eyed, blonde-haired standards and her rise is an encouraging symbol of long overdue change within a stale industry.

Her winning formula of bold-colored Minimalist fashion paired with jewel-toned make-up has equally captured the adoration of the beauty world. Last week, French cosmetic brand Lancôme named Nyong'o a celebrity ambassador, joining the ranks of Hollywood heavyweights Julia Roberts, Kate Winslet and Penelope Cruz as the first-ever black spokesperson. Nyong'o is also singlehandedly revitalizing the short hair game with a chameleon-like hairdo that ranges from a sleek buzz cut to a two-pronged Mohawk to an asymmetrical Gumby cut and back. At every turn, Nyong'o's daring sartorial choices have challenged the status quo, changing the way we view beauty and style. In an era of bells and whistles, Nyong’o’s poised simplicity and ladylike style is nothing short of revolutionary. From leather bustiers and spiked heels when she's feeling frisky to perfect pastels and knee-high socks when she's feeling prim and proper, Nyong'o exudes a confidence and grace that is always in vogue.

Having gone from a film school grad student to a bonafide star with high fashion endorsements and a lucrative beauty contract in a matter of months, it would be an understatement to say that it's been a whirlwind year for Nyong'o. Speculation of what's to come has already started bubbling over. Though Nyong'o remains tight-lipped about her future plans, we have little doubt that this rookie of the year will continue to further solidify her icon status and inspire us with her barrier-breaking style. deidre dyer

The Bad Girl and the Lady: Rihanna and Lupita Nyong’o