Amazon drops Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty live show today, but by now, so many photos and clips have leaked that we might feel like we saw everything.
We did not. This was the event of Fashion Week, and it was so much more than a fashion show.
Once upon a time there was, ahem, another televised lingerie show that was basically rite of passage for any model who wanted to earn that “super” prefix; an event theoretically all about women. The aesthetic? A bit male-gaze-y for today’s tastes.
“It’s the future—there’s no comparing it to anything,” declares Parris Goebel, choreographer and creative director of the 2019 Savage x Fenty show.
If you’ve never heard of Parris, the first thing to know is that, according to Rihanna, she is “a badass bitch.” As she told The Cut after this show taped earlier this month:
You’ve also probably seen the New Zealand native’s work, even if you don’t know her name (yet): Along with her dance crew ReQuest, she starred in the music video for Justin Bieber’s “Sorry,” and she’s choreographed for Janet Jackson, Nicki Minaj, and (future Oscar nominee! don’t @ me) Jennifer Lopez.
Reviews of the show have been ecstatic, with reporters raving about how the event upends the conventional trajectory of a fashion show. Gone is the endless, repetitive strutting back and forth. Rihanna’s show combines the theatricality of a musical, the bombast of an arena tour, and the glamour of high fashion, to create something vibrant, thrilling, and new. Goebel, who not only worked behind the scenes but performed with the dancers as well, gave Cosmo the rundown on working with Rihanna to make a show she says is unlike anything she’s ever done or seen before.
So how did this all happen?
I’ve actually been working with Rih for five years now. I’ve done a bunch of awesome projects with her and also choreographed last year’s Savage show. But this show was actually quite last minute, and a big surprise. I just got the call like, “Rih is doing Fashion Week and this year is going to be big, a 45 minute show. There’s going to be artists, dancers, this and that.” I was like, “Let’s do it.” So it was all a lot and all quite last minute—we had about three weeks—but we pulled it off.
That is insane. Where does the planning for something this big start for you?
There was so much to it. To start, it wasn’t just fashion: we had music. As you know, there were artists, like Big Sean and Normani. There were so many moving parts to it, and Rih’s number one thing was to make it seamless, to make everyone a part of this world that we created.
So as the choreographer and creative director, it’s my job to work on those transitions: how we get from the dancers to the models to the artists in a way that feels organic, cohesive, and refreshing. There had to be kind of a heartbeat throughout the show.
What references did you have to inspire this work? Anything on the mood board?
Honestly, not much! There was nothing we could go by, because no one has ever done this before. And for me as a creative, I don’t do well with references. They throw me off. So a lot of what I came up with was just purely from my imagination. Or I might have seen one photo that sparked an idea.
“To me, as a woman, to be sexy is just to be yourself.”
What did you have as a framework?
This is the perfect project for me, because we’re breaking the rules and creating something new. I could run wild and come up with whatever I wanted to. It really came down to the set. The set was really inspiring for me; it was so unique. Once we had those sketches, it helped me imagine what world we were creating. I could think, okay, we could do a section of choreography on that step, on this bench. It sparked so much.
What about the fashion itself? At what point did the Savage x Fenty wardrobe come into play?
I didn’t get my fitting until the night before the show! So it was all very last minute.
Wait, to choreograph a fashion show, you didn’t actually get the fashion until the night before?
Wardrobe didn’t come until the last two days before the show. But everyone on the team is the best of the best at what they do. So even though everything came together last minute, everyone was so amazing and just made it work. As soon as we had our dress rehearsal, the stylists came in to adjust things so we were all comfortable. Everyone is there for the girls— their comfort, making sure they feel good—that’s important to Rih, too.
It seems like you’re building her own physical vocabulary for what “sexy” looks like. This might feel sort of obvious, but: What does being sexy mean to you?
To me, as a woman, to be sexy is just to be yourself. That is the basic thing: when you can unapologetically be yourself. Dress how you want, talk how you want, walk how you want. There’s no right or wrong to it. It’s such a shame that we’ve grown up in a world that has programmed us to think what beauty is, and that there’s only one way to be beautiful.
Even I struggled as a little girl with that, growing up in New Zealand and seeing the magazines with top models. I really struggled with that because I couldn’t see myself in them. We’re here to rewrite that narrative and change the way the world thinks. And who better to do that with than Rihanna? She’s a trailblazer, pacemaker. When she does something, everyone pays attention. She takes on that responsibility to empower people all over the world. To be yourself and love yourself—that’s what Savage is about. There’s no rules. We make the rules.
“There’s no rules. We make the rules.”
Was it difficult at all to work with models who don’t necessarily have dance experience, and who are used to walking in a more traditional fashion show?
This was a dream job, for me. To work with so many women from all walks of life, and everyone just has such a great spirit. It was probably my favorite job I’ve ever done. And the models were just so amazing. They’re so sweet and came in ready to do something different. If I asked them, “Do you want to try this?” they were just so down to do it. It was just all good vibes. Everyone was excited to push the envelope and do something new, especially the models.
How did this experience change you?
So I also got to dance in the show, because Rih asked me if I could also perform. At first I was like, for Rih, of course. But usually I’m behind the scenes, because what I do is such a big workload. So to perform on top of that was actually quite challenging for me, because I had a lot going on: I had to choreograph, learn the moves, know my section, get changed backstage with the girls. For me, to be able to experience that inner transformation—which I got to see all the girls go through last year in the show—I got to experience it myself as a woman this year.
At the end of the day, you’re putting yourself out there in front of millions of people in lingerie. If you think about it, it’s quite frightening. I’m confident, and it’s still quite a scary thought and feeling! And once you do it and you do it with confidence, you just feel so liberated. You feel that you can do anything, that no one can tell you anything. That’s how I felt. Even though I’m already a strong, confident woman, it was really empowering for me.
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