Fenty Beauty Exposed—and Helped Remedy—the Makeup Industry’s Lack of Inclusivity

How a celebrity brand shook up the cosmetics business, one shade at a time

Two years ago, model and businesswoman Beverly Johnson wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post looking back on some history she had made 46 years earlier. In August 1974, Johnson became the first Black woman to be featured on the cover of Vogue magazine.

But Johnson was not in a nostalgic mood. The fashion and beauty industry, she noted, had changed little from the exclusionary place it was almost 50 years ago.

“Black culture contributes enormously to the fashion industry,” Johnson wrote. “But Black people are not compensated for it. Brands do not retain and promote the many Black professionals already in the fashion, beauty and media workforce.”

It’s hard to find fault with Johnson’s frustration at the slow pace of change. That, however, makes the singular efforts of another Black woman worth paying attention to. That is Robyn Rihanna Fenty, who found the most effective way to coax beauty brands in the direction of diversity: compete with them.

In 2017, the nine-time Grammy-winning vocalist channeled some of her star power into the creation of Fenty Beauty, a cosmetics brand founded “so that women everywhere would be included,” parent company LVMH quotes Rihanna as saying. She meant it, too. Fenty launched in September 2017 with 40 shades of foundation. (It now has more than 50.)

Given the popularity Rihanna enjoys (she counts 135 million followers on Instagram), it was a given that her makeup venture would turn heads. But according to Sandy Saputo, then-CMO of Kendo Brands, under whose umbrella Fenty Beauty emerged, Rihanna had larger goals.

“Our dream was to create the biggest brand launch in beauty history,” Saputo wrote in an essay for Think With Google. “What resulted is a movement that shifted the beauty industry. You really don’t know it’s happening until it’s happened.”

It all began with a one-minute debut video featuring a multiracial panoply of models including Slick Woods, Leomie Anderson and Halima Aden, the Somali-American who’d made headlines in 2016 by competing in the Miss Minnesota competition wearing a hijab and a burkini.

Then came the Fenty effect. In a single stroke, Rihanna had laid bare the beauty business’ glaring deficiencies when it came to catering to a multitude of skin tones. As Glamour reported in 2018, Fenty Beauty “[has] become canon in the beauty industry and the standard of which makeup brands have been scrambling to match—or outdo.”

Within weeks, establishment brands including Dior, MAC, Maybelline and CoverGirl were filling shelves with a broader range of makeup tones—at times, more than even Fenty Beauty was offering. Rihanna, however, had the advantage of having made the first move, and fans knew it. Rihanna not only uses her own brand—which has recently expanded into skin care—but she also creates tutorials on Instagram to teach others how to use the products.

“My fans can sniff the BS from very far away,” Rihanna once told The New York Times. “I cannot trick them.”

Freaking out in a good way

Fenty Beauty

A brand can’t hope for much better than a slew of consumers singing its praises on social media—and for Fenty Beauty, that’s exactly what happened. But few endorsements proved as affecting as the one posted by Krystal Robertson. As a woman with albinism, the 26-year-old nurse had given up on finding any foundation that worked with her skin tone—at least until she found shade No. 110 of Fenty Beauty’s Pro Filt’r Soft Matte. “@fentybeauty I’m freaking out!!!” Robertson posted on Instagram a few weeks after the brand’s launch. “Rethinking all the times I ended up orange. It’s a great new world. Great job.” Riri shared the post, though she’d begun to grow accustomed to responses like that. “I could never have anticipated the emotional connection that women are having with the products,” she told Time magazine. “Some are finding their shade of foundation for the first time, getting emotional at the counter. That’s something I will never get over.”

Powder puff girl

Fenty Beauty

A big reason Fenty made such a splash is because of Rihanna herself (1). Born in Barbados in 1988, the vocalist found international fame in 2007 when her third album, Good Girls Gone Bad (2), went six-times platinum after the release of the single Umbrella. Launched in 2017, Fenty Beauty debuted with a video that starred Somali model Halima Aden (3) and has since expanded from foundation to a full array of products including makeup brushes (4). Rihanna is her own best product endorser, since she uses Fenty products herself (5).

Adweek magazine cover
Click for more from this issue

This story first appeared in the Sept. 26, 2022, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.