Puma, the German sportswear company owned by the Kering group, announced that it was appointing a new creative director for its women’s collections: the pop star and “fashion icon” Rihanna. She was also named “global ambassador.”
It was something of a surprising decision. Rihanna, after all, while known for her athletic performances, is not exactly an elite athlete in the mold of, say, the sprinter Usain Bolt, perhaps Puma’s most famous “ambassador.” And the last time Puma had a name creative director, it was Hussein Chalayan (2008-12), who was known more for his intellectual fashion cred than his mass culture resonance.
Plus, ambassadors and creative directors are generally considered different roles: the one being a public facing celebrity endorsement, the latter being an in-the-studio, hands-on direction. They require somewhat different skill sets.
Though the hip hop star Drake, for example, works with the Toronto Raptors, he does not make their uniforms; ditto Jay Z and the Brooklyn Nets.
In any case, coming as it did on the back of market rumors reported by Bloomberg that Kering was exploring a sale of Puma, which has been in the midst of a restructuring and struggles behind much larger rivals Nike and Adidas, the appointment could look, as Luca Solca, luxury analyst at Exane BNP Paribas, told me in an email, “like a pure marketing ploy.”
Certainly Twitter had a bit of a freakout, which ranged from great excitement:
OMG YES!! RIHANNA WAS SIGNED AS BRAND AMBASSADOR, CAMPAIGN STAR AND CREATIVE DIRECTOR FOR PUMA!!!!! @rihanna— ☈izzle. (@radhlinden) December 16, 2014
Depressingly predictable RT @mariododovski: So many talented designers..they get Rihanna, welcome to..attention seeking @PUMA HT @VVFriedman— Yvonne Courtney (@yvonne_courtney) December 16, 2014
To try and understand exactly what the brand was thinking, I called its global brand and marketing director. Here’s what he said:
1. The design job was Rihanna’s idea.
“It really came from her,” Mr. Petrick said. “Though we originally started talking about it in terms of advertising, she wanted to express herself in this way. They said to us, ‘We can change the face of the brand from a product perspective.’ ” She did not just want to be a “face.”
Though Puma did not demand full exclusivity in terms of Rihanna’s performance or red carpet wardrobe, “she will wear Puma exclusively for sportswear and streetwear.” And sneakers, of course.
2. The woman’s athletic space is very fractured, and it’s hard to find one name that resonates globally.
“We were looking for someone who draws women the World ...(Continued on next page) over, and that is hard to find in sports,” Mr. Petrick said. “Women’s basketball is big in one country but not another, for example. But in terms of body confidence, bravery and determination — all qualities associated with Puma — it was clear Rihanna met the criteria. She’s a game-changer.” Pun absolutely intended, I would expect.
Also, it is true, Mr. Petrick said, that many internationally known female athletes were already locked up by Puma’s rivals. (Though Puma does work with professional athletes like the Brazilian soccer player Marta, the golfer Lexi Thompson and the Jamaican hurdler Ristananna Tracey.)
3. They were not worried that she lacked an official design or, say, Olympic, experience.
“Rihanna will bring creative direction, which is not necessarily about the intricacies of design — we have that with our design team, as well as the production know-how — but more about the concept, ideas, overall direction,” Mr. Petrick said.
As for the sports question: “We are about being the best you, not just the best in the world,” he said.
Of course, she does have stadium experience. And there was that three-collection stint designing for the British brand River Island last year, though that was met with mixed reviews. The Daily Beast called the debut a “horror show,” though New York magazine said, “While it didn’t disappoint, it also didn’t prove quite as exciting as it could have been.”
4. They were not worried about potential controversy.
Or, say, a “naked” athletic outfit like the sheer dress Rihanna wore to the Council of Fashion Designers of America awards.
“Rihanna has a fantastically consistent track record,” Mr. Petrick said. “She has been at the top of her game a long time. And I can say from personal experience she has a desire to improve and that is what we are about.”
Besides, he said: “We want to push limits. We are going to have some really unique pieces in the line.”
5. Puma is committed to this space.
The deal with Rihanna is a multiyear contract. “We’re very bullish about the women’s training business, and investing heavily in the area,” said Mr. Petrick, who nevertheless could not specify the division of sales between men’s wear and women’s wear.
“It’s not 50/50, but it’s not 80/20 either,” he said. “It’s somewhere in between. The problem is, many people buy pieces on a unisex basis.”
In any case, Rihanna is going to work across categories from women’s training to “athleisure.” The price points will be varied, and begin at the accessible end. The idea is to get mass. How big do they think this can be for Puma? “Huge.”
6. Those for-sale rumors.
“We do not comment on market rumors.”