Rihanna's right-hand man

Jahleel Weaver with Rihanna at the Fashion Awards 2019 in London on Dec 2. The multiple Grammy winner says he is like family and has complete understanding of her vision.
Jahleel Weaver with Rihanna at the Fashion Awards 2019 in London on Dec 2. The multiple Grammy winner says he is like family and has complete understanding of her vision. PHOTO: REUTERS

As deputy creative director of Fenty, Jahleel Weaver helped shape the most talked-about fashion debut of last year

NEW YORK • At 33, Jahleel Weaver has pretty much won the celebrity-stylist lottery.

As deputy creative director of Fenty, a women's ready-to-wear and accessories line introduced by Rihanna last May, his days are spent working alongside the nine-time Grammy winner.

Her clothing brand is backed by LVMH, a French luxury conglomerate, and released to her passionate fans without regard to conventional seasonal rhythms.

Theirs is a close relationship.

"We talk almost every day," Weaver said. "I feel I'm her little brother", although Rihanna is younger, at 31.

"Creatively, he is my right hand," she wrote of Weaver in an e-mail, "but, at the same time, it's as if we're family".

The path that led Weaver to help guide the most talked-about fashion debut of last year, founded by one of the most influential women in popular culture, was a long and gently winding one.

At 18, he moved from suburban Maryland to New York to study fashion design at LIM College.

He helped support himself by working in sales at Jeffrey, a high-end retailer known for its shoe department and customer service.

He met some famous clients and began to style several.

"To be working for and building a brand, I always think about my experience at Jeffrey," said Weaver.

He was also making inroads as a freelance stylist, and it was in one of those gigs that he met Mr Mel Ottenberg, who is now creative director of Interview magazine.

The latter had just begun collaborating with Rihanna on her 2011 Loud tour and brought Weaver on to assist him.

Soon enough, Weaver and Rihanna became inseparable, travelling the globe together. When she decided in 2014 to start umbrella company Fenty Corp, giving it her last name, she asked Weaver to join as a junior creative director.

He was there to help her create beauty line Fenty Beauty, which soon had legacy cosmetics brands scurrying to broaden the colours of foundation on offer; Savage x Fenty, a line of body positiveinspired lingerie; and Cameo, her everything-old-is-new-again jewellery line.

"The most valuable thing Jahleel brings to the process is his complete understanding of my vision," said Rihanna.

Virgil Abloh, founder of cult streetwear-inspired fashion line Off-White and artistic director for menswear at Louis Vuitton (also part of LVMH), said the creative dynamic between Rihanna and Weaver has resulted in "looks that are cemented within popular culture".

Weaver, although he continues to travel extensively, now lives primarily in Paris. He moved there in early 2018 to begin work on Fenty's debut, a fairly stressful undertaking.

"How do you put everything that Rihanna represents into one collection?" he said.

The answer came to the pair late one night in the form of a music metaphor: an album and its release.

Rather than settle on distinct, themed collections shown twice a year, Fenty would drop capsule collections throughout the year, much as singles are released over the course of an album's rollout. This would heighten anticipation and set the brand apart from the grind of the fashion pack.

"Each release can speak to something different" - with inspiration from various aspects of Rihanna's personal style, said Weaver.

"At the end, you have a full album, a full body of work," he added.

Basing Fenty's strategy on online drops was a radical move, jolting the old seasonal schedule with the hectic cadence of fast fashion.

But Fenty has been even more cutting-edge in giving people of colour a place at the top of an industry still plagued by racial inequality and insensitivity.

When Mr Bernard Arnault, chairman of LVMH, announced Fenty, Rihanna became the first woman and person of colour to establish a house with the luxury retail giant.

At a time when high-profile brands continue to be plagued by racist missteps, the significance of Fenty's debut was not lost on Weaver.

"All the barriers that were broken in that one day, with that one announcement," he said. "I actually cried."

Along with Abloh at Louis Vuitton and Olivier Rousteing running Balmain, Rihanna's entry into the field was further evidence to many that change, however overdue, is finally coming to the upper echelons of luxury fashion.

Weaver is feeling optimistic. "Because of people like Ri constantly breaking barriers, it makes it a lot easier to exist in space where representation for people of colour didn't necessarily exist," he said.

And his own place in that space?

"Honestly, I think I'm still pinching myself."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 03, 2020, with the headline 'Rihanna's right-hand man'. Print Edition | Subscribe