Rihanna at River Island: celebrity cash-in or birth of a new designer?

The R&B star's controversial deal with River Island makes her the latest celebrity to cross over into fashion design

Celebrity collaborations in the world of fashion are nothing new. But what is remarkable about River Island's new collection at London fashion week, created by the pop star Rihanna, is that the affordable high street store managed to secure the design consultancy of music's current enfant terrible.

As if to underline the risk involved, Rihanna gave her new partners a major headache last week by tweeting pics on Valentine's Day of what appeared to be a flower-shaped cannabis bud and wrote: "Roses are green! Somebody knows how to make me happy." Her £800,000 contract with the clothes chain was in jeopardy more quickly than you could say Instagram.

It was not the publicity River Island wanted before the launch and words were exchanged. Should her new bosses stick with her, though, it could be the watershed moment for a chain that has been trailing behind – at least in the fashionable stakes – Topshop, Asos, Primark and Zara as a destination for cost-conscious consumers. As one of Britain's largest privately owned retailers, River Island's sales have held steady around the £800m mark, but they have not enjoyed the kudos of their competitors.

Philip Green turned Topshop around by bringing in up-and-coming London fashion week designers to create diffusion lines, then launched a collection by Kate Moss. He delivered another cash cow to his Dorothy Perkins business last year when he signed Kim, Kourtney and Khloe Kardashian to lend their signature leopardprint-and-leather look to a new "Kollection". As tens of thousands of fans clamoured to get their hands on the reality TV stars' style, every other high-street fashion chief was charged with securing a famous face to front a collection.

River Island came up trumps when it signed the Barbadian singer. It might not have been an obvious choice, but only Beyoncé is bigger and Rihanna's wild design style – it veers between eccentric quirkiness, avant-garde fashionista, steely dominatrix and classical elegance (check out that Scarlett O'Hara number she wore to the Grammys last weekend) – appeals to a generation beleaguered by their very own identity crisis.

Importantly, Rihanna wants to design. In 2010, she created a capsule collection for Giorgio Armani and was praised by the Italian designer for her efforts. "Rihanna is a great artist," he said in May last year, after creating her second range of T-shirts, denim pieces, leather jackets, underwear and bags. "She has personality, charisma and energy, and has been a pleasure to work with. She captures the young and contemporary essence of Armani Jeans perfectly."

But is she going to cut it as a bona fide designer? The industry is notoriously sceptical about the idea of untrained designers putting their clothes on the catwalk – especially those who appear just to be cashing in on their name. When Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, the American twins raised as child TV stars, announced they were planning to launch a label, the style cognoscenti laughed into their Celine handbags. Since launching The Row in 2006, the pair have earned their catwalk colours and last year the Council of Fashion Designers of America named the sisters Womenswear Designers of the Year. Similarly, it has taken Victoria Beckham nine years to transform herself from Posh Spice to Designer Spice, starting by co-designing a range for denim label Rock and Republic, then launching her critically acclaimed collection of body-con dresses in 2008. In 2011, she won Designer Brand of the Year at the British Fashion Awards and today fashion editors fawn over the former Wag and her £1,000 frocks.

Can Rihanna do the same? Her London fashion week show saw models posed on a set that consisted of six nightclub podiums. They wore a series of outfits in the style of the singer: slashed to the thigh jersey dresses, midriff-revealing tops, big hoop earrings and baseball caps that are sure to be a hit with River Island customers.

Model of the moment Cara Delevingne in cutoff denim hot pants and over-the-knee leather boots sat front row with model friend Jourdan Dunn, both whooping with delight throughout. Rihanna took her bow in a black jersey minidress with her stylist, Mel Ottenberg. Earlier, the singer said her designs would have broad appeal: "The theme throughout this collection was easy, laid-back chic. Flirty, not very conservative, but I think everyone can wear this line. It's not costume-y, not too sexy, it's just very simple."

But for keen fashion enthusiasts who look to London for innovative ideas this 120-piece collection undoubtedly fell short. There is little doubt the collaboration, which is supported by a marketing campaign featuring Dunn, will be a winner when it hits the shops next month. Whether it is the start of a new career for Ri-Ri remains to be seen. Her Twitter feed will perhaps have a few River Island executives now following her to see if it's a duet that can last.


Karen Kay and Helen Seamons

The GuardianTramp

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