Last month, while the city was awash with runway walks during New York Fashion Week, perhaps no show received as much media frenzy as Savage x Fenty, Rihanna’s eponymous lingerie brand. With set design by Willo Perron in Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, the show was more Super Bowl half-time show than fashion show. It featured everything from performances by Migos, DJ Khaled, 21 Savage, and celebrity-models Bella Hadid and Laverne Cox, to big choreographed dance numbers. Among the lingerie-clad, star-studded runway was an instantly recognizable architectural reference: Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, a monumental relic of Italian Fascist architecture. Swaying models appeared in the grid of classical arched windows, almost identical to the original building’s, posing in Savage x Fenty lingerie.
The iconic travertine building, a modernist take on the Colosseum, was built under Mussolini in 1943 in Rome’s EUR district for the ill-fated 1942 world fair. According to WWD, the Moroccan setting of Savage’s campaign shoot was supposedly the main driver of Perron’s set design, which doesn’t explain much about the unexpected Italian references. The connection, however, isn’t necessarily an arbitrary one; Philippa Price, creative director of the Savage x Fenty show and longtime Rihanna collaborator, has cited Bob Fosse as a major inspiration in designing past Rihanna performances. Fosse was well known for using Greco-Roman imagery, such as classical statues and antiquated fluted pillars, Sweet Charity (it’s also no coincidence that the musical was based on a Fellini film).
This isn’t the first time the Palazzo has captured the imagination of the fashion world. The building is currently occupied by the luxury fashion house Fendi, whose move there was not met without criticism. “The architecture his regime commissioned propounds a notion of ‘good taste’ that is deeply similar to that of the fashion industry,” wrote Owen Hatherley in The Architectural Review, “shamelessly elitist, wilfully sinister, hierarchical, Classical, its apparent minimalism belied by an obsession with the finest possible material and the severest cut.” In contrast, Rihanna has largely built Savage x Fenty on its vision of inclusivity and diversity, which has landed it much praise and branded it as the self-described antithesis of the Victoria’s Secret Show.