Rated R and Beyond: Interview with Creative Director Simon Henwood

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MuuMuse: From the jagged, metallic logo to the last seconds of the Last Girl on Earth Tour, Simon Henwood has been the crucial creative force behind one of the most dramatic artistic reinventions in recent pop history: Rihanna‘s Rated R campaign. Back in the fall of 2009, a gritty, static viral video for “Wait Your Turn” teased its way onto the singer’s official website. The clip showcased the formerly sunny Barbadian pop princess now looking murderously serious in all black; her long hair slicked back beneath a hood and over-sized sunglasses.
With the release of the devastating lead ballad “Russian Roulette” days later, it became clear: Gone was the sun soaked, island-infused energy of Music Of The Sun and A Girl Like Me. Instead, Rated R ushered in a chilly new era of sound, colored (or rather, darkened) by the ominous imagery of sharp metal, broken glass, dismembered mannequins and guns.
To execute this new image, Rihanna worked with Simon Henwood, the creative director responsible for such productions as Kanye West‘s Glow In The Dark Tour and the gorgeous video for the rapper’s “Love Lockdown,” Imogen Heap‘s video for “Headlock,” and the bulk of Róisín Murphy‘s visual output over the past decade. (Fitting, especially given that the two recently welcomed a child together.)
Henwood and Rihanna worked together closely throughout the entire Rated R era, evolving and finessing the entertainer’s dramatic change of style into a sophisticated neo-rock ‘n’ roll noir. Now, that transformation is about to be put on public display with the release of Rihanna, the long delayed photo-book that promises to guide fans through the entire Rated R creative journey from start to finish.
A few days ago, Henwood was kind enough to answer a few lingering questions that remained from Rihanna’s last campaign. The creative director provided a few small glimpses into the process throughout, as well as a better idea of his vision as an artist (plus a brilliantly subtle wipe at Madame Gaga).

Hi Simon–thank you so much for taking time out of your schedule to answer these questions for me. I’ve been a massive supporter and fan of the Rated R campaign from the very beginning, and the fact that I’m finally speaking to the person largely in charge of the visual campaign is something that excites me to no end. Just to get a little background: When did you first speak to her?

I first met Rihanna when she was supporting Kanye West on his Glow In The Dark Tour, which I directed. I think about a year after I met up with her in London when she was recording the album we started talking and throwing ideas around.

Did you meet with her often to discuss visuals/creative?

We spent a lot of time developing ideas, yes. We went to Paris for Fashion Week, met with designers, sat and made drawings/designs together for the photo shoot/costume pieces, etc.

How much input did she have into the visual campaign for the album? She surely seemed to embrace the new image!

She is great to work with because she has a clear and instant instinct for things. I’d show her some options–say on the logo design–and she would know about what she wanted…she has a good eye.

What exactly is this new book (Rihanna) all about? Does it feature visuals from the campaign, or is it more of a behind-the-scenes look?

The idea of the book was to show the journey of the campaign. Not a diary as such, but a picture book of everything that happens when you’re building a project like this, so things people had not seen of her. I spent I guess…months with her…in cars, fashion shows, on set, hotel rooms, etc. It’s a journey from the initial design of the logo and concept of the album right up to her first headline world tour. The book ends with pictures I took of the first concerts.

I’d love to learn about the creative process you went through in order to come up with the final look of the campaign. Did you draw from your conversations with Rihanna and then brainstorm? Did you let the music inspire you, or did you flip back to movies/art/pop culture to find inspiration first?

The idea came from a book and a film. The Omega Man (film) and The Lathe of Heaven (book). We wanted to create her a world that was personal and, if you like, separate from everything else around her. It was a very personal album. Very different from previous records. The whole thing was a dark dream; a chance for her to express all these things without being specific/literal.

In the past, I have lovingly referred to Rihanna as “Rihannoir” during the Rated R period because of the dark, moody noir-like feel of the campaign. What specific images or visuals did you and Rihanna draw on as influence in creating this campaign’s aesthetic?

My references are always dark (LOL.) I always look at someone’s work and try to find the twisted truth. I think because what she had been through recently before she was open to playing with this. I got to do some pretty dark stuff with tour visuals, which for an artist of her status is rare.

I also couldn’t help but draw parallels to Grace Jones after seeing some of Rihanna’s performances. Do either you or Rihanna draw upon any musical artists for influence in her style and performance?

Well, Grace is fantastic of course. A completely different kind of artist, but a role model for her sense of style. Rihanna has a very natural performance style. She’s not so orchestrated in her approach. She is more relaxed. More about keeping her real self in the mix–not creating a character, I guess.

I truly believe that Rihanna is one of the best dressed artists of the moment (aside from Róisín, obviously!). The spikes, the sharp cuts, the incredible heels…everything she wears is beyond cutting-edge, and she always pulls it off as effortlessly as if she were wearing a t-shirt and jeans! What did you look for in selecting costumes for both the videos and the stage?

She has to have all the credit. I have introduced her to several designers, such as Alexandre Vauthier (Paris designer who dressed her for the album, videos, and TV performances) but she is all over her fashion. I was told recently that she is the second biggest customer of Barney’s in NYC. She’s a shopper and has a pin point eye.

Were there any fashion designers that proved particularly well-suited to delivering clothing that fit the Rated R aesthetic?

Yes, Alexandre Vauthier (as mentioned.) He worked on the opening LED dress for the tour with me. He is a fantastic designer and a wonderful person. He only works with with people that fit into his world. When it comes down to it, a designer wants the person that is wearing their work to bring it to life, not to use it like a “costume”…[which is] why he didn’t dress Gaga.

Does Rihanna have much of a say in her styling process for the videos/stage costumes?

She has total say, of course. We talked through the concept. It’s all very simple in a way once you have a plan. You just refine things as the project develops.

Now that the Last Girl on Earth Tour is over, we can talk about some of the components from the concert without worrying about spoiler alerts. What was some of favorite segments from the tour?

I love the opening of the show–the reveal with the LED dress (“Russian Roulette”). And “Disturbia.” All the dark stuff (LOL). I think I made almost a feature film’s worth of visuals for the concert in 6 weeks. I had amazing animators working on it (people I have worked with for many years). There are so many people involved in this kind of project, and the biggest challenge is to keep everyone excited and focused to do their best work.

Is there anything you would have changed in the execution of some of your ideas? Did everything translate on stage as you’d hoped?

Of course. So many things, but you have so many other things to consider. I can have a great idea on paper, but it might not work in terms of touring. Does the stage piece fit on a truck? How long will it take to built each night? You can dream, but it’s a touring show, so it has to work in that world.

Will the tour’s visuals be released in some capacity? On a DVD or perhaps on your website?

Don’t know.

Rihanna’s look also seems to have evolved as the tour went on, now transitioning into the “Only Girl”/LOUD era of her career. Were you involved in this transition in style? I know that the theme seems to fit in line with the “Last Girl on Earth” theme of the tour, which was based on elements from The Omega Man.

The new campaign is much more straightforward. It’s a less concept driven album…more back to basics, I guess.

What projects lie ahead for you?

I have three big painting shows ahead of me, a project with Diesel for the launch of their new flagship store in Tokyo (November), and I also just launched a publishing company, so I’m putting out some interesting books.

Well, thank you so much for this, Simon! I really love being able to delve into the creative process of an artist’s campaign. Please send my love and warm wishes to Róisín and Clodagh!

Rihanna’s Rated R was released in November of 2009. Her new album, LOUD, will be released on November 16. (iTunes) Rihanna will be released on October 26. (Amazon).

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I am a fan since 2005, a stan since 2007. She is empowering, daring, fearless and anything anyone always dreams to be in their lives. She also makes amazing music and never fails to surprise her fans.

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