Behind the Cover: Rihanna takes control for Vogue Italia’s DIY issue

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Rihanna by Rihanna — the Do It Yourself Issue © Vogue Italia June 2021. Editor-in-Chief: Emanuele Farneti. Creative Director: Ferdinando Verderi. Casting Directors: Piergiorgio Del Moro & Samuel Ellis Scheinman. Project Direction: Rihanna & Jahleel Weaver.

Operating as muse, stylist and photographer, the publication’s latest cover is entirely Rihanna’s own work. Vogue Italia’s Creative Director, Ferdinando Verderi, reflects on letting the artist take the reins

In the creative process, the act of withdrawing is rarely celebrated. Yet sometimes, a perfect partnership is about letting go. 

For Ferdinando Verderi, Creative Director of Vogue Italia, collaboration is about “exchange”. A self-proclaimed fashion “challenger”, his two-year whirlwind with the publication – the first magazine he has worked with – has proved a playful circus of risk and unpredictability. Take the blank white cover of April 2020; a statement to the fallibility of images during times of trauma. Or the entirely illustrated ‘Ecology’ issue, proudly pronouncing that “no photoshoot production was required in the making of this issue.” Masterfully diverse in form and function, his covers are underpinned by a curiosity to prove certain expectations wrong; to subvert the status quo. 

The latest ‘expectation’ Verderi set out to challenge? That of who it takes to create a Vogue cover. In this case: Rihanna. Operating as stylist, muse, project director and photographer, the June cover – shot over the course of a single day in an LA studio – is her voice, vision, and hand; unadulterated. With a cover line reading “Rihanna by Rihanna”, she wears a tantalising Valentino dress and thigh-high lace-up heels: one of several looks she curated for herself. But Verderi wasn’t quite a mere bystander, either.

Handmade by Ferdinando Verderi © Vogue Italia June 2021.

“It’s not easy for an image to speak loudly. There is always a tendency to add. But it takes confidence to remove”

‘Do It Yourself’ is an issue Verderi has been vying for since day one. You don’t need to look far to detect early signs of the idea, each of his covers layered, as they are, with his signature handmade ‘sculptures’. Each month, he sources physical materials that are consistent with the theme of the issue, hand-assembling and photographing them before overlaying them on the page: each one a riff on the preciousness of the handmade in the digital era. 

Yet for the latest issue, the pandemic charged Verderi’s agenda with even greater poignancy. “Things done by one’s own hand became even more relevant as a form of liberation”, he reflects. “Covid taught us to do things ourselves.” Accordingly, the issue sees its ‘DIY’ subtitle not displayed in typeface, but through a whimsical amalgamation of paper clips, twigs, plant stems and thread; a “direct and immediate” marker of Verderi’s hand, drawing a clear line between Rihanna’s work and his own.

As for Rihanna’s work, Verderi recounts his delight at witnessing the artist thrive at each stage of production, from drawing up character studies to embracing the logistics and complexities of a real photoshoot — all the while, deftly dodging overcomplication. “It’s not easy for an image to speak loudly,” Verderi observes. “There is always a tendency to add. But it takes confidence to remove.” 

Rihanna by Rihanna — the Do It Yourself Issue © Vogue Italia June 2021. Editor-in-Chief: Emanuele Farneti. Creative Director: Ferdinando Verderi. Casting Directors: Piergiorgio Del Moro & Samuel Ellis Scheinman. Project Direction: Rihanna & Jahleel Weaver.

While it may seem unnatural for a Creative Director to delegate so much, ultimately, Verderi’s true contribution to the shoot was creating space for Rihanna’s authority.  “It’s very easy to speak of creative freedom,” he says, “but for me the idea has always been about actions rather than intentions.” Where he admits to perfectionism, it is a perfectionism to seeing out the vision. There is no corner cutting. In his words: “You cannot cheat, or the whole purpose falls apart.” 

Should Verderi’s side-stepping of convention be seen as a slight on the craft of photography? He assures not. “There are so many layers to photography that defining it as one thing is so limiting,” he says. “I am itching to transform the conversation; to find a new relevance for photography… Or at least my perception of it.”

Indeed, amongst his weighty ambitions, Verderi’s approach is refreshingly self-aware, humble, and – in the truest sense of the word – collaborative. Rihanna’s ‘Do It Yourself’ cover is more than an experiment to prove a style icon as an image maker. It is more than the scratching of an itch between two star-crossed creatives making the best of a pandemic. Rather, Verderi’s role as self-proclaimed ‘Guardian of the Freedom’ is proof of the power of integrity, respect, and trust. It is about forging the slipstream for another’s success. And ultimately, about the power of restraint. 

Louise Long

Louise Long is a London-based photographer and writer with a focus on culture and travel. Her work has been published in Wallpaper*, CEREAL, British Vogue and Conde Nast Traveller amongst others. She is also the founder of Linseed Journal, an independent publication exploring culture and local identity.