How Melissa Battifarano Climbed the Fashion Ranks to Design for Rihanna's Fenty x Puma Line

Melissa Battifarano's career path in fashion certainly had its twists and turns before she landed at where she is today. Currently, she’s the Design Director for Rihanna's Fenty x Puma line, but past work experiences have taken Battifarano from New York to Boston and around the world, spanning across menswear, womenswear, activewear and the urban market. Getting to her dream job was a result of patience, tenacity and hard work.

Born and raised in New York, Battifarano attended FIT and studied knitwear. Throughout design school, she interned at Tommy Hilfiger, which eventually led to her first job for the brand's menswear department to work on knits and sweaters. At the time, through the late '90s and early aughts, the urban market was very popular, says Battifarano. And after reading a profile on Marc Eckō, founder of Eckō Enterprises and Complex Magazine, in The New York Times, she wrote him a letter — "I actually penned a letter," reiterated Battifarano — to say she was a fan of his brand. A few months later, he hired her as a designer for his fashion line, Eckō Unlimited.

From Eckō, Battifarano went to P. Diddy's Sean John line, which she remembers was a great experience that, in 2004, produced an award for CFDA Menswear Designer of the Year. "We had big budgets and got to travel to Italy, London, Tokyo," she says. "For a young designer, it really skyrocketed my career." But when a market hits its peak, it can often take a nosedive, which is what Battifarano experienced for urban fashion. From there, there were setbacks when it came to finding a new job elsewhere. "I wanted to make a clean-cut trajectory in my career and get into Ralph Lauren or the Gap," she says. "But I couldn't get hired because I was seen as an urban designer." She eventually "took a huge paycut, moved to Boston and worked for Puma" — her first glimpse into the activewear industry.

Fenty x Puma models backstage at New York Fashion Week. Photo: Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

Image: black bridesmaid dresses

Over the next few years, she went on to design women's for Champion and men's for Ralph Lauren, eventually landing at Fila where she started to feel the itch for something new. "I really wanted to leave and be challenged," says Battifarano. Soon enough, she was hired to launch Tory Burch's athleisure line, Tory Sport, in 2015. "I realized I can really change as a men's designer or a women's designer,"she says. "It was a wonderful validation."

It was at Puma where Battifarano's old boss had reached out and mentioned a new opportunity with Rihanna's Fenty x Puma team. After an interview with the pop star, Battifarano was hired to help build the brand for its debut runway show at New York Fashion Week in February. And the hard work has been paying off: Since Rihanna partnered with Puma, the company has experienced a giant boost in sales among its female customers.

The day before Battifarano participated in a recent panel on personal style for The Other Festival in New York, the designer chatted with Fashionista about streetwear's influence on high fashion, the evolution of activewear and the fashion industry's (not-often-spoken-about) gender gap.

How does your designer role at Fenty x Puma differ from activewear brands like Champion and Tory Sport?

You just mentioned three very distinct brands, and I was at two of the three right as they were getting started. So I think working for a company like Champion, it's taking its legacy and reinventing it every season. But you can't stray too far from that because the customer is used to buying what they're used to buying.

When I was at Tory Sport, we were trying to figure out what we wanted to be. More technical? More fashion? What is the customer looking for? We managed to have a 50-50 split to the line. Half of it is performance-wear, and you can tell. You can run a marathon in those clothes. They had bonded seams, quick-dry, top-of-the-line active Italian fabrics. Conversely, it had a fashion component. It was more athleisure. You could wear it to the gym, after the gym. It's weekend-wear, but it still had a technical bend.

With my current position, it's definitely active-inspired fashion. You can work out in several pieces, for sure, but you're thinking of whose name is on the label. It's Rihanna. As the Creative Director of Puma, it's her vision and what she thinks of an active lifestyle. But it's fashion.

Are you seeing activewear influencing high fashion, too?

I had a minute to look at the resort shows and the first thing I looked at was Givenchy. You can't tell me it's not borderline activewear with the taping down the pants. Gucci resort had hoodies and shirts with a large classic logo. It's actually wild to look at. Jonathan Anderson's new collaboration with A$AP Rocky is a whole athleisure thing with tracksuits and graphic logos. The sky's the limit and it's really going to keep growing without any signs of stopping.

Streetwear is also having a huge moment in high fashion. Did you start seeing that catching on?

It changes from year to year, even four years ago. When streetwear started, you'd be talking about Diamond Supply, Prohibit, Mishka and those brands. I don't even know if they're even around anymore. What even is streetwear anymore? Is it Stussy? It's such an overarching term that it's hard to actually define streetwear. Is Public School streetwear? Is Kith streetwear? It's really fashion. It's just fashion.

Menswear is in such an interesting time, too. I was having a conversation with a designer who's very established in the womenswear market and wants to do men's. What does that mean? He has an after-five line, he does women's red carpet and cocktail dresses. He said he can't find clothes he wants to wear. Menswear is very interesting, and I think Public School is doing it really well. Coming from men's, it's cool to see. Nobody gave a shit about menswear before. It's definitely a changing landscape.

When you were working at menswear labels like Sean Jean, Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger. Was it often a male-centric work environment?

I was definitely the only female. I was the only female for a long time. Back in the day, it was a boys club.

See More: turquoise bridesmaid dresses