(CNN) -- There's a reason it's called "making a fashion statement" -- and Rihanna's already strong sartorial voice has only grown louder with her fourth album, "Rated R."
At her album release party last week, while her guests were swathed in standard Manhattan black, Rihanna entered her fete in a see-through gold-plated chainmaille dress with so many spikes only the daring would offer a close embrace.
"It was made of very heavy metal mesh, so kudos to her for wearing it!" joked the co-designer of the blingtastic 30-pound frock, Leeora Catalan.
But Rihanna wasn't wearing armor to "Rated R's" release by happenstance -- defensive clothing has practically become a new signature look.
Her fashion has become "very fierce [and] harder-edged," said People magazine style editor Clarissa Cruz. "I can't speak to what she's feeling personally, but visually she's communicating the message that she's a strong woman."
The singer worked closely with Catalan and celebrity design team The Blonds to create the sheath of gold spikes and rhinestones, and it's not the first time she's been drawn to the outlandishly aggressive. From the spiky rings she's worn (by Catalan's Noir jewelry line) to the barbed wire she wound around herself for her album cover, Rihanna's been taking the concept of "edge" quite literally in the aftermath of the personal hailstorm brought on by Chris Brown's assault in February, 2009.
"As rough as that experience was for her, it probably was empowering," said fashion expert and celebrity stylist Phillip Bloch.
The artist, in fact, proclaimed exactly that when she sat down with Diane Sawyer on "Good Morning America" in early November. She still considers herself to be the picture of strength she'd begun painting before rumors of a Chris Brown-Rihanna coupling even existed, regardless of what others may think of domestic violence victims.
"You'd think she'd come out and be daisies and sunshine, but her style is very 'I am woman, hear me roar,' " Bloch said.
It was her combination of femininity and strength that Catalan and the design team found so inspiring.
"She's very directional and unconventional -- we all look at the fashion blogs to see what she's wearing," Catalan said. "She's had a tough year, [but] she's a survivor. She's coming out and experimenting."
Whether those experiments have been successful or not are debatable. In the past six months, Rihanna has tried everything from thigh-high boots with garters peaking out at the top to blazers with silver pasties covering her nipples, confounding even armchair-cum-professional wardrobe critics The Fug Girls, who often ask of Rihanna's concoctions, "is it fug or fab?"
Which, of course, is the first sign of a true trendsetter, Cruz said.
"People are continuously fascinated by her," Cruz said. "She pushes the envelope and that's always so fun to watch; it keeps the conversation interesting."
That's exactly what makes the 21-year-old a young woman well on her way to being a fashion icon, spikes, thigh-highs and all.
"Being best-dressed isn't about looking great all the time, it's about being an influencer," Cruz said. "I think she's definitely an influencer because the stuff she wears, it's constantly interesting."
Rihanna hasn't always been this brave.
When she was just a teenager in 2005, sweetly singing to a DJ about turning the music up on "Pon de Replay," her fashion sense screamed "crossover appeal."
Then, with her second album, "A Girl like Me," she and her advisers "went for this 'I'm sexy' thing," Bloch said, which again made the singer just one of many pop starlets. "I think they realized, 'Why do we have to be the same?' So she went into an edgier direction."
Edgy in the pop world translates into sexy goth. The haircut -- the one that was inescapable for more than a year after Rihanna was seen sporting an asymmetrical, jet black bob in 2007 -- took the star from "whatshername" to "the one to watch."
Rihanna's style evolution has likely been so engrossing because it's not only the complete opposite of the saccharine and safe clothes she wore while promoting her first two albums, but because it's so rare to see an R&B artist cross over to the dark side.
"Really, I think she will eventually be a fashion icon because she's doing something different from everyone else. There's just no R&B chick that's doing the same thing, " Bloch said.
"She filled a gap -- a black girl with a rock and roll, tough girl edge. Nobody's inventing anything right now -- they're reinventing and putting a spin on it," he added. "You've had a lot of white girls who have dove into the R&B world, but there haven't been a lot of black girls who have been able to dive into the rock world, and there is that side to some people and there's that audience there."
But Rihanna is now entering some noticeably rocky territory, and it's unclear whether or not her audience will follow. The questionable American Music Awards costume is one example, and then there's suggestive, borderline explicit imagery in her just-released "Rated R" album cover.
In one photo, Rihanna wears nothing but a pair of panties, garter belt and stockings; in another, it's a top hat and a body-length "censorship" sign to cover her assets.
Racy -- but ultimately interesting, Cruz said.
"At this point, Rihanna has transcended those labels of hits and misses," she said. "People have different expectations for her based on her look -- they know that she's going to push the envelope and that's what keeps people interested."