Fenretinide (FEN) is a synthetic retinoid that inhibits obesity and insulin resistance in high-fat diet (HFD)-fed mice and completely prevents 3T3-L1 pre-adipocyte differentiation. The aim of this study was to determine the mechanism(s) of FEN action in 3T3-L1 adipocytes and in mice. We used the 3T3-L1 model of adipogenesis, fully differentiated 3T3-L1 adipocytes and adipose tissue from HFD-induced obese mice to investigate the mechanisms of FEN action. We measured expression of adipogenic and retinoid genes by qPCR and activation of nutrient-signalling pathways by western blotting. Global lipid and metabolite analysis was performed and specific ceramide lipid species measured by liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry. We provide direct evidence that FEN inhibits 3T3-L1 adipogenesis via RA-receptor (RAR)-dependent signaling. However, RARα antagonism did not prevent FEN-induced decreases in lipid levels in mature 3T3-L1 adipocytes, suggesting an RAR-independent mechanism. Lipidomics analysis revealed that FEN increased dihydroceramide lipid species 5- to 16-fold in adipocytes, indicating an inhibition of the final step of ceramide biosynthesis. A similar blockade in adipose tissue from FEN-treated obese mice was associated with a complete normalisation of impaired mitochondrial β-oxidation and tricarboxylic acid cycle flux. The FEN catabolite, 4-oxo-N-(4-hydroxyphenyl)retinamide (4-OXO), also decreased lipid accumulation without affecting adipogenesis. FEN and 4-OXO (but not RA) treatment additionally led to the activation of p38-MAPK, peIF2α and autophagy markers in adipocytes. Overall our data reveals FEN utilises both RAR-dependent and -independent pathways to regulate adipocyte biology, both of which may be required for FEN to prevent obesity and insulin resistance in vivo.