Thursday 19 September 2019

Sophie Donaldson: 'Sorry, but this is the sort of secret we don't want to share'

In the age of #MeToo, time is running out for the outdated Victoria's Secret parade of flesh, writes Sophie Donaldson

PROBLEMS: Model Bella Hadid, left, with singer Halsey during last month’s Victoria’s Secret fashion show. Photo: Evan Agostini
PROBLEMS: Model Bella Hadid, left, with singer Halsey during last month’s Victoria’s Secret fashion show. Photo: Evan Agostini
Sophie Donaldson

Sophie Donaldson

My, what a difference a year makes. Just last November, #MeToo was still only a trending hashtag that, in all likelihood, would fade into internet obscurity with all the other viral slogans that came before it. Harvey Weinstein had not yet been joined by the likes of Kevin Spacey, Philip Green, Morgan Freeman, Michael Douglas and Louis CK, forming a line-up of powerful men accused of abuse, harassment or intimidation.

If #MeToo was explosive, then this time last year we were still picking through the rubble. Now, the smoke has well and truly cleared.

It's not just powerful men that have been dismantled. Popular culture, too, is being re-examined through this new lens and found to be wanting. Previously celebrated pop culture stalwarts, like the television programmes Friends and The Simpsons, and the Christmas song Baby, It's Cold Outside, are now considered discriminatory, degrading or simply outdated in these current social mores.

And so, it was only a matter of time - a year, to be precise - until the panting, thong-wearing, robo-pleasure-army that is the Victoria's Secret fashion parade met its reckoning, as last week's headlines made clear.

''The colour of Victoria's Secret's failure is pink,'' said Slate Magazine. Bloomberg thinks ''Victoria's Secret needs to break out of its sexpot rut'', while The Washington Post opines that ''the Victoria's Secret fashion show is too boring to even argue about''. New York magazine's The Cut has simply declared that ''the Victoria's Secret fashion show is dead''.

Despite our new-found wokeness, we didn't arrive at this conclusion ourselves. We were helped along by an interview given by Ed Razek, the chief marketing officer of parent company L Brands, to Vogue in November, in which he said that he didn't think that "transsexuals" should be cast in the show because the televised spectacular is a "fantasy".

He has since apologised but his comments couldn't have been made at a more inopportune time. This attitude is not just out of touch, it's nearly as anachronistic as a parade of women in their underwear blowing kisses and pouting at the camera.

The show has also come under fire for its refusal to feature plus-size models, a position further compounded by the fact that the models it does cast are eerily similar-looking, all taut limbs, long, curly hair and dewy make-up.

The show itself is a dizzying spectacle in which models parade up and down the catwalk, wearing heavy costume wings and tiny knickers, while famous pop stars canter alongside them.

Since Razek's Vogue interview, speculation has been rife that Victoria's Secret is in trouble. Last week, that was confirmed with the news that the televised show, which aired last Sunday but was filmed in early November, suffered its lowest ever ratings. Just 3.3 million people tuned in compared to 10 million in 2011. After the show aired, singer Halsey, who was one of the performers, publicly denounced the company's "lack of inclusivity". She revealed she had made a sizable donation to LGBT organisation GLSEN and made a further swipe at Razek, saying that "acceptance is the only 'fantasy' I support".

Razek, alone, has not spelt the lingerie giant's demise - The Economist reports it has around a tenth of the global lingerie market, worth $78bn - but he has certainly reinforced a suspicion that Victoria's Secret has only ever championed a very unattainable standard of beauty.

As Razek excitedly said to Vogue, the Victoria's Secret USP is... well, Victoria's Secret. According to him, their best-selling bra is a style that is branded with the logo multiple times.

"Now tell me how it's possible that that bra would be the number one most popular bra in the marketplace if people didn't like the brand?" he said.

But what happens when the thing you relied on to sell your brand is no longer something we want to buy into?

Perhaps the real problem is that Victoria's Secret doesn't do one thing particularly well. The underwear, with unnecessary extra straps, scratchy synthetic fabric and underwire bras, is not comfortable, nor is it the type of lingerie that would appeal to women who genuinely like slipping into a lace-trimmed slip or silk knickers.

It is not luxury, but not particularly cheap, either. For a lingerie brand, it's certainly not sexy. It has perpetuated a girlish, not womanly, aesthetic that is infantilised thanks to a preoccupation with pink, sparkles and cutesy slogans.

Victoria's Secret bills itself as sexy while marketing itself to teenagers, modelled by women so slim they probably don't even need to wear a bra.

It's confusing, and perhaps best summed up by their festive campaign imagery: the ''Angels'', women mostly in their late 20s, look as though they are at a slumber party. One model wears both a woolly tartan scarf and strappy black bra, while another is in fleece pyjama bottoms and diamante encrusted bralette.

The Observer took a different tack last week, with the headline "Victoria's Secret gets ready for a makeover". If Razek's interview is any indication, Victoria's Secret has little interest in re-evaluating its brand. If anything, it could do with a make-under; less sparkle, less saccharine and less damaging stereotypes, please.

Sunday Independent

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