Tuesday 20 August 2019

Change is afoot at Victoria's Secret but does sex still sell?

Modern Life

Transgender Victoria’s Secret model Valentina Sampaio
Transgender Victoria’s Secret model Valentina Sampaio
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

It looks like things are finally getting a shake-up at Victoria's Secret. Last week the lingerie giant hired Valentina Sampaio, their first transgender model. A few days later, it emerged that their CMO Edward Razek - the man who said the brand would never hire a "transsexual" model - was leaving the company.

Business pundits and consumers alike have long argued that Victoria's Secret is in dire need of a makeover. Now it seems the beleaguered brand is starting to listen.

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Execs at the company are said to be "rethinking" their annual fashion show, which hopefully means that we'll never again be subjected to a Mardi Gras of shiny limbs, rictus smiles and flagrant fire hazards.

But still, the question remains: will the company continue to peddle their airbrushed, push-it-up and suck-it-in brand of seduction, or will they realise that sex - or at least their version of sex - no longer sells?

Diversity, inclusion and authenticity are the new watchwords in advertising, and though these efforts can sometimes seem a little disingenuous, they make Victoria's Secret - a company that sells the 'Very Sexy Honeycomb Cheeky Panty' - seem anachronistic by comparison.

Take the Pirelli calendar, once known for its arty black-and-whites of half-naked supermodels. They changed tack back in 2016 when they featured a much more relatable line-up of women, including Amy Schumer, who proudly showed off her tummy rolls, and Serena Williams, who was the picture of strength rather than perfection.Wonderbra followed suit in 2018 when they gave their infamous 'Hello Boys' billboard campaign a post-#MeToo update. The new version, designed to celebrate female empowerment, read 'Hello Me!'.

Meanwhile, next-generation lingerie brands like ThirdLove, Aerie and Rihanna's Savage x Fenty are representing women of every shape and size - and moving away from the homogenised Victoria's Secret look of big hair, teeny-tiny waists and towering heels that tilt the body into extreme lordosis.

People who make a study of these things argue that we are in the process of redefining what sexy means. And while that's a nice idea, it doesn't take into account a much larger cultural shift that's occurring.

Yes, we're moving into an era of increased diversity and authenticity - of cellulite, stretch marks, lumps and bumps - but we're also moving out of an era of hypersexualisation.

And while it's tempting to link this shift to the forward march of feminism and the toppling of the patriarchy, the truth is that Sexy Inc has simply reached market saturation on the trend life cycle.

There was a time when a flash of cleavage on the red carpet could cause a commotion. These days, Liz Hurley's iconic Versace dress looks quint in comparison to the see-through body-stockings that we've seen celebrities wear to premieres.

Big Brother sex scenes used to be water-cooler conversation. Now we fully expect Love Island contestants to get frisky in front of the cameras - and we feel slightly cheated when they don't.

Of course we're sick of seeing the objectification of women - and men - in advertising, but we're jaded too. We've been bombarded by so much near-nudity that we've become desensitised to it. Kim Kardashian's arse? Been there, done that. Emily Ratajkowski in the nude? Seen it all before.

Sure, we can redefine sexy all we like, but that's to assume it still has currency, as Claudia Winkleman brilliantly pointed out when a journalist asked her what outfit she puts on when she's feeling "dowdy" and "unsexy".

"Nothing," she answered. "I love feeling unsexy."

Access is another issue. Teenagers of yesteryear might remember looking at the bra section of their mother's fashion catalogues for a cheap thrill. This generation are one click away from a pornucopia of explicit content.

Generation X typed 'BOOBS' into their calculators when they were bored in school; Generation Y send nudes on their smartphones.

The days when brands could trigger arousal - and consumer engagement - with little more than a string bikini are long over. It doesn't wash any more. More than that, it doesn't work.

Irish Independent

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