Sultans of bling in the firing line
With an Irish flagship due to open next month, is Victoria's Secret's message about women empowering or just outdated, ask Caroline Leaper and Bethan Holt
The Victoria's Secret show has never exactly been a paragon of empowered womanhood, given that its premise is honed and preened models prancing down a catwalk in skimpy, jewelled lingerie for the pleasure of male viewers or to act as 'role models' for the women watching.
But this year's show - held in Shanghai earlier today - comes in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal. In recent weeks, fashion, film and politics have been rocked by allegations of sexual abuse and harassment. The #MeToo movement of women sharing their experiences has created a shift in mood which meant that all the usual arguments trotted out by the Victoria's Secret crew - namely that it actually is empowering to the women involved - looked rather flimsy.
For the show's producers, there was never any question that the event wouldn't continue in its typical provocative style. It's true there have been no abuse allegations linked to Victoria's Secret or anyone associated with it. Yet the culture and messaging of its blingtastic blockbusters (and the new flagship store set to open on Dublin's Grafton St next month) still sits uneasily with late 2017 sensibilities.
The shows - described by one critic who watched the 2015 London event through gritted teeth as "mid-America mall taste" - have only increased in scale, budget and volumes of glitter since they began in 1995. The Victoria's Secret argument for this is they are portraying women as confident and in control. Maybe, but if they're mainly confident about their conventionally sexy bodies (there are no plus-size models cast in the show) what exactly are they in control of? Their much vaunted VS exercise and 'clean-eating' regimes? Of a career that's entirely balanced on the not always predictable fluctuations of their looks and the casting directors at VS? It is not exactly a nuanced, complex, rich message about women. Rather it's as mono-focussed as a 1950s beauty pageant.
This year's show was intended as a celebration of Victoria's Secret's entrance to the Chinese market, staged in Shanghai's Mercedes Benz Arena in front of an audience of 3,000. Brazilian model Lais Ribeiro wore the $2m Champagne Nights Fantasy Bra, handset in 18-carat gold with diamonds, yellow sapphires and a blue topaz. British pop star Harry Styles and American rapper Miguel sang as 88 bejewelled looks went by, including a punk-themed section designed by Balmain's creative director Olivier Rousteing. Karlie Kloss wore a billowing hand-beaded tartan cape and Candice Swanepoel opened the show with an enormous black sequin train and feather wings.
"This is my ninth year and I always want to come back because there's nothing else like it," said 33-year-old model Lily Aldridge as she posed backstage in a marshmallow pink silk dressing gown and little else. "You get to feel like a rockstar on the stage as, for once, it's all about your personality."
"This is the Super Bowl of modelling, we wait for this day all year long," agrees Portuguese model Sara Sampaio. The 26-year-old, who has recently been one of the industry's most active campaigners against model mistreatment, and previously criticised French men's magazine Lui for taking nude photos of her without her consent, describes the Victoria's Secret show as one of her favourite bookings of the year. "This is my fifth year and I know everyone so well now that it's like a family unit. It's something I had always dreamed of doing."
The VS team are adept at drafting in highly paid, gorgeous models who say how marvellous they feel prancing about in a pair of angel wings - and often, they've got away with it. Their other favourite argument is that the shows, online, are mainly watched by women.
But does that make it alright? How many of those females are teens and pre-teens nurturing all kinds of insecurities about their bodies, stoking their fragile sense of self-worth with thoughts that if only they could learn to sashay in a thong and 110cms crystal sandals, they too could have a supermodel career? Even the hoarding outside the soon-to-open Dublin store, emblazoned with images from last year's lingerie show, has caused concern for parents walking down Grafton St with young daughters. The two dimensional limitations of the female ambition - make me thin, busty and pretty and nifty with a pair of tacky angel wings - are depressingly narrow and infantilising.
And yet the audience for this stuff is vast. While Monday's show won't be available to watch until next week - for Irish customers, on the online streaming service Hayu - last year the same broadcast attracted 6.7 million viewers in the US alone.
Women are the main audience for the performance, which will reach a billion people watching across television channels, social media and online streams in 185 countries this year. But the narrative of the models being 'on the Victoria's Secret journey' - from casting to show day - has been building for a while. Since the summer in fact, when 400 models were auditioned by the feted creative director Sophia Neophitou-Apostolou, executive producer Monica Mitro and casting director John Pfeiffer.
All those chosen will have met exacting standards, least of all being the minimum age of 18. "We have a responsibility and a duty of care to the girls," says Neophitou-Apostolou. "When you're over 18, you're more mentally ready to understand why you may not have got the part and what you need to do to move forward."
But those standards also apply to the bodies of the women who are chosen and the intense culture of exercise and nutrition which can stray from well-intentioned athletic ideals to objectifying diktats. Should one really strive to #TrainLikeAnAngel, and who really wants to see a woman reduced to a set of sparkly wings and a bra on a global stage?
"I found out back in August that I'd got the show," newcomer Alexina Graham from Nottingham explains backstage. "My agent called me at night and joked 'put down the chocolate cake'. I mainly ate the same in the months since, but cut back on the chocolate and worked out more, up to twice a day."
"It's really about the girls arriving show-ready at that moment," Neophitou-Apostolou justifies. "It can't be, 'oh in two months' time I'm going to be ready', because the challenge is now. Generally, they all arrive physically ready, it's more of a confidence thing - that's the difference between someone getting a show or not."
With its reach and budget, Victoria's Secret has the opportunity to seize the possibilities of a post-Weinstein age.
There can be lingerie displays and shows which are truly empowering and inspirational - just look at Calvin Klein's softly shot images of 73-year-old Lauren Hutton in a comfy bra and white shirt earlier this year. More than ever, the new climate means that the potential is there to do something fresh and forward thinking.
How frustrating then that Shanghai so resolutely stuck to the script.