Victoria's Secret: inside the lingerie giant's fight for relevance
For decades, Victoria’s Secret has been hailed as the pinnacle of sexy, a harbinger of femininity which will only settle for frilly underwear, sheer bras styled with a six pack and elbow length hair extensions.
For 24 years, the lingerie brand went unquestioned as the gold standard in fashion show production, developing a cult following of its annual fashion show and elevating its models to goddess-like levels.
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Nothing is necessarily new about this of course, consumers have been consuming in this way since advertising was invented - sex sells and the Emily Ratajkowskis and Kim Kardashians of the world are proof.
In its primitive days as a catalogue-only product, models posed in lingerie alongside order numbers so that subscribers could order directly; whereas now, its fashion show is more of a sexual spectacle than in marketing efficiency than having any monitorable customer impact.
Dozens of supermodels sashay down the runway with big wings and tiny underwear, grinning from ear to ear knowing the power that being a Victoria’s Secret model has on their personal brand.
“It almost turns you into a 'brand' — people know who you are and will associate your name with your face, which gives you a chance to have a voice," Angel Sara Sampaio told Fashionista in 2015.
Then, #MeToo happened and Time’s Up and women around the world began second guessing the narratives around womanhood they had been fed all their lives. And Victoria’s Secret wasn’t prepared.
Like many successful brands before them, they relied on legacy to carry their success into the next generation without bothering to know too much about what that generation wanted.
After years of reading interviews with models speaking frankly about their starvation diets in order to prepare for the annual show, including a now infamous interview Adriana Lima gave to Grazia in 2011 stating that she lost the 50 pounds she gained during her pregnancy over two months to be back in her wings.
She worked out twice a day, drank a gallon of water every day and for nine days before the show, she drank only protein shakes. For two days before the show, she decreased her intake to prevent water retention and from 12 hours before the show, she fasts entirely.
Alessandra Ambrosio tried a similar approach after giving birth to her daughter in 2008, but found it so depressing she would never put herself through it again.
Erin Heatheron said she she stopped working with the brand in 2013 after four years because of the pressure to lose weight. "My last two Victoria's Secret shows, I was told I had to lose weight," she told TIME magazine's Motto. "I look back like, 'Really?' I was really depressed because I was working so hard and I felt like my body was resisting me.
“And I got to a point where one night I got home from a workout and I remember staring at my food and thinking maybe I should just not eat."
These comments reflect the opinion of Ed Razek, Victoria’s Secret’s Chief Marketing Officer who faced unprecedented backlash last year after he stated that the brand would never work with plus-size or transgender models because it conflicted with the unattainable ethos they created; citing their failed attempt at a plus size show 19 years ago as reason not to try it again.
“It’s a 42-minute entertainment special. That’s what it is. It is the only one of its kind in the world, and any other fashion brand in the world would take it in a minute, including the competitors that are carping at us….Victoria’s Secret has been women’s first love from the beginning,” he told Vogue last year.
His reference to “the beginning” is important because Victoria’s Secret, like many successful brands, is relying on legacy to continue it success with a new generation. Comparatively, a new brand like Fenty is thriving by sending a message of inclusivity; a message that Victoria’s Secret aren’t just ignoring, but actively avoiding.
The last two years in particular have been most difficult to preserve its image in a changing culture which encourages female empowerment and questioning the establishment.
In 2016, it ceased publication of its long-serving catalogue and since 2016, there's been a 6% drop at its brick and mortar stores, another 2% dip in sales and, according to Forbes, it saw its fiscal third-quarter operating income drop 89% to $14.2 million from $120 million.
In Ireland, on the other hand, it enjoyed revenues of €3.88m between opening day on December 5th 2017 to February 3rd of 2018. Similarly, moving its show to Shanghai in 2017 wasn’t at random: China is its second strongest marketing and growing. So, it’s far from doom and gloom in Victoria’s Secret HQ.
It is being put to the test though - can a brand thrive without any positive publicity?
Most recently, it has been dragged into headlines alongside Jeffrey Epstein, the well-connected Florida-based billionaire who has been charged with child sex trafficking. Although he was not an employee for the company, he managed CEO Lex Wexner’s finances and, as per the New York Times, had "sweeping powers over [Wexner's] finances, philanthropy and private life.”
He would pose as a recruiter for the catalogue and would allegedly abuse his relationship with Wexner to prey on aspiring models.
A statement by L Brands, Victoria’s Secret parent company, said; “While Mr. Epstein served as Mr. Wexner’s personal money manager for a period that ended nearly 12 years ago, we do not believe he was ever employed by nor served as an authorized representative of the company."
They have since hired lawyers “to conduct a thorough review” into the relationship.
Mr Wexner sent an email to employees denying any knowledge of Epstein’s alleged crimes.
“When Mr. Epstein was my personal money manager, he was involved in many aspects of my financial life. But let me assure you that I was NEVER aware of the illegal activity charged in the indictment.”
As of this week, model Shanina Shaik said that this year’s show has been cancelled as “ “they’re trying to work on branding and new ways to do the show.”
“It’s something I’m not used to because every year around this time I’m training like an Angel,” she added.
It comes after it the announcement in May that the show would no longer air on network television, appearing on CBS in the US and is syndicated on the E! network in Ireland.
In 2013, 9.7 million viewers tuned into the show in comparison to 3.3 million last year.
Mr Wexner said in a memo earlier this year that they are focused on “taking a fresh look at every aspect of our business” and are evaluating ways for the show to evolve to a modern audience.
“With that in mind, we have decided to re-think the traditional Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show,” he wrote.
They are looking at a “new kind of event” but didn’t provide any details. It’s likely they’ll adopt a digital-first strategy with content across their far-reaching platforms, utilising Instagram in particular.
68 million people follow the main account and Angels like Stella Maxwell, Josephine Skriver and Jasmine Tookes have millions of followers each. There are countless fan accounts devoted to following the models’ personal and professional lives and there’s still an extraordinary audience of young women in particular who still worship Angels.
And these models are also key to the beauty industrial complex which pits them as being superhuman in their appearance and Karlie Kloss, a former mainstay of the brand, said she looks at her time there differently now.
"The reason I decided to stop working with Victoria’s Secret was I didn’t feel it was an image that was truly reflective of who I am and the kind of message I want to send to young women around the world about what it means to be beautiful," she told British Vogue.
"I think that was a pivotal moment in me stepping into my power as a feminist, being able to make my own choices and my own narrative, whether through the companies I choose to work with, or through the image I put out to the world."
There is potential for a move in a positive direction with sales to match, but is it too little too late?