Victoria’s Secret is synonymous with sexy and for years, it dictated exactly what sexy was - and more specifically how it looked. For older generations, the brand became a mainstay because of its now defunct catalogue and for Gen Z-ers, it’s displayed as an aspiration through Instagram.
Since the first show in 1995, the production has grown exponentially and so has its roster of models. While Naomi Campbell, Tyra Banks, Heidi Klum and Gisele stalked the runways in the ‘90s, setting the tone for a superhuman level of beauty that only so-called Angels seemed to possess, nowadays, ‘it girls’ like Bella and Gigi Hadid and Kendall Jenner are the big draws, often overshadowing veterans like Candice Swanepoel, Adriana Lima and Behati Prinsloo.
On social media ,Victoria’s Secret is a cult and followers worship at the altar of unattainable beauty, the result of an exceptionally effective marketing directive. Both current and retired Angels repeatedly say that their lives were changed after being associated with the 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," Sara Sampaio told Fashionista in 2015.
On E!’s most recent foray into reality television, Model Squad, a show documenting a group of international models based in New York, a number of episodes are based around their tunnel vision at landing the VS show, describing it - accurately - as career changing, and the ultimate goal for most. However, not everyone looks back fondly on their time with the brand and its pressure to fit into the physical ideal decided by the head honchos.
Gisele recently said she became “less comfortable” modelling in just lingerie and while she was grateful for the opportunity, decided to leave as she was “in a different place in my life.”
Erin Heatherton said 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.”
It’s this dedication to physical ‘perfection’ that has become increasingly out-of-touch with how consumers think today, particularly in the youth market.
Sales in the US have been slowly, but notably, declining comparably since 2016, after “record performances” in 2015. Promotions including free underwear (I refuse to use the VS-appointed word ‘panties') with purchase and cutting the swim and apparel lines are some of the reasons behind its decline, according to Forbes. It’s still number one in the States, but competitors, critics and fans have all noticed there’s a shift in its perception.
The show returned to New York last night after moving around to London, Shanghai and Paris in recent years, utilising its popularity in European, but especially, in the valuable Chinese markets. And 12 months ago, they opened a three-storey premises on Dublin’s Grafton Street - a decision which prompted aunts living in Boston the shrug a sigh of relief at not having to bring over a ‘few bits’ for their teenage nieces on every return to Ireland - but also proof that perhaps the focus is shifting towards a more-interested, less over-saturated Europe.
Back to the fashion show itself: it is unquestionably its biggest event, and one of the best examples of effective marketing in the retail industry overall, but even that hasn’t been exempt from criticism in recent years.
There were outcries lambasting the casting of the Hadids and Jenner, and it seemed like people would be taking to the streets when Hailey Baldwin auditioned last year. The argument was that, for years, Victoria’s Secret always worked above the fray - they didn’t need models, models needed them - but now that isn’t such an accepted fact.
Now, they need a Hadid to guarantee column inches and continue the cult of Instagram devotion, while a Hadid needs to feel like it’s an honour to walk with a brand to encourage their continued partnership. Both sides are getting played.
Every year, the same stories are bandied about and the brand capitalised on this fascination with Angels’s gym regimens and it should come as no surprise that it requires about two to three hour daily workouts, a personal chef or meal delivery service and an awareness of every morsel of food that enters your body.
Adriana Lima, who surprised everyone last night when she announced that she would be leaving the brand after 19 years, famously said in 2011 that she drank only protein shakes for nine days before show and nothing the day of. Australian model Kelly Gale said she adds an additional 30km walk on top of her two-hour-per-day fitness routine and Barbara Palvin said she has been watching food videos on YouTube to satisfy her cravings.
Bella Hadid, on the other hand, admitted to working out three hours per day, the results of which she seemed thrilled with when she shared a behind the scenes picture from her fitting earlier this week, sharing a set of three pictures in which her ribcage was protruding, as were her hip bones.
The reaction to such a display of skinniness went largely unnoticed, despite the fact that critics argued in September they would apply the same pressure to brands and publications for promoting extreme thinness just as much as they did Cosmopolitan for putting size-22 Tess Holliday on its cover.
Isn’t it all just a bit dated?
The show itself is a spectacle, it’s fun to watch and daydream and imagine how different your life would be as a supermodel. But, in 2018, after everything that we have rid ourselves of and empowered ourselves with, why do we still keep Victoria’s Secret, one the most exclusionary brands out there, as a mantle of success?
Winnie Harlow made history as the first model with vitiligo to appear in the show, which is certainly a step in the right direction and models of colour featured prominently in the show, but the fact that they all possessed impossibly shiny hair, sparkling white teeth and came under a size six is still just glossed over.
Victoria’s Secret does in fact cater to women of all sizes, so the idea of representing only one body type is a bizarre contradiction in promoting their own stock. Sizes are carried up to XL and DDD, so featuring XS and C cups doesn’t seem like an accurate promotion of their goods and suspicious as to their decision to only promote one body type as the body type to have.
I have certainly aged out of their core demographic: I have no need for glitter anywhere in my life and my choice of underwear resembles more Bridget Jones than that of Romee Strijd, but I still have a desire for change - so that teenage girls don’t have to look at one event and think the only way to be beautiful is by watching food videos on YouTube.
“There was a part of me that was terribly naive - clearly, so naive. I have moments of rage. I have moments of confusion. I have moments of disbelief! And I have moments when I just cry for my children. What are their lives going to be? What are people going to say to them?”