In the news industry, when you want to bury a story, you release it on a Friday.
In the world of Victoria’s Secret, when you want to showcase how tone deaf and out of touch you are, you release a campaign during a global pandemic.
While the show must go on amid the COVID-19 outbreak, lest the world fall into an irrevocable economic collapse; businesses are adapting in new, creative ways to ensure their survival throughout indefinite closure. Most are introducing click-and-collect models or scrambling together more sophisticated e-commerce functionality on their websites.
In the case of Victoria’s Secret, it means closing shop for their 1,000+ global stores - including their three-storey flagship premises on Grafton Street. It also means closing their online store to ensure the health and safety of staff and customers.
Which makes the timing of their first-ever diverse campaign even more questionable: how can customers even buy the items they’re being shown? Did the brains in the Victoria’s Secret boardroom think that we would sit around our virtual watercoolers and congratulate them on a job well done, and validate their beliefs with the Instagram likes they so crave?
Clued-in consumers know this brand makeover only came at the behest of unwavering criticism over the course of several years.
In the not-so-distant past of 2018, brand bosses – namely former chief marketing officer Ed Razek – made it clear in a now-infamous Vogue interview that Victoria’s Secret would be sticking to its regime of exceptionally slim, mostly white, roster of models.
When asked about the inclusion of transgender or plus-size women, he said it would never happen as their annual fashion show is based on “fantasy”, further perpetuating the rhetoric that anyone who sits outside the ‘Angel’ aesthetic is not beautiful, nor worthy of being fantasised about.
Razek has since retired. Late last year, they announced the fashion show, which has become a lightning rod for criticism, was cancelled in order to “evolve the marketing” strategy on which it had relied on for decades.
It would seem part of that evolution has landed in our inboxes as earlier this week, they released a new Body by Victoria campaign, featuring their first-ever plus-size and trans model, alongside several other ‘Angels’, and two women over the age of 50.
If this imagery was released four years ago - and not during a global pandemic - it would have received the praise and press it deserves, but now it’s a simple case of too little too late.
Veteran supermodel Helena Christensen (51), who somehow both stars in and photographs the new campaign, worked with Victoria’s Secret for three years before hanging up her wings back in 1997.
Daniela Pestova (49) is a fellow original Angel making her triumphant return, alongside Valentina Sampaio, a rising star from Brazil who is trans, Candice Huffine, the trailblazing star who has been a supermodel for years, and traditional Angels like Jasmine Tookes, Joan Smalls, Lais Ribeiro and Romee Strijd.
Then there’s Barbara Palvin, a drop-dead gorgeous model who walked one Victoria’s Secret show in 2012, then disappeared from their roster of models and has been inexplicably fat shamed throughout much of her career.
The 26-year-old, who is a size eight, was originally named the brand’s first ‘plus size Angel’ on social media, and in 2014, she was criticised for her curves in her Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue spread.
In 2018, she said she worked out 10 times a week before the show, showing the seriousness with which she took being welcomed back into their good graces. And although she didn’t say it, the message was clear: I will do anything it takes to stay at Victoria’s Secret.
She had been watching food videos on YouTube to satiate her cravings, and her boyfriend Dylan Sprouse rewarded her after the show with cheeseburgers.
The run-up to the fashion show might be miserable, but it’s career-making and many of the women who feature – none of whom are responsible for a toxic work environment perpetuated by an insidious misogynistic culture – have been able to reconcile the physical pressures with the financial and professional benefits of becoming a supermodel.
Supermodels aren’t born, they’re made – and usually at Victoria’s Secret. Their decision to include Candice Huffine, who made history as the first plus-size model to appear on the cover of Vogue Italia in 2011, and Valentina Sampaio, a trans model who joined the fold last year, is at best a small step in the right direction and at worst, an example of tokenism.
Sources told the Irish Independent last year that the brand was scrambling for an actionable strategy to display its relevance and was calling on model agencies seeking out plus-size models soon after the Vogue interview was published.
Victoria’s Secret might be trying hard to change its image, but behind the scenes, it’s still battling with slumping sales (its store in Ireland makes €1m in sales per month but plunged to a €31.2m loss as it shouldered a €19.1m non-cash impairment), the cancellation of its annual fashion show and sexual harassment claims.
Is it too little too late or "just the beginning" as Ms Sampaio said at her casting last year? Only Instagram will tell.
Have you ever stopped to think about what happens to the unsold clothes in your favourite stores? Last month, the issue made headlines when hundreds of discarded bras were reportedly found in a bin in Colorado, close to a recently-closed branch of the lingerie giant Victoria's Secret. A spokesperson for the brand explained that the bras in question were damaged goods, but that the remaining products from the store were re-allocated to different shops so that they could be sold on.