How Victoria’s Secret was left without “angels”

Supermodels were replaced by LGBT activists and women’s rights defenders.

In 2019, Victoria’s Secret brand canceled its annual Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show for the first time in 25 years. Over the past few years, the catwalk audience has continued to decline, as have the company’s sales. Many fashion experts attributed this to the fact that the brand is hopelessly behind the new cultural agenda and no longer meets the ideals of modern women. Two years later, Victoria’s Secret rethought its place in the market and rebranded itself.

The collapse of the Empire

Founded in the late 70s of the last century, Victoria’s Secret lingerie brand has for a long time actually defined what sexuality is. Especially at the turn of the 90s and noughties, when his faces, the so-called angels, were such successful models as Adriana Lima, Tyra Banks, and Gisele Bundchen.

In 1982, when businessman Leslie Wexner bought the company from the previous owner, he paid only $1 million for it. However, two years later, Victoria’s Secret sales reached $500 million. By the early ‘ 90s, the brand was generating $1 billion in annual revenue and had grown into an American empire of retail underwear stores.

In 1995, Victoria’s Secret held its first annual fashion show, which featured supermodels in lingerie and angel wings on their backs. The show quickly became a pop phenomenon and has attracted millions of viewers since its television debut in 1999.

However, new times require new heroes. Women of the following generations began to look differently at what was previously considered “attractive.” In order not to lose them, many brands have rethought their products, making them more inclusive and body-positive. However, Victoria’s Secret failed to keep up with the trends, which sharply hit the revenue of the once successful company.

According to Women’s Wear Daily, a magazine that analyzes the fashion industry, in December 2020, Victoria’s Secret’s share of the lingerie market in the United States was only 19%, while in 2015 this figure reached 32%. Against this backdrop, L Brands announced in 2020 that it would close a quarter of all Victoria’s Secret stores.

“It was very short-sighted not to consider how the culture has changed over the last decade, especially after the MeToo era. Today’s customers want to see themselves in advertising, and they want to know that brands have some kind of value system,” CNN quotes Chantal Fernandez, senior correspondent for The Business of Fashion.

To save the business, the brand decided to change its marketing strategy and last week presented itself in a new image.

Appearance is not the main thing

Now Victoria’s Secret will be represented not by “angels” – supermodels, but by the so-called VS Group (VS Collective) – seven women of different races, different physiques, as well as sexual and gender identity. Unlike the previous ambassadors, the new models were chosen not based on external data, but the basis of their personal achievements and public position.

Among the representatives of the group: football player, LGBT activist, and equality activist Megan Rapinoe; actress and entrepreneur Priyanka Chopra-Jonas; plus-size model, body activist Paloma Elsesser; transgender model from Brazil and LGBTQIA activist (LGBTQIA-lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexuals)Valentina Sampaio; Chinese freestyle skier and equality activist Eileen Gu; journalist and photographer Amanda De Cadenet; and Adut Akech, a model and refugee from South Sudan. It is these women who become the face of the brand. They will also work on new Victoria’s Secret product lines, multimedia content, and support the interests of women in the company.

“These outstanding individuals with unique experiences, interests, and aspirations will work with us to create breakthrough products and inspiring content, new internal programs, and to mobilize and support women in the issues that matter most to them,” the company said in a press release.

“This is a very radical change for our brand and our new identity,” said Victoria’s Secret chief executive Martin Waters. In addition, he told The New York Times that the famous angels-former models of Victoria’s Secret are obsolete.

Waters took over as chief executive last February when the brand’s parent company, L Brands, tried to sell Victoria’s Secret to a private equity firm for $525 million. However, the deal fell through due to the coronavirus epidemic, and Victoria’s Secret decided to separate and become a public company. At the same time, it completely rethought its former image and its products. The brand will continue to sell lace underwear and thongs, but now the line will become much wider, it will be supplemented with underwear for nursing mothers, and will also significantly expand at the expense of the sports segment.

As for the annual fashion show, the brand promises to relaunch it in a new form in 2022.

​Urgent changes

Victoria’s Secret’s 180-degree turn came after years of constant criticism. In recent years, the brand has been increasingly accused of outdated ideas about femininity, and its collections have been called products that are suitable only for customers with one type of figure.

In addition, Victoria’s Secret has been at the epicenter of media scandals several times. In 2018, Ed Rezek, marketing director of L Brands, said in an interview with Vogue that he did not consider it mandatory to include “transsexuals” in the annual Victoria’s Secret show held since 1995. This statement caused a large number of negative reviews and comments, as well as accusations of the brand of transphobia. In addition, Rezek used a not entirely politically correct term for “transgender”. The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, which took place in 2018, turned out to be the last one. It was watched by just 3.3 million viewers, up from 9.7 million in 2013. After the disastrous show, the 71-year-old Reizek resigned. The following year, the company decided to hire the first transgender model, Valentina Sampaio, who has now become part of VS Collective. However, this did not save the brand from a new scandal.

In 2020, The New York Times published an article in which it said that when he was president and chief marketing officer of L Brands, Rezek used his position to harass models, make obscene proposals to them, and allowed himself to use expressions that humiliated human dignity. According to a newspaper report, L Brands has tried for many years to hide cases of harassment against Victoria’s Secret models. At the same time, the publication noted that the founder and CEO of L Brands, Leslie Wexner, was aware of the situation, but preferred not to notice anything. Rezek himself denied the accusations made against him.

“Public criticism has been particularly rampant over the past five years because of Victoria’s Secret’s limited beauty ideals, and the company’s sales have started to decline,” notes Chantal Fernandez. “The rebranding announced this week is the first significant indication that Victoria’s Secret is trying to reinvigorate its marketing.”

New challenges

Despite the new marketing strategy, it is unlikely that Victoria’s Secret will be able to quickly restore the lost positions. Today, the company has to deal with very high competition in its segment. Savage X Fenty (singer Rihanna’s line—up), Aerie American Eagle, ThirdLove, and CUUP-all of these brands position themselves as inclusive brands. Now buyers have more alternatives than they had in the late ‘ 90s, and Victoria’s Secret will have to keep up with the times again.

“This is a dramatic change for a brand that most recently sold underwear from men’s fantasies, and in recent years has come under suspicion because of its owner’s possible relationship with sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, as well as amid revelations of a misogynistic corporate culture filled with sexism, mischief, and ageism,” the authors write in The New York Times.

At the same time, the brand still enjoys high recognition, which means that it can effectively promote its product. It has almost 1.5 thousand stores around the world and about 32 thousand employees.

According to Cynthia Fedus-Fields, a former executive director of Victoria’s Secret division responsible for the company’s catalog, although “it’s probably time for the angels to leave,” the new management will have to find a balance between moving forward and retaining existing customers.

“If this was a $7 billion business before COVID-19 and most of that $7 billion was built on this overtly sexual approach, be careful what you do,” she was quoted as saying by The New York Times. Only the upcoming sales reports will be able to show for sure whether it is enough to hold a promotion with bright ambassadors to win back the trust of women.

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Author: Sam Smith
Graduated from University of Oxford. Previously, he worked in various diferent news media. Currently, it is a columnist of the world news section in the Free News editors.
Function: Editor
Sam Smith

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