Everyone’s writing about Victoria’s Secret. They’re breaking from L Brands (aka Limited Brands) and attempting a major image overhaul that centers the female consumer over the male fantasy. Every business journal is covering their termination of the Angels model mascots in favor of an advisory / spokesperson panel of diverse women role models. They’re writing about their all-female board. They’re covering plans to increase sizing and skin tones in their assortment.
But no publication has opined about whether it’ll work.
So I figured I would. I started working in women’s swimwear and intimates in 2016, when VS hit their peak global sales. I spent the next 4 years strategically poising our brands to pick up market share as their empire started to tumble. I’ve crunched the numbers, I’ve read the reviews, and I’ve talked to real, everyday women about how terrible swimsuit and bra shopping can be, so I thought it would be fun to put my thoughts on paper.
The only way it’s going to work is if Victoria’s Secret makes a major campaign in place to extend an apology.
This isn’t just another rebrand about adjusting to new customer preferences or updated product offerings. Victoria’s Secret caused harm to their customers. And I mean the majority of women they’re hoping to retain or convert to their brand. Like, if I got together a group of women and told them to raise their hands if they’ve ever been personally victimized by Victoria’s Secret, it would look something like this:
Let’s assess the damage. There’s a lot of examples, but they all support a central thesis: Victoria Secret engaged in psychological fuckery of setting a standard for desirability that’s defined so narrowly and unforgivingly, but positions their products as a bandaid fix that will help you meet the expectations of the male gaze.
- Despite being the largest intimates brand on the market with the most retail square footage and resources, they maxed their sizing out at an XL, 40 band size, and DD cup size, meaning that plus size women and women of color (who tend to have a curvier shape even at smaller weights and need more DD+ cup options) are excluded from their store.
- They also catered to exclusively to white skin tones with their array of “nude” colorways. Brown tones have only recently been added in a small number of silhouettes.
- Despite controlling 35% of the intimates market space, they never made any maternity or nursing products. And despite having titties everywhere in their store, they banned a mom (who had just spent $150 there) from the store for asking if she could use one of the many empty dressing rooms to nurse her baby. They’ve never done a Mother’s Day promotion, even though many of their items (pajamas, robes, their entire beauty line) are all top gifting categories. At VS, sex is something for men to enjoy, completely disconnected from potential pregnancies and maternal burdens. I love that for us. Pregnancy wasn’t part of “the fantasy” and moms weren’t hot to their skeezy old man leadership team, so they’d need to either put that part of their identity to the side or shop somewhere else.
- They had an intense obsession with cleavage and wanted women to be in a heavily padded push up bra at all times. Working out? Pushup bra. Going to sleep? Pushup bra. Going swimming? Add-2-sizes SUPER pushup.
- CMO Ed Razek was approached about plus size and transgender models in 2018, and he stated that they likely never would because they don’t exemplify “the fantasy.” He also used the slur “transsexual” in his response. CEO of L Brands, Les Wexner, justified exclusion of plus size customers because “nobody goes to a plastic surgeon and says ‘Make me fat.’” Both Les Wexner and Ed Razek got the chop as the brand transitions, but if you ask the average customer who made these comments and sparked this outrage, they remember Victoria’s Secret. Les and Ed are no one to the average consumer.
- Their Angels program largely set an expiration date on sexy. Most were signed between 21-26 (usually after a few seasons with non-exclusive, gig-specific contracts). And were largely let go by 30 (with the exception 3 of their most recognized models staying on until 36 or 37).
- Angels were largely White women (14% were Black. There was no representation for Native, Asian, or Pacific Islander women).
- The percentage dropped for PINK spokesmodels, with only 1 Black model (10%) who was only extended a contract in 2016 and brand criticism got more intense. This position featured less Hispanic White and South American White models as well. Nothing says White Supremacy quite like the younger, more innocent, less sexy brand also being dramatically Whiter and blonder.
- They groom and sexualize girls early. Victoria’s Secret’s former parent brand (L / Limited Brands) owned Limited Too, which peddled push up bras, silky low rise string bikinis (what child should be wearing these), and slinky chemises for girls as young as 6.
- At ages 13-15 – literally in the midst of puberty, they transition from Limited Too to PINK, and there were even some toned down girls’ and infant sizes to groom the into the brand when they’re young. Once they transition to the PINK juniors’ line, they’re sold the following phrases to wear on their body:
- Unwrap Me
- Caught you Looking (on the rear end. I love when we can pay money to encourage street harassment)
- Enjoy the View (same placement)
- Take my Picture (on undies)
- Pay Attention (across the ass)
- A few flirty pairs of skivvies on the rack is one thing, but it’s another for it to be the overwhelmingly dominant message in the assortment with not much else to balance it out. Call me crazy, but teenagers should be able to get staple pieces for their wardrobe from the industry leader without being bombarded with innuendos about getting dicked down. The 2000s were wild.
- VS’s CFO, Stuart Burgdoerfer, justified PINK selling precocious messages to middle and high school girls by saying “they want to be older…that’s part of the magic of what we do at Pink”
- Girls and young women who are sexualized at a young age have a hard time developing their own healthy relationship with their sexuality. Sexuality is seen as something imposed on them, and they tend to maintain that passive role throughout their sexual experiences, meaning that they’re having more sex, but not confident self-advocating for their boundaries and desires, meaning it’s less satisfying and more likely to include risky behaviors. They’re also more likely to express disgust with their bodies outside of its sexual functions, like aversion to pregnancy, breastfeeding, sweat, menstruation, etc.
- The grooming becomes even more problematic once it’s corroborated with model stories of violent, toxic, and misogynistic working conditions. Ed Razek (“the show is a fantasy” guy) was never punished for dozens of complaints of sexually assaulting models as young as 19, and he retaliated when models rebuffed his advances. He groped them, invited them to private dinners, asked them to move in with him in his vacation homes in foreign countries, and saying no repeatedly ended their careers.
- Non-model employees were also weight shamed and sexually harassed. The only documented outcomes have been settlements after an employee chose to quit or was terminated in retaliation.
- Jeffrey Epstein was close friends with founder, Les Wexner. Wexner even gave Epstein full control of his finances and let him manage his estate. Epstein used his association with Victoria’s Secret to lure young models into his sex trafficking scheme, promising that he had influence in casting. Victoria’s Secret management caught wind of Epstein’s actions in the mid-1990s, but Wexner did not end his relationship with Epstein until 2007, over 18 months after charges were filed.
- VS has gotten in hot water for worker conditions at their contracted mills and factories for reasons including child labor, forced labor, and prison labor. Within the garment industry, unethical labor practices disproportionately impact women.
- VS has also received criticism for destroying returned merchandise, even if it is in clean, new condition. This includes items like sweatshirts and sweatpants that don’t carry the same hygiene risk as swimwear and underwear. This practice contributes to corporate waste and the products could easily be donated.
- And lastly, alllll those Indigenous, Native, and Tribal runway looks on White models -___-
Essentially, either you didn’t fit VS’s products / aesthetic and you were told you were not the male fantasy. Or, you did and you were told that it was the most valuable thing you had to offer. And even women in positions of power or prestige within the brand weren’t even safe.
For me, it’s personal, despite the fact that I own less than $100 worth of VS merch. (Shoutout to my mom for buying my skivvies literally anywhere else!) I grew up in the South in the mid-2000s, as PINK became a solid addition to the VS assortment. It was also the peak of the abstinence pledge movement and I had the displeasure of attending Pam Stenzel presentations at church. (Unfamiliar? She essentially charges $5000 to tell students “You will get chlamydia. And die.”) Sexuality made me anxious. It seemed like two options: Party Naked panties or purity rings. I didn’t have power to shape sexuality on my own, but rather had to choose between two options imposed on me by institutions run by misogynistic men. (A note to churches, the message of “everyone wants to fuck you and it’s your job not to let them,” is still objectifies women, even if they’re not having sex.) I jiu jitsued my options by dressing and acting flirty, only to cut off any guys who expressed romantic intention. Color me surprised when relationships in college and early 20s were all hella unhealthy. And I had tons of protective forces: I had a later puberty (a statistical norm when you’ve got thin and White privilege) and didn’t wear Junior’s sizing in underwear until I was between 16 and 18. When I did, I was same 32B size as the VS mannequin. My mom wasn’t a fan, didn’t shop there, and kept me stocked with Calvin Klein options from TJMaxx. I’ve only owned roughly $100 worth of VS merch between a free panty, a few nightshirts, and a bra I don’t like. I’m in awe of how much stress a brand can cause you when you don’t even really shop there. And it bears repeating, my angst pales in comparison to women who got their hypersexualized message earlier, more often, or were told more painful messages because they didn’t fit in their merchandise.
So no, they can’t just pull a “new spokesmodel, who dis?” and expect it to save the brand. This isn’t Sears where they just got a little too comfortable with their dominance and market share. And while the late 2000s were terrible, no other brand has harmed their customers quite like Victoria’s Secret. Lululemon was fatphobic. Abercrombie sexualized young girls. Anthropologie committed racial profiling. Urban Outfitters designs were culturally appropriative. But VS stands out for how many boxes they checked, how long they doubled down in the face of customer backlash, and how willing they were to take implied discrimination and say it out loud. Likewise, all those other brands are either outright irrelevant now or have tried to course correct or at least save face in light of customer criticism. VS has spent years trying to gaslight women out of their own newfound confidence. Likewise, every other brand on that list had an unoffended portion of their customer base who was able to brush off offensive behavior as no big deal and keep sales afloat.
Without a major apology, it looks like a last ditch effort money grab to save a dying brand. It sounds like there was contention between the Wexner / Razek crew and the tier of VS who reported into them over the direction of the brand, and that new leadership is finally able to steer the ship in the way they’ve wanted to for years. But the average customer isn’t reading about this in the Business Journal. They can’t see any signs in the current campaign that the current leadership cares about them or advocated for them at a time when VS as a brand was on their worst behavior. Diving into a new strategy with no acknowledgement of the harm minimizes the damage. I guarantee that VS’s desired customers have literally paid a lot of money to therapists to unpack how this brand made them felt. VS seems to be sweeping that under the rug instead of reckoning with the brand history they’re inheriting and really coming to terms with why all those customers left. “Just kidding! We’re kind of up to par with the market now!” just really isn’t sufficient.
In part 2, I’ll be looking at the brand pivot, their new VS Collective and matching that up to current customer sentiment to discuss whether their new vision will stick (because, spoiler, the answer is still no).
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