Victoria's Secret: What the lingerie giant can (and should) do to win back the public
It's 2019, and Victoria's Secret's famed fashion show is no more. In the fashion industry, few names once seemed as infallible as VS; to rise above its mass-market status, the brand turned its annual runway display into a televised extravaganza featuring huge pop musicians, created mind-bogglingly expensive showstopper bras, and made high-fashion crossover stars of its favoured models. Through these efforts, the company grew into one of — if not the most — recognisable lingerie players in the world. Its name may not ever have become interchangeable with an entire product category like Kleenex and Coca-Cola's did, but at its peak, one would argue that ol' Vicky came pretty darn close.
Somewhere along the line, though, things went south.
On the business end of things, over-expansion, failure to adapt to shifting market tastes, plus the — recently reversed — discontinuation of its popular swimwear line and mail-order catalogue contributed to the erosion of Victoria's Secret's influence. However, the public wariness VS now faces has deeper roots in the outmoded values of the business — chiefly, its narrow ideal of beauty.
It's tempting to blame the company's current woes on Ed Razek, the long-time chief marketing officer who in 2018 confirmed suspicions about VS's limited brand of 'female empowerment' (he suggested that 'plus-sized' and transgender women were not 'aspirational'). But the issue goes far beyond one man's careless statement, and we've identified some potential reasons and solutions for your consideration, below.
EMBRACE DIVERSITY (OBVIOUS, BUT TRUE)
Compared to most brands, VS has been relatively progressive in its casting of non-white models. The few dark-skinned models of African descent in their regular roster have drawn accusations of colourism, sure; but during the Razek fallout, the company reminded audiences that it supported black models in wearing their natural hair texture, which had been unprecedented for such a mainstream name. They also pointed to the extraordinarily long tenures of some Angels — Alessandra Ambrosio walked the VS show for 17 years — and their support of the new mothers among them (although, it should be noted that to be "runway-ready", they had to endure Olympic-level training almost immediately after giving birth).
It’s in the lack of diverse body types where much of the discontentment with Victoria’s Secret rests. VS’s women are universally tall and athletic. When it was announced earlier this year that Barbara Palvin had joined the Angel’s club, she shared that the honour meant a great deal having been called ‘fat’ for her appearances on the covers of lads’ magazines. Tsk.
To be clear, Palvin’s insecurities are real no matter her size. But her feelings of validation are telling of VS’s extremely rigid criteria, given that she’s not ‘large’ in any traditional sense. Publications including Forbes and Time have named Aerie and Savage x Fenty as the lingerie brands handling inclusion best (and slowly building their market share as a result). Victoria's Secret shouldn't join in just to fend off its competitors; it should because it's the right thing to do, period.
REFRAME THE ANGEL MYTHOLOGY
One of the growing pains of third-wave feminism has been figuring out how not to throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. In our resistance against patriarchy's attempts to tame us, being a 'good girl' has become somewhat frowned upon; but there's nothing fundamentally wrong with being (mostly) obedient, just as there's nothing fundamentally wrong with being feisty and outspoken.
Which brings us to the ages-old Madonna-whore complex. Society demands we pick either extreme and repeatedly fails to recognise the nuances and changeability of our characters. In casting its women as heavenly creatures who are surreally disciplined and single-minded about their appearance, Victoria's Secret is pushing an extreme version of Madge-ho.
The image of its iconic Angels is pliable to capture the widest possible audience; they're sexy, but never sexual; their physical appearance doesn't define them — until photoshoots and catwalks roll around, that is; they're financially empowered, but don't appear to do much else outside of their work for VS; we never see any of them being vulnerable or complicated. By design, they present us with an unreal, almost sanitised vision of womanhood, and for whatever reason — chalk it down to the zeitgeist — it just isn't as appealing as it once was.
Maybe, just maybe, it's time for these Angels to come back down to earth.