Words like inclusivity and diversity have been added to the woke vocabulary now, and women of all races, ages and sizes are entering mainstream advertising that for decades used over-sexualised, airbrushed and photoshopped images of young women to sell their products. And in the post #MeToo market, a multi-billion dollar brand like Victoria’s Secret has become a dinosaur.
Even if the dubious association of the brand’s founder and CEO, Les Wexner, with the disgraced sex offender Jerry Epstein had not been exposed, before the three-part documentary series Victoria’s Secret: Angels and Demons by Matt Tyrnauer ripped the glitter off the world’s most successful lingerie brand, the image of female perfection catering to male fantasy would have been outdated.
Wexner bought the almost bankrupt company in 1982, from Roy and Gaye Raymond and turned it around; he created the story of a fictitious Victoria, who was smart, stylish, refined and English. The retail revolution was taking place in the US with the establishment of huge malls, and all brands were encouraging people—especially women—to shop.
Women were not yet out in the workspace in such large numbers as today, and Wexner tempted the homemaker with lusciously shot catalogues of models posing in lace and silk lingerie in exotic locations. More than innerwear, the brand was selling the dream of a lavish life for the woman who acquired the perfect body to be able to wear delicate, sexy and expensive lingerie and entice her prince.
Wexner was quoted as having said – a quote that would get him mercilessly trolled today, “The funny story I like telling. I was driving to Dayton and I was thinking about what other businesses I could start. And I remember saying, 'Every woman I know wears underwear, most of the time. All of the women I know would like to wear lingerie all of the time.' And I'm just driving, driving down the highway, laughing my butt off and thinking what a funny thought that is. And so, I said, 'I wonder why no one's done that?'"
Wexner and his marketing team chose tall, smooth-skinned, leggy models, and when, in a move bold for its time, started the Victoria’s Secret Fashion show, the internet reportedly crashed. The viewers were obviously not women who wanted to buy pretty sequinned and feathered bras (manufactured in low-wage countries), but men ogling the models walking the ramp in nothing-left-to-the-imagination underwear. Wexner was emphatic that his brand should not even hint at maternity, shapewear or comfort — in short, what real women would need, rather than push-up wiring and padding. When they started adding outrageously kitschy angel’s wings to the skimpy lingerie in their ads and shows, that disconnect was complete.
Victoria’s Secret claimed the brand was empowering women by letting them express their sexuality, when it was obvious that sexuality was from the male point of view. It was impossible to attain that slim, yet curvy figure without extreme diets, punishing exercise and plastic surgery. In the series, Lyndsey Scott, a former Victoria’s Secret model says, “For me, fantasies are more effective when there's a diversity to them. And a lot of the models looked the same, not a lot of different body types at the time... not racially diverse. It became clear to me that Victoria's Secret wasn't empowering women. They used such a narrow idea of beauty in their marketing, that it was doing the complete opposite. It was making women feel badly about themselves."
The models hardly ate anything; Tyra Banks says that she weighed just 123 pounds and was told to drop 10 pounds because she looked too curvy. The impact of the brand’s covert misogyny got worse when it launched Pink, for teenage girls, and the images verged on soft porn.
"Today, people howl about the effects of Instagram on young girls," said Michael Gross, author of the 1995 novel Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women, also interviewed in the series. "At the time, Victoria's Secret was the analog version of the same thing."
Still, Victoria’s Secret was a cultural phenomenon for years, a lesson in branding and marketing a product so well that the consumer craved it. Sophie Gilbert wrote in The Atlantic, “Victoria’s Secret, more than any other icon or cultural product, was the brand that defined what sexuality in the late ’90s and early 2000s looked like. Raymond’s idea of persuading women to objectify themselves for their own supposed gratification—buying into a version of sexiness that just happened to align perfectly with pleasing men—anticipated a moment that was overtly raunchy, exclusionary, and consumerist. The company made “beauty” unattainable, while confining female sexual exploration to the realm of male fantasy.”
Stories of the toxic work culture and sexual harassment by marketing head Ed Razek were coming out, and Wexner's inexplicable partnership with the predatory and corrupt Epstein threw more disrepute on the brand. Epstein (who was convicted for his crimes and died by suicide in prison), was given carte blanche at the company and used the brand's name to traffic underage girls to rich men. By the time Wexner, claiming he did not know about Epstein's misdeeds, distanced himself from his "loyal friend", a lot of damage was done.
Nothing hurts more than the hit to the sales bottomline; it’s not just that the internet led to the slow death of malls, also post 2016 and the #MeToo movement, women started reclaiming their sexuality. Other brands used plus-sized, older and trans women in their advertising — Lane Bryant cheekily used the tagline “I’m no Angel” — and appealed to women who were at ease in their own imperfect bodies and wanted their innerwear to be comfortable too. The splashy “tits and glitz” fashion show was officially cancelled in 2018, and Victoria’s Secret started scrambling to rebrand itself. Instead of the ridiculously vacuous supermodels in angel wings, they got a bunch of multi-racial achievers to endorse the brand; the VS Collective includes soccer star and gender equity activist Megan Rapinoe, Eileen Gu, a teenage Chinese American skier, the plus-sized biracial model and inclusivity advocate Paloma Elsesser, Brazilian trans model Valentina Sampaio, model and South Sudanese refugee, Adut Akech, photographer and founder of #Girlgaze, the digital platform for female photographers Amanda de Cadenet, and Indian actor-entrepreneur Priyanka Chopra Jonas. The “unsexy” (by old standards) maternity and mastectomy bras were added to the product line.
A New York Times report by Sapna Maheshwari and Vanessa Friedman quoted Raúl Martinez, who joined as creative director in January, as saying that every aspect of the brand is being reconsidered. “It has to have a purpose, a reason, be there for the consumer to say: Wow, they’re really evolving,” he said, acknowledging that it was his 15-year-old daughter who persuaded him to join Victoria’s Secret. “She said, ‘Dad. Do it for us. The Gen Zs.’”
It is not often that ordinary women get what they want, but at least they now know what they don’t want. And those in power are sometimes forced to listen.
The writer is a Mumbai-based columnist, critic, and author