When you walk into Victoria’s Secret, you are immediately accosted by a cloyingly sweet wave of perfume as your eyes adjust to the dim light. Life-sized pictures of scantily clad models with seductive expressions stare down at you from the deep purple walls. For many years, this defined the lingerie shopping experience for many women. Victoria’s Secret, with its “Angels” as the face of the brand, represented “ideal” feminine beauty. However this image is rapidly becoming outdated, and Victoria’s Secret’s failure to update its antiquated beauty standards has had significant financial ramifications. On February 28th the company announced that it will close 53 of its retail stores, signaling that the brand may be in trouble.
When it was created in 1977, the Victoria’s Secret mission was a unique one. Roy Raymond, the founder of the company, saw an opening in the intimate apparel industry. At that time, most of the “intimate apparel” on the market consisted of plain cotton underwear, with lingerie being something you might find in a fancy department store or on the costume rack. Although he was selling a product designed for women, the store Raymond envisioned was targeted at men. Raymond found that he was uncomfortable buying lingerie for his wife, saying that he felt like an “unwelcome intruder.” So he sought to create a place that would allow men to comfortably and easily buy lingerie for their wives or girlfriends. The infamous Victoria’s Secret catalog was born out of this idea, featuring displays of women in skimpy lingerie, which directly targeted a male audience. The name “Victoria” refers to the Victorian era, and the plush purple velvet and dark wood decor of the stores sought to evoke the luxury of that time period.
In 1982 Les Wexner, the CEO of L Brands, recognized the potential of Victoria’s Secret and bought the company, but he decided that it needed rebranding. At the time, there were no stores dedicated exclusively to selling lingerie, and Wexner realized that if he could make it affordable, women would buy it. As retail consultant Craig Johnson explained to Newsweek, “He made sexy mainstream. That was his genius.” For a few decades this genius carried Victoria’s Secret to immense success. The brand helped its parent company, L Brands, increase its stock price from around $4 in 1985 to $25 in 2000, and then dramatically to $90 in 2015.
However, since early 2016, L Brands has reported declining earnings for the lingerie brand. So what has changed? It would seem that the image presented by Victoria’s Secret no longer resonates with most women. With the rise of a new body positive movement and the inclusion of more “plus-sized” models, the fashion industry is evolving in response to women’s desire to see themselves represented in the image of the brands they are wearing. Instead of adapting to meet these changing preferences, Victoria’s Secret has stubbornly stuck to its outdated version of feminine beauty.
The annual Victoria’s Secret fashion show perfectly exemplifies this obstinacy. The show typically includes a cadre of supermodels known as the “Angels,” all of whom fit a strict set of proportions and a narrow conception of beauty. In 2017, CBS reported that ratings were down 30% from the previous year and the number of viewers had declined significantly. Given that the “Angels” represent a small subset of the population, it is understandable that many women feel a disassociation between their reality and the on-screen image exemplified by the “Angels.” In an interview, Ed Razek, the senior officer in charge of casting for the show, was confronted about the lack of diversity. When asked if he thought the brand should include transgender models in the fashion show, Razek responded, “No. No, I don’t think we should.” By way of explanation he said, “The show is a fantasy. It’s a 42-minute entertainment special. That’s what it is. It is the only one of its kind in the world.” This is an acknowledgement that the brand, in keeping with its history, is targeting a male “fantasy” instead of appealing to real women’s values, and furthermore that this fantasy only includes one type of woman. With this statement, the brand chooses to entirely disregard the desires and identities of its customers, in favor of sticking to an outmoded idea.
Victoria’s Secret customers aren’t the only ones who have recognized the company’s failure to respond to the changing times. A number of competitors have taken advantage of the opening in the market, choosing to establish themselves in almost direct opposition to Victoria’s Secret. Aerie, the lingerie brand owned by American Eagle, uses the tagline #AerieREAL to emphasize their focus on “girl power, body positivity, no retouching.” Their models are diverse and representative of the population, and they are committed to showing them as they really are and not editing their images to conform to a fantasy. Third Love, with its message of “Bras and Underwear for Every Body”, features models from ages 16 to 60 and even makes bras specifically for nursing mothers. The company offers a broad range of sizes, as opposed to Victoria’s Secret whose limited options exclude many would-be customers. Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty espouses a similar message and has received a lot of attention recently.
Victoria’s Secret’s shortcomings, coupled with the increased competition in the market, has had a detrimental effect on its business. Its stock fell 59% in 2018, causing one major investor to advise L Brands to sell the company. In November, CEO Jan Singer stepped down after only two years, and was replaced by a man. The reason behind Victoria’s Secret’s struggles harkens back to its origins as a store targeted at men. The brand sells a product for women, yet completely ignores women’s views of themselves, of beauty, and of fashion. As Heidi Zak, the founder of Third Love, said in an address to Victoria’s Secret: “It’s time to stop telling women what makes them sexy — let us decide.”