• The reputation of the world’s best-known lingerie retailer is under growing threat as the brand has been repeatedly accused of being anachronistic and disconnected from the current sociocultural zeitgeist.
  • The recent media discussion around Victoria’s Secret focused on its issues with body inclusivity, LGBTQ and diversity, sexual harassment and its ties with infamous financier Jeffrey Epstein.
  • The reputational damage has led to significant financial loses, with the stock of L Brands, Victoria’s Secret’s parent, falling more than 28% from the start of the year.
  • Victoria’s Secret is lagging behind competitor brands, such as American Eagle Outfitters, ThirdLove and Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty, whose marketing strategies revolve around inclusiveness and comfort.

Victoria’s Secret, the largest lingerie retailer in the US, has been one of the most iconic apparel brands since the 1990s, not least because its sexually charged imaging set the industry’s standard for decades and exerted a strong influence on body image norms. But since 2015, the shares of its parent company L Brands have been dropping as sales keep taking hits from shifting consumer tastes, executive turnovers and emerging competition.

The Victoria’s Secret brand, built on skinny girls and scantily clad lingerie, is now largely perceived as inadequate for a time when consumers’ preferences have moved away from sex appeal and towards empowerment, inclusiveness and comfort. To many, the brand’s traditional marketing strategy, which bets on fashion shows where supermodels walk in stiletto heels and angel wings, seems tone-deaf in the era of #MeToo, which condemns all forms of objectifying women and imposing hard-to-achieve beauty standards.

The Victoria’s Secret Angels, once considered symbols of sexiness, have now started to alienate consumers: a recent study found that 68% of them like the brand “less than they used to” and 60% feel that Victoria’s Secret is “forced” or “fake.” Demand for its products has cooled as up-and-coming rival brands have become more attractive by promoting themselves through unedited images featuring women of more diverse shapes and sizes. The retail giant reported that it will close 53 stores in North America this year, citing a “decline in performance.”

The brand itself admitted that it relied on hypersexualised imaging for far too long and it needs to rethink its identity. At L Brands‘ recent investor day, John Mehas, head of Victoria’s Secret Lingerie, asserted that the company needs to evolve and to reconnect with consumers by launching new products, hiring new executives and using new marketing strategies.

An essential part of the narrative shift would be a more diverse group of models, improving the merchandise, replacing the brand’s marketing chief and “rethinking” its annual Victoria’s Secret fashion show, the only fashion show regularly broadcast around the world, whose ratings keep falling. The brand hinted that network television would no longer be the “right fit” for the event, which has been criticised for being focused on empowering the models who walk in it instead of trying to relate to consumers.

Inclusivity, diversity and Epstein

Many specialised fashion publications and business outlets embarked on questioning how the once-beloved brand managed to garner such a bad reputation. Analysing the media conversation around Victoria’s Secret in the top-tier English language publications from October 2018 to September 2019, we found that the most often discussed topics were body inclusivity, the company’s ties with Jeffrey Epstein and gender diversity:

The strongest coverage drivers for both the “Body inclusivity” and “LGBTQ+ diversity” topics were the comments which 71-year-old chief marketing officer Ed Razek made in a 2018 interview with Vogue that quickly went viral. Razek, who reportedly has final say over who’s in the televised fashion show, said that he didn’t think Victoria’s Secret‘s fashion event should include transgender or plus-size models because it is supposed to be “a fantasy”.

“Shouldn’t you have transsexuals in the show? No. No, I don’t think we should,” he said. “Well, why not? Because 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, and any other fashion brand in the world would take it in a minute, including the competitors that are carping at us. And they carp at us because we’re the leader.”

The remarks prompted a strong backlash from consumers. As with the most severe social media crises, Victoria’s Secret was embroiled in an outrage cascade — outbursts of moral judgment which start to drive the conversation around brands, their products and their corporate messages. In these cases, the virality of moral judgements is facilitated by the fact that most of the content on social media feeds and timelines is sorted according to its likelihood to generate engagement.

The fact that fashion brands in particular face a growing number of crises could be explained by the supposition that fashion items are often taken to be markers of cultural and social identity, and thus are susceptible to be perceived as controversial across social networks. For instance, designers often draw inspiration from other cultures’ traditions, which has recently given rise to accusations of “cultural appropriation”.

For more on this topic, read our analysis “The Anatomy of a Social Media Crisis: Lessons from the Fashion and Food Industries”.

Razek later used the company’s Twitter account to issue a formal apology, saying that his remark “came across as insensitive.”

In August 2019, Razek retired just days after the lingerie brand hired its first openly transgender model for its teen label PINK: Brazilian Valentina Sampaio. The hire was generally welcomed by commentators – for instance, Kendall Jenner, daughter of trans icon Caitlyn Jenner, posted “celebrate trans women” to her 98 million Instagram followers.

Meanwhile, media monitoring organisation GLAAD, which deals with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues, said Sampaio’s move comes as transgender people are becoming more visible in advertising. Examples of the trend include recent campaigns by Calvin Klein, Gap and H&M, while Playboy’s first transgender Playmate appeared in 2017.

Another strong coverage driver within the ‘Body inclusivity‘ topic was the protest outside Victoria’s Secret‘s store on Oxford Street in London, in which protesters stripped to their underwear and held signs demanding more diversity in fashion. To address such concerns, the latest investor meeting saw Victoria’s Secret deciding it will no longer rely on a small group of supermodels to promote its sexy lingerie, in a bid to use more inclusive marketing.

An example of this new strategy was an Instagram post of model Barbara Palvin, which was celebrated for being more body-inclusive, as social media users perceived Palvin to be curvier than the other supermodels. The post received over 780,000 likes in two days, generating 4.2 times the average number of likes, with users commenting that the model looks “normal” and “healthy”. 

But the brand wasn’t that successful in managing another crisis: the widely publicised ties between L Brands founder Les Wexner and financier Jeffrey Epstein, an accused child sex trafficker who committed suicide in jail. Although Epstein didn’t actually work for Victoria’s Secret or L Brands, he had control over Wexner’s finances and personal life, according to reporting by The New York Times, and used his connections with Victoria’s Secret to facilitate his alleged crimes.

L Brands tried to distance itself from Epstein, saying it had cut ties with him nearly 12 years ago and disclosing that it had hired outside counsel to review the case. Wexner said: “Being taken advantage of by someone who was so sick, so cunning, so depraved, is something that I’m embarrassed that I was even close to. But that is in the past.”

In many media reports, the ‘Epstein ties‘ topic was closely related to the ‘Sexual harassment‘ topic, which was dominated by a petition urging Victoria’s Secret to take a stand against sexual harassment and violence. The open letter was addressed to Victoria’s Secret CEO John Mehas and signed by more than 100 models, many of whom have worked with the brand in the past, and also by the Model Alliance, an advocacy organisation in the fashion industry, and the Time’s Up movement against sexual harassment which was founded in response to the Weinstein effect and #MeToo.

The petition cited “numerous allegations of sexual assault, alleged rape, and sex trafficking of models and aspiring models”. Several of the company’s photographers have been accused of misconduct, on top of the links with Jeffrey Epstein. A Victoria’s Secret spokesperson said the firm has been in conversations with the Model Alliance “for some time”: “We are always concerned about the welfare of our models and want to continue to have dialogue with the Model Alliance and others to accomplish meaningful progress in the industry.”

Crisis mode

Ed Razek‘s aforementioned controversial comments regarding transgender and plus-size models made him the most often quoted spokesperson in the discussion around Victoria’s Secret:

Razek’s dominance in the conversation underlined the crisis of perception the brand suffers: his remarks were taken by many media outlets as a sign that the brand is unwilling to adapt to the current sociocultural climate. Models who have previously worked with the brand and who had a relatively large share of voice in the media conversation were quick to criticise him. For example. Karlie Kloss and Lily Aldridge posted a photo reading “Trans and GNC [gender non-conforming] people are not a debate” to their Instagram stories.

Karlie Kloss was one of the most vocal critics: she recently told Vogue that she had decided to terminate her relationship with Victoria’s Secret because the image was not “truly reflective” of who she was and the “kind of message I want to send to young women around the world about what it means to be beautiful.” Model Tess Holliday was harsher, leaving a message to Razek on Twitter following his Vogue interview: “Who needs VS anyway? They never supported plus ladies & now they are trying to dis my trans sisters? Hell nah. Kiss my fat ass, [Victoria’s Secret].”

The majority of media reports on Razek’s retirement announcement cited these remarks as one of the key points in his career and highlighted that he was one of the main figures in the highly sexualised beauty ideal put forth by the brand. The crisis of perception was also emphasised by the fact that L Brands CEO Les Wexner, another major corporate spokesperson in the conversation, was quoted primarily in relation to the Epstein scandal.

However, some of the spokespeople portrayed Victoria’s Secret in a positive light. Adriana Lima, one of the best-known Angels, quit the label after two decades and 18 fashion shows with the brand, sharing the news on Instagram with a heartfelt caption: “Dear Victoria, Thank you for showing me the world, sharing your secrets, and most importantly not just giving me wings but teaching me to fly.”

And while she presented the brand positively, some media publications reminded their readers of a an interview she gave to Grazia in 2011 in which she outlined the physical challenges she went through in order to be in shape, especially after her pregnancy.

Angel Behati Prinsloo tried to defend the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show against the criticism for its lack of transgender models and diverse body types. In an interview with Elle, she explained what the show stands for: ‘There’s a lot of talk about everything but I think people need to also understand that it’s a show. It’s not saying negative or positive about any body type, it’s ‘this is who they are’.”

In the meantime, Barbara Palvin was named as a Victoria’s Secret Angel after the successful Instagram post which customers perceived to be more body-inclusive. She announced the news to fans also via Instagram and her hire was generally interpreted by the media as a sign that the label is finally starting to listen to its critics.

CEO John Mehas‘ comments about the brand’s marketing shift were met with similar enthusiasm, especially his plans to include messaging that responds to the #MeToo movement. But the most warmly welcomed move was the hire of Valentina Sampaio: although some publications suggested that the brand’s first openly transgender model came too late, most commentators said that the retailer has finally moved in the right direction.

Lingerie wars

While Victoria’s Secret is caught up in a fierce discussion, L Brands‘ other flagship label, Bath & Body Works, a personal-goods retailer, continues to report strong earnings, supporting its struggling parent. Many reports on Victoria’s Secret‘s controversial reputation outlined this development, making Bath & Body Works the most frequently mentioned brand in the conversation:

While L Brands is firmly focused on the Victoria’s Secret turnaround story, Bath & Body Work is perceived as staying relevant with updated stores and new product tests, maintaining a wholesome image as “America’s sweetheart of beauty brands.” Its loyal core consumer base of millennial women is boosted by fan blogs and YouTube accounts dedicated to sharing new products. The brand also plans to ramp up volume by having a digital makeover for the first time in India.

Investors have even started pressuring L Brands to make Bath & Body Works a standalone company which would not be associated with Victoria’s Secret. Hedge fund Barington Capital, whose CEO James A. Mitarotonda was one of the few corporate spokespeople in the conversation, sent a lengthy letter to L Brands CEO Les Wexner arguing for a spinoff.

But after Bath & Body Works posted its first unchanged quarter of store traffic in five years during 2019’s second quarter, Jefferies analyst Randal Konik suggested that the best days for the bath and candle retailer may be over. Konik also said that the teen brand PINK is the next sore spot for L Brands, with sales falling by low double digits in the fourth quarter, as the label is “without fans and rudderless.”

ThirdLove, American Eagle Outfitters and Savage X Fenty were identified as the main competitors which have capitalised on Victoria’s Secret’s reputational struggles. ThirdLove, an online bra startup which was launched in 2013, was perceived as coming head to head with Victoria’s Secret as it focuses on inclusive sizing and marketing, which have helped its annual sales to grow at a rate of 180% for the past four years.

The brand opened its first pop-up store in New York in July 2019, putting itself in direct competition with Victoria’s Secret as the lingerie giant had a store less than a 10 minutes’ walk away. ThirdLove also joined the discussion around Razek’s comments, taking out a full-page ad in The New York Times, in which co-founder and co-CEO Heidi Zak said she was appalled when she read them: “I’ve read and re-read the interview at least 20 times, and each time I read it I’m even angrier. How in 2018 can the CMO of any public company — let alone one that claims to be for women — make such shocking, derogatory statements?”

When asked whether Victoria’s Secret was worried its customers might now be looking for something different, Razek mentioned ThirdLove: “We’re nobody’s ThirdLove,” Razek said. “We’re their first love. And Victoria’s Secret has been women’s first love from the beginning.”

American Eagle Outfitters was also viewed as one of the main companies to break Victoria’s Secret‘s grip on the apparel industry by offering fitting bras and using messaging which pitches inclusiveness and comfort over sex appeal. Its activewear and lingerie brand Aerie has built an image of an “anti-Victoria’s Secret” label with untouched ads featuring models of all shapes and sizes. Kyle Andrew, American Eagle’s CMO, said the company’s success is due to its willingness to experiment and find ways to better listen to its teen customer base.

Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty recent show, streamed on Amazon Prime, has been making headlines everywhere, with commentators saying it was everything that Victoria’s Secret’s annual runway show wishes it could be by featuring models of all shapes, sizes, and ethnic backgrounds, with a clear focus on body inclusivity and acceptance.

Meanwhile, retail corporation Target also tried to capitalise on Victoria’s Secret’s struggles with a strategy similar to ThirdLove, American Eagle Outfitters and Savage X Fenty: it launched a new bra and underwear brand called Auden with a campaign featuring women “in all different shapes and sizes.”

Nike was mentioned as one of the brands which have gotten ahead of the curve with their socially-conscious marketing efforts featuring ex-NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who had participated in racial justice demonstrations during national anthem ceremonies. Fast-fashion brand H&M got involved in the discussion for selling a $199 bra similar to Victoria’s Secret’s $1 million Fantasy Bra as part of its collaboration with Moschino.

Victoria’s Secret‘s reputational woos come at a time when the fashion and apparel industries occupy a central place in the extensively covered #MeToo movement and play a major role in ongoing media discussions around gender and identity. Since such issues naturally polarise consumers, brands which are dealing with products directly related to them are regularly caught up in fierce debates.

The growing importance of the debates around gender in the fashion industry has also been highlighted in the accelerating gender-neutral trend. The latest seasons have seen luxury brands like Gucci, Saint Laurent and Haider Ackerman combining menswear and womenswear runway shows, Others, such as Proenza Schouler and Rodarte, have started showing women’s pre-collections or women’s ready-to-wear during the back-to-back menswear and couture calendar. Meanwhile, fast-fashion labels such as Zara started releasing ungendered collections with models of both sexes dressed in the same clothes.

There are also a growing number of new brands like the Phluid Project, Agender and Rebrand which are built around the concept of non-binary dressing. Beyond fashion houses, the trend has also been recently reinforced by the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), which added a unisex/non-binary option for New York Fashion Week. Spokespeople for the CFDA explained that this decision came as a response to “a growing number of designers whose collections are not delineated by gender”, which “reflects the cultural momentum.”

For more on this topic, read our analysis “Gender-Neutral Fashion: A Millennial Whim or a Trend to Stay?”

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