Victoria’s Secret’s hypersexual, sexy image—featuring lingerie-clad models on the catwalk and in TV ads with their supple bodies framed by angel wings—was once the stuff of legend. The lingerie and apparel retailer, now owned by L Brands, Inc., once sold $2.5 billion in bras and panties each year, and its annual fashion show was a ratings hit. But now, a new Hulu documentary called “Angels and Demons” sheds light on the company’s descent into scandal. It’s a story of empire building, corporate greed and sexual harassment that ultimately led to a reckoning with the public and the collapse of one of America’s most beloved brands.
In 1981, Les Wexner bought the struggling Victoria’s Secret chain of catalogs and brick-and-mortar stores, which he transformed into a national empire with 1,827 stores. He based the lingerie brand on a fantasy of allure and luxury, marketing it to women with unabashedly sexy high-fashion photography and a line of intimate apparel that fit a range of body types. The flagship store in Manhattan was designed to feel like a luxurious spa, with wood-paneled walls and Victorian details, reports WWD.
Adding to the appeal of the brand were the annual fashion shows, which became a spectacle of fantasy and celebrity. By the late ’80s, VS had amassed a hefty roster of supermodels, including Heidi Klum, Adriana Lima and Gisele Bundchen. By the ’90s, Wexner had added a spin-off line, Pink, and incorporated Pink segments into the main VS fashion show. The 20-something models donned erotic schoolgirl and candy-themed outfits as they walked catwalks strewn with larger-than-life lollipops and children’s toys—and, as the documentary points out, it was “all so wrong with hindsight.”
Wexner’s empire grew even more when the company went public in 1995, and it bought a stake in Aerie, which was focused on the junior market. But the sexy lingerie brand began to lose momentum as it struggled to adapt to the times. The brand’s market share slipped, and a lack of innovation saw it losing out to more body-positive options.
Stuck in an outdated messaging that failed to resonate with contemporary consumers, sales reflected the misalignment. Meanwhile, a new generation of women-empowered and body-positive brands like Aerie and ThirdLove snatched market share from the once dominant retailer.
The documentary also examines a darker side of the business, such as Wexner’s close relationship with Jeffrey Epstein, the financier charged in 2019 with sex trafficking underage girls. The documentary features a woman who claims Epstein recruited her to be a VS model.
A recent overhaul has seen the brand embrace a more inclusive approach, with ads featuring a diverse group of women who don’t all look like a blonde bombshell. It’s an effective rebuke to the past and a powerful sign that the company is ready to move on from its toxic legacy. But it’s unclear if the change will be enough to bring the brand back from the brink of decline.