Victoria’s Secret isn’t the first business to embrace a fetishized vision of women, but it has been a leader in the movement. Its annual fashion show, featuring top models wearing Swarovski-crystal covered wings and million dollar fantasy bras, has become iconic and is a symbol of American consumer culture. But in recent years sales have plummeted and rivals like ThirdLove, Adore Me and American Eagle’s Aerie have risen to challenge the Reynoldsburg, Ohio-based company’s market share.
When Roy Raymond opened his first store in 1977, Victoria’s Secret was a small operation that drew customers by offering lingerie and other feminine products with a touch of high-fashion styling. Raymond, a former executive of the cosmetics company Elizabeth Arden, wanted to bring an image of allure and luxury to his brand, so he employed a team of designers and photographers to create catalogs that featured women in their most alluring states. The images resonated, and the company quickly expanded to more than a hundred stores.
Wexner, who bought the company in 1982, brought the same sensibilities to his new venture, and in 1995 he launched the annual Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, which has become its own cultural phenomenon. The show offers a peek at the lingerie that’s a cornerstone of the business and provides a glimpse into the sexy, beautiful lives of the model corps. In the early 1990s, Wexner and the company’s head of marketing, Ed Razek, branded the dream woman as “Victoria.” Early on, she was a genteel Englishwoman with a saucy continental side. Later she became a sensual woman who embraces her body and femininity.
The show’s popularity helped to spawn a line of products, from perfume to underwear, designed to match the fantasy of the alluring woman. The brand also has a wide range of swimwear, sleepwear, hosiery and athleisure, plus a line of prestige fragrances. The company is a global retailer with some 350 stores and more than two billion dollars in sales.
In recent years, the company has begun to soften its sexy, all-American image by hiring more diverse models and reducing the amount of photo-shopping it does on its images. It has also introduced a line of plus-size bras and thongs. And it has taken steps to make its fashion shows more inclusive, with models with vitiligo and other conditions joining the ranks of the Angels.
Still, experts say the company faces an uphill battle. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, more women have sought brands that celebrate their diversity rather than reinforce society’s idealized depictions of female beauty. And as competitors like ThirdLove and Aerie have diversified their offerings, Victoria’s Secret has struggled to adjust. The brand’s latest move is an attempt to reclaim its place at the center of female fashion. But it remains to be seen whether the revamped fashion event will boost sales. The three episodes of the series are streaming on Hulu.