Victoria’s Secret Makes a Credible Cultural Shift

victoria secret

A brand built on the idea that outer beauty matters more than inner strength has to shift its message to make a credible change. But doing so is easier said than done. And in a retail environment where consumers can switch brands easily and quickly, the effort to do so can be dangerous.

The American retailer Victoria’s Secret is best known for its lingerie and related apparel but also sells fragrance, body care, hosiery and accessories. Its headquarters are in Columbus, Ohio and it operates 789 stores and distributes its catalogue throughout the United States and Canada. The brand is owned by Intimate Brands Inc, a publicly-traded company.

Its history dates back to 1977, when founder Roy Raymond opened his first store in Palo Alto, California. The store was named after the queen and Raymond envisioned his shops as Victorian-era boudoirs. He sold the business in 1982 to The Limited’s Leslie Wexner for $1 million.

Wexner infused Victoria’s Secret with the glamour and snob appeal of European luxury, adding new colors, patterns and styles to the underwear collection while pushing the company to expand its retail footprint and marketing. In the early 1990s, he hired a group of top model spokeswomen—Stephanie Seymour, Karen Mulder, Daniela Pestova and Yasmeen Ghauri—to appear in advertising and to walk down the runway at the company’s fashion shows. They became known as the Angels, and they helped to transform Victoria’s Secret into a mainstay that sold broadly accepted underwear with an air of unattainable sexiness.

For years, Victoria’s Secret bolstered its image with one big annual fashion show that drew billions of viewers worldwide. But the spectacle arguably became too reductive, with its parade of impossibly thin models clad in Swarovski-crystal covered wings and million dollar fantasy bras. And in the wake of a cultural shift and the rise of upstart competitors who incorporated diversity into their advertising, Victoria’s Secret’s narrow view of beauty seemed out of touch.

Victoria’s Secret reworked its approach in 2018, with an annual TV special that was more arty than the runway extravaganza and that showcased non-models—such as singer and activist Malin Akerman, professional golfer Lexi Thompson and actresses Emma Stone and Amy Adams—alongside its Angels. The show also included a solemn pledge to advocate for women. The company also began partnering with organizations that specialize in the needs of disabled, transgender and plus-size people and launched inclusion resource groups for associates and their families.

But in July, the company reverted to its more traditional marketing strategy and released a campaign featuring Bella Hadid and other top model types in bikinis that was met with both praise and criticism. It was the latest in a series of campaigns that critics say have taken a page from the Kim Kardashian playbook and push a “body dysmorphia” agenda to young women.