In 1977, entrepreneur Roy Raymond opened the first Victoria’s Secret store in San Francisco. His mission was to offer women a range of bras and lingerie options that weren’t available in traditional department stores. His unabashedly sexy catalog and fashion show quickly grew into a multibillion-dollar empire.
But the company’s success came with its own set of issues: namely, the backlash to the sexualization of women and the rise of sexual assault scandals. It also didn’t take long for rival lingerie companies to start chipping away at Victoria’s Secret’s market share.
The company’s heyday came during the 1990s and early aughts when it rode a wave of “sexuality-as-empowerment feminism,” with women like Kate Moss appearing in provocative Victoria’s Secret ads. But by the last decade, a slew of more inclusive brands including ThirdLove and Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty were stealing customers from Victoria’s Secret, and sales began to slide.
A new documentary series by Matt Tyrnauer and produced by the New York Times reveals how this retail giant’s decline is linked to cultural changes that were out of the company’s control. Victoria’s Secret: The Truth Behind the Crash traces the rise of the company, and the ways it was held back by poor internal culture and outmoded leadership, as well as shifting societal norms around body size, skin color, gender identity and more.
While the first Victoria’s Secret fashion shows featured no-frills runways and models in the brand’s signature slips and push-up bras, the events became increasingly extravagant over time, with Angels such as Naomi Campbell sashaying down the catwalk with Swarovski-covered wings, and the famous Fantasy Bra worn by supermodel Karlie Kloss each year becoming iconic. And as the brand’s reach grew, it hired models to appear in ad campaigns and on television commercials, making them household names.
In the early 2000s, Sharen Jester Turney took over as CEO of the Victoria’s Secret Direct division, which handled the company’s catalog business, and made an effort to clean up the images used in its advertising and to tone down the sexiness of the catalog. She eventually became CEO of the entire company in 2006, and helped propel the Victoria’s Secret brand into the stratosphere.
But by 2018 it was clear that the annual show and its sexy, clad Angels had gone too far. The company’s 3.2 million viewers were its lowest since the show started in 1999, and it was decided to end production.
Last year, Victoria’s Secret brought the event back with a revamped look that aimed to be more inclusive and “respectful of women.” The debut show, which was part fashion event, part preview of a Prime Video film featuring 20 global creatives, celebrated all body types, from plus-size models to those who have medical conditions such as Winnie Harlow, who has vitiligo, wearing headless mannequins in various shapes and sizes.
But whether or not the move will help attract more consumers remains to be seen. Despite its efforts to reduce the emphasis on an idealized female image, the company’s core target audience is still largely affluent white women. And many of those shoppers have already jumped ship amid the #MeToo movement and L Brands’ founder Leslie Wexner’s relationship with registered sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.