“We think it’s important to evolve the marketing of Victoria’s Secret,” Stuart Burgdoerfer, chief financial officer of L Brands, said in a Thursday earnings call. He also said that nothing “similar in magnitude” to the fashion show would be happening this holiday season — the company’s first public confirmation of the show’s end.
In its broadcast debut in 2001, a parade of winged, scantily clad Victoria’s Secret supermodels drew more than 12 million viewers. But viewership has fallen steadily, as consumers have soured on the brand’s narrow representation of female sexuality, which had been historically geared toward male desire. Last year’s show had the worst viewership in its broadcast history, drawing 3.3 million viewers, according to Nielsen, and on the earnings call, Burgdoerfer indicated that it had been failing to boost the company’s falling sales.
“Did we see specific material impact on short-term sales response to the airing of the Fashion Show as a general matter? The answer to that question is no,” Burgdoerfer said. He added that it had been “a very important part of the brand-building of this business” but that the company was working to advance the brand’s image. L Brands shares are down more than 32 percent this year.
Once credited with transforming lingerie into an everyday item for the average woman, Victoria’s Secret has been hemorrhaging customers as many turn to more inclusive, comfort-oriented competitors, like Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty and popular start-up ThirdLove. Last year’s low ratings came after L Brands chief marketing officer Ed Razek said the show shouldn’t feature transgender models because it was supposed to be a “fantasy.” The longtime architect behind the show, Razek later apologized. After he retired in August, the company hired its first openly transgender model, Valentina Sampaio.
“Victoria’s Secret’s brand image is starting to appear to many as being outdated and even a bit ‘tone deaf’ by failing to be aligned with women’s evolving attitudes towards beauty, diversity and inclusion,” James A. Mitarotonda, head of activist investor Barington Capital Group, wrote in a letter to Wexner in March. “While Victoria’s Secret has improved the racial and ethnic diversity of the women in its advertising campaigns, it continues to use models that depict a very narrow definition of beauty.”
Wexner and Victoria’s Secret have also come under scrutiny for ties to Jeffrey Epstein, who long served as Wexner’s personal financial adviser. The New York Times reported that Epstein had tried to pass himself off as a recruiter for Victoria’s Secret models. In 1997, Epstein invited a model to his hotel room to audition for the brand’s catalogue, then attacked her, according to the Times.
At the outset, Victoria’s Secret was geared toward male appetites. Founder Roy Raymond got the idea for the company in the mid-1970s after an embarrassing experience in a department store, where he had gone to buy lingerie for his wife. Raymond envisioned a lingerie store that men would feel comfortable shopping in, choosing the name “Victoria” for the association with Victorian-era decorum that could mask “secrets” beneath, Slate reported in 2013. He opened the first store with a $40,000 bank loan and $40,000 borrowed from relatives.
Wexner, already a retail giant, discovered the store in 1982, on a business trip to San Francisco. By then, Raymond had turned it into a chain, but it was struggling, teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.
“It was a small store, and it was Victorian — not English Victorian, but brothel Victorian with red velvet sofas,” Wexner told Newsweek in 2010. “There wasn’t erotic lingerie, but there was very sexy lingerie, and I hadn’t seen anything like it in the U.S.”
Soon after, Raymond asked if he would be interested in purchasing Victoria’s Secret, which Wexner did, for about $1 million. Raymond stayed on as president for a year before leaving to open My Child’s Destiny, a high-end children’s retailer, which went bankrupt within a few years. He committed suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge in 1993.
Wexner saw Victoria’s Secret had been failing because it was unwelcoming to female customers, so he sought to make it more appealing and accessible to a broader customer base. By 1995, Wexner had turned Victoria’s Secret into a company worth nearly $2 billion, with more than 650 stores across the country. That year saw the very first Victoria’s Secret fashion show, at the Plaza Hotel in New York. It was void of glitter, and there were no wings to be seen.
Correction: A previous version of this report misspelled the last name of James A. Mitarotonda of Barington Capital Group.