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How Victoria’s Secret and its fashion show went primetime — after its founder killed himself

Taylor Swift performs as model Karlie Kloss walks the runway during the 2014 Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show at Earl’s Court Exhibition Centre on Dec. 2 in London. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Victoria’s Secret)

A man walks into a department store. It’s the late 1960s or 1970s — after the start of the sexual revolution, but not long after. He wants to buy ladies’ underwear.

This is a problem.

“When I tried to buy lingerie for my wife,” he later recalled, “I was faced with racks of terry-cloth robes and ugly floral-print nylon nightgowns, and I always had the feeling the department-store saleswomen thought I was an unwelcome intruder.”

But Roy Raymond’s problem gave him an idea: Victoria’s Secret, the company he co-founded with his wife Gaye in 1977 with $80,000, some of it borrowed from family members. The brand started out as a handful of retail outlets in Northern California, then became a catalogue coveted by men too embarrassed to go bra shopping — and by their teenage sons.

There is no “Victoria” associated with Victoria’s Secret. The name, as Naomi Barr explained in Slate, comes from Raymond imagining “a Victorian boudoir, replete with dark wood, oriental rugs, and silk drapery.” He thought “Victoria” evoked “the propriety and respectability associated with the Victorian era; outwardly refined, Victoria’s ‘secrets’ were hidden beneath.”

Today, Victoria’s Secret is an international phenomenon — the most popular brand in the world last year, according to one measure, with a net income of $5 billion. The company’s annual fashion show, aired Tuesday night, was no small affair. We’re talking angel wings and million-dollar bras. A primetime slot on CBS. Ariana Grande. Taylor Swift in pink lingerie.

These unmentionables were mentionable.

“A combination of self-assured strutting for women and voyeuristic pleasures for men,” The Washington Post’s Robin Givhan wrote, remembering the first Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show in 1995, “and lingerie becomes mainstream entertainment.”

Unfortunately, Raymond couldn’t be there to see it. He jumped off of the Golden Gate Bridge in 1993.

What went wrong?

Those who choose to kill themselves are motivated by complex factors no journalist would be wise to speculate about in 1,000 words or less. But the fact that Raymond and his wife sold their soon-to-be-blockbuster brand to the Limited in 1982 for a mere $1 million probably didn’t contribute to his mental health.

“Raymond’s experience serves as a cautionary tale about seeing the potential of your business idea and not letting others see it for you,” Techyville explained, calling Raymond’s play a “horrible mistake.” “If you build something this strong, at least hold a percentage of ownership and don’t cut yourself out completely.”

Limited founder Leslie Wexner “took the secret out of Victoria’s Secret,” as one analyst put it. He caught the train Raymond had missed.

“I saw ingredients in it,” Wexner said in 2010 in a Newsweek article. “What if we mixed it up differently? … Most of the women that I knew wore underwear most of the time, and most of the women that I knew I thought would rather wear lingerie most of the time, but there were no lingerie stores. I thought if we could develop price points and products that have a broader base of customer, it could be something big.”

With their Limited cash, the Raymonds did try again — with high-end children’s clothing. This wasn’t just a catastrophe, but one that was easy to make fun of.

The concept was a simple one: well-heeled parents could shop for everything from an Apple computer to a Baby Bjorn imported Swedish potty chair to a Galway Irish crystal baby bottle labeled ‘for decorative use only – not to be used to feed baby,’ all under one roof, or by catalogue,” the New York Times wrote in 1986. “The Raymonds figured that imported clothing, home computers and quality toys would hold great attraction for the growing number of professional couples having their first, and possibly only, child.”

The company filed for Chapter 11 after publishing a much-maligned advertisement featuring children wearing tortoise-shell glasses.

“We did eight catalogue covers, but that one is the only one people remember,” Raymond told the Times. “People either loved it and thought it was cute, or thought it was terrible to take kids and dress them up as little adults.”

The Raymonds eventually split — and little more than a decade after he gave up Victoria’s Secret, Raymond struck out for the Golden Gate.

“He went through a couple of business failures and I think he suffered depression,” Gaye told Techyville. “He borrowed a lot of money from his mother. He was trying to start another company but things didn’t go well, and he saw only one way out.”

The story is so pathetic — and unsexy — it is recounted as a cautionary tale by Justin Timberlake as Napster founder Sean Parker in “The Social Network.”

Roy Raymond’s genius was recognizing the need to remove shame from the process of buying unmentionables,” Barr wrote. “But much like the failure of Friendster and the old MySpace as Facebook began to reign supreme, his story reads like a cautionary tale of how a brilliant opportunity can be seized and yet missed.”

More from the fashion show: