But while Victoria’s Secret has given its new ambassadors the power to consult on important decisions and made its board of directors overwhelmingly female, this campaign illustrates how far Victoria’s Secret has fallen behind. Women looking for equality and empowerment in their lingerie have plenty of options now — many of them, unlike Victoria’s Secret, actually run by women. And when even a star as famed for her sex appeal as Kim Kardashian is selling functionality over the male gaze in her lingerie line, Victoria’s Secret’s pivot is pitifully behind the times.
I once went to a Victoria’s Secret runway show on assignment as a fashion editor. And though I can’t remember much about which models walked the show and who sat front row, I’ll never forget the sheer number of men in the room. Like the Angels striding down a raised runway in tall heels and elaborately decorated bras, corsets and wings, this male audience had a uniform, too: button-down shirts and blazers worn over straight-leg denim, sleeves ever so slightly pushed up to reveal watches expensive enough to swallow entire bonus checks.
This was an entirely different scene from the largely female crowd I was used to seeing at fashion weeks. And unlike the biannual women’s-wear shows, the moment was wholly designed for an audience of red-blooded men.
Once upon a time, that focus on men was what made Victoria’s Secret a revolutionary retailer. A Stanford MBA, Roy Raymond, started the brand with his wife, Gaye, in 1977 after struggling to find a place where he could shop for women’s undergarments without feeling like a peeping Tom. Their small store in a shopping mall in Palo Alto, Calif., traded in a very particular kind of pin-up fantasy, one involving hypersexual women in a Victorian-era boudoir. Their catalogue photo shoots were the stuff of lad mags, starring tanned models in black and pink satin negligees lounging coyly on satin bedding.
When Leslie Wexner purchased the company in 1982, he cut out the middle man, literally: Rather than giving men a place to shop, the new sensibility was supposed to be aspirational for women. Rather than wait for a man to pick out a push-up bra, a woman shopping at Victoria’s Secret could instead take it on herself to pursue an Amazonian look that came to define the American idea of beauty. The Victoria’s Secret Angels campaign, introduced in 1997, declared “Good angels go to heaven. Victoria’s Secret angels go everywhere.”
That apparently included Jeffrey Epstein’s hotel room and private island: The financier charged with sex trafficking, who was exceptionally close to Wexner, allegedly lured women to his hotel room by claiming to be a model scout for the brand.
Any new CEO would rightfully want to break with that ugly element of Victoria’s Secret’s legacy. Certainly Martin Waters, who will be steering the company in its new direction, seems determined to answer the question once posed by the noted business scholar Peter Drucker: “What business are we in and what business are we not in?”
“When the world was changing, we were too slow to respond,” Waters told the New York Times in an interview about the rebrand. “We needed to stop being about what men want and to be about what women want.” Unluckily for him, women answered that question for themselves.
The market is already rife with compelling, women-led brands that have cleverly positioned themselves as a safe space, an antidote from the rigid beauty standards once imposed by Victoria’s Secret.
What will inspire women to shop from Victoria’s Secret when there is Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty, which celebrates a brazenly sexy, free-spirited style while also making room for meaningful inclusivity? The company reached $1 billion valuation in lingerie equity in the women’s underwear sector, worth $13.1 billion, and is predicted to be the global lingerie market leader by 2025.
Then there are Cuup and Parade, both founded by women and both available in a much wider range of sizes than Victoria’s Secret currently offers. Even Kim Kardashian’s cult hit Skims positions its undergarments as “solutions-oriented,” high on comfort and function, rather than man-bait erotica and frills.
No matter how many wire-free bras and minimalist panties Victoria’s Secret rolls out as a sign of the times and its new commitment to female empowerment, it won’t change the reality that women have already managed their top drawer perfectly fine on their own.