Author’s Note: This letter is in response to the “Victoria’s Secret: Angels and Demons” documentary on Hulu.
Dear Victoria’s Secret,
I fit (typically) into a size 18. I have hips. I have a booty.
I’ve fit comfortably into your clothes years before you fell into a diversity brand crisis with an immediate need for repair.
You became a talking point in my friend group in my early years of high school. Every year, my friends would talk about the upcoming infamous Victoria’s Secret fashion show. An event that was as culturally important to society as it was to my immediate social circle.
My friends looked as if they could be Angels on the runway each year, so I was always confused why they felt they weren’t “thin enough” or “pretty enough.”
I liked your collection of bras. I liked that you have a “no underwire” bra, you really coined the phrase “cute and comfortable.”
We learned how to walk in heels thanks to your fashion shows. When we walked out of the store carrying your “Victoria’s Secret” shopping bag, we felt unstoppable. The free blankets. Free tote bags. Buy one, get one makeup product. You name it, Victoria’s Secret did it, and the business did it well.
Sure, prices were high. But you set a gold standard of what it meant to tell a story through branding, marketing and creating an empire.
Thinking back to my high school years with you, this was the first exposure I had to body image issues. This was the first exposure I had to not being enough simply by having a body that didn’t look like the bodies we saw in print and on the runways.
Victoria’s Secret was the first experience I had with learning how to both embrace my body thanks to their clothing and not like what is reflected in the mirror – much of what the beauty and fashion industry is today.
Does society influence the brands we consume? Or do the brands we consume influence society? In the case of Victoria’s Secret, it’s a little bit of both.
In order to understand how and why Victoria’s Secret is so iconic, it helps to know a little about the business world.
Victoria’s Secret was invented in 1977 by Roy Raymond who established the store so men could feel comfortable buying lingerie. Leslie Wexner bought the business in 1982 and helped the store rapidly grow. On the verge of bankruptcy, Wexner took control of Victoria’s Secret to create a brand storyline. “Victoria” was born.
Wexner thought about the idea of taking Victoria’s Secret to the next level. In 1991, he thought about what a business would look like for women to be able to shop for undergarments and lingerie to wear as they please. This is where the brand began to spark.
A business can really thrive, under the right marketing, when there is little to no threat of new entrants. In other words, no other lingerie brand really came close to Victoria’s Secret at the time and for years to come.
The next way a business can thrive is through great marketing that stems from a great rollout strategy. Your typical rollout strategy might look something like teasing a product, launching it and amplifying that product. Apple is really good at the rollout strategy as it creates buzz from potential and loyal consumers. Victoria’s Secret did something like this as well.
The business went from catalogs to the shelves. Stores popped up in malls nationwide. The iconic fashion show became an interest to women and the idea of womanhood. The Super Bowl commercials that led up to the fashion show are a great example of the rollout strategy Victoria’s Secret implemented.
But, too much of a good thing is not a good thing. The brand leaped from one message to this “fantasy womanhood” that’s sexy, fragile and feminine. Victoria’s Secret bit off more than it could chew and it really lost its footing way before the fallout in 2016-2019. The business began with a man who happened to also be a visionary. But the vision was taken too far and became a problem in society in the mid-2010s.
Where Victoria’s Secret faced its golden age between 1995-2010, it equally met its downfall starting in 2016.
The world was met with a new digital age. With social media taking a shift around this time, so did the body positivity movement. People – women – were starting to realize that they weren’t living up to the fantasy that was the “Victoria’s Secret model look.” Women were looking for something that catered more to them.
One thing I forgot to mention earlier is that a brand needs to continue to develop to meet the demand. Not only meet the demand, but a company needs to keep from, essentially, getting boring. Victoria’s Secret basically got boring in the face of its up-and-coming competitors, Aerie and Savage x Fenty.
When Aerie launched its #AerieReal no-retouching campaign in 2016, that set a precedent of society shifting towards a “real people” perspective and less from the fantasy that Victoria’s Secret was latching on to. People finally saw themselves in commercials and in print magazines and gravitated toward this. Add on a clothing brand from one of the most successful singers and businesswomen in the world, and Victoria’s Secret was becoming less relevant.
In November 2018, a particular Vogue interview came out with Victoria’s Secret Chief Marketing Officer, Ed Razek. For years, Razek was at the forefront of so many iconic marketing events and tactics. This interview sparked outrage against Razek’s comments on the Victoria’s Secret “fantasy.”
When talking about moving toward “diversity,” Razek had a few comments.
“We attempted to do a television special for plus-sizes [in 2000]. No one had any interest in it, still don’t.” Razek said.
“So it’s like, why don’t you do 50? Why don’t you do 60? Why don’t you do 24? It’s like, why doesn’t your show do this? Shouldn’t you have transsexuals in the show? No. No, I don’t think we should. Well, why not? Because the show is a fantasy. It’s a 42-minute entertainment special.” He said.
“But we’re nobody’s third love. We’re their first love. And Victoria’s Secret has been women’s first love from the beginning.” Razek said.
Of course, Victoria’s Secret’s sister brand, Lane Bryant, was a big motivation for not creating more diversity in sizing in Victoria’s Secret. However, Lane Bryant did not get the same creative marketing or iconic brand identity that Victoria’s Secret had.
But now, Victoria’s Secret is at a standstill due to its long-needed rebrand. But is it too late?
With the rise of competitors Aerie and Savage X Fenty, among others, Victoria’s Secret fell behind the demand for body positivity. Now, their efforts of replacing the “Angels” with “spokespeople” have gotten mixed reviews from the public. Some love the new brand, some hate it, and some think the brand is changing in a way that is just tokenism.
In my honest opinion, I think you can still keep your brand DNA and still expand to meet the needs of society. Plus, trans and other minority women just wanted to see the same representation on the runway. They wanted real. They wanted all these minor adjustments in addition to the vision that Victoria’s Secret was. Had those minor adjustments happened, I don’t think Victoria’s Secret would be under fire like it is now.
We have a whole generation, arguably two generations, that are obsessed with labels because of what they grew up around. Victoria’s Secret had so much shady business happen through the years that the damage is almost irreversible. This “fantasy” was created by a man who thought he knew what women liked or wanted. Some women did, and still do, like that idea, but society as a whole has turned away from that dated fantasy.
I had so many body image issues growing up, but I was exposed to them more in Victoria’s Secret. The business was very persuasive in making you think that this narrow way of beauty was not only what womanhood should look like, but it also inherently showed that this look was the look of “success.” To achieve Victoria’s Secret look was a look of success, which was also nearly impossible to achieve.
Personally, I attained my worth and success for so long with how I looked. It didn’t matter if I got good grades, it didn’t matter if I had a 4.0 GPA, it didn’t even matter when I signed with a modeling agency. I attributed my failures to my weight. If I wasn’t losing weight, I wasn’t truly happy. I wasn’t achieving “true success.”
As a plus-size woman in America, it’s so frustrating that three men had a hold on the modeling industry and essentially how society viewed women for so long. Brands like Victoria’s Secret shaped the fashion industry and a societal view of what is “sexy” and “feminine,” and what is not.
In the end, Victoria’s “Secret” was years of shady business with influential men with wealth and power. In a company claiming to be for women, the “fantasy” was solely for the rich people puppeteering the business.
It was Les Wexner’s fantasy. It was Jeffrey Epstein’s fantasy. It was Ed Razek’s fantasy.
It was a whole generation of women’s nightmare.
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