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A Deep Dive Into The Death Of The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show

Cancel culture is ruining everything! 

Political correctness won’t stop until everything is offensive! 

Just kidding, it’s way more complicated than that, silly. Economies don’t run on cancel culture, and CEOs have never cared if they’re “problematic” until it affects their bottom line (as I’m about to show you). This isn’t to say that public opinion isn’t important in keeping businesses afloat, but Victoria’s Secret isn’t crumbling simply because a few Twitter warriors complained about their lack of diversity. The descent of Victoria’s Secret from popular culture has been happening slowly but surely for a few years now. Yes, there are some who have chosen to boycott the company in favour of brands who better represent them, but public distaste towards Victoria’s Secret also comes from more sinister places. What’s more, the fall of this once-glamorous brand signals a greater trend in terms of what consumers expect from companies, and a diminishing desire amongst young women to cater to the male gaze.

First, the short answer: the show is no longer profitable. It costs about $12 million to stage, which was all well and good when it was a cultural phenomenon and garnered over 10 million views, but this just isn’t the case anymore. Last year brought them the lowest ratings ever. But Victoria’s Secret’s decline is about more than just the show’s cancellation, since the lack of views could be partly put down to the fact that most of us now get our entertainment from the internet rather than television. The company’s sales figures aren’t so hot either. Their parent company reported that Victoria’s Secret lost them $252 million in third quarter results announced this year. More than 53 stores are set to close in the US alone. So, my aim is to explore why Victoria’s Secret is flailing. Is it simply bad publicity, or has the long-time lingerie giant finally become outdated?

When calls for more body diversity on the runway are voiced, they are often met with statements along the lines of: “But these women work for their bodies. Their job is to be beautiful.” And though some think inclusivity may tarnish the sanctity of modelling, I believe criticising the strict standards of the industry isn’t just to make us “regular folk” feel better, but also to protect the wellbeing of models. For instance, Australian model Robyn Lawley made it known that, “All my friends that were doing that show were starving themselves… They weren’t eating and they were exercising for four to five hours a day and they are not usually exercise people.” Though for many years the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show has been the ultimate exhibition of aspiration, even the models themselves have trouble meeting those standards without putting their health at risk.

The parent company of Victoria’s Secret is L Brands. The founder of L Brands, Les Wexner, notedly had a friendship with the late Jeffrey Epstein, who died in prison this year whilst awaiting trial for sex trafficking charges. Doesn’t that just scream female-friendly working environment? Model Maria Farmer recently alleged that Epstein sexually assaulted her whilst posing as a recruiter for the company’s catalogue. This story and others like it prompted The Model Alliance to publish an open letter to Victoria’s Secret which shows that although angelic supermodels are what made the brand such a staple in pop culture, it is doing nothing to protect them: “We are writing today to express our concern for the safety and wellbeing of the models and young women who aspire to model for Victoria’s Secret. In the past few weeks, we have heard numerous allegations of sexual assault, alleged rape, and sex trafficking of models and aspiring models. While these allegations may not have been aimed at Victoria’s Secret directly, it is clear that your company has a crucial role to play in remedying the situation. From the headlines about L Brands CEO Leslie Wexner’s close friend and associate, Jeffrey Epstein, to the allegations of sexual misconduct by photographers Timur Emek, David Bellemere and Greg Kadel, it is deeply disturbing that these men appear to have leveraged their working relationships with Victoria’s Secret to lure and abuse vulnerable girls.”

“Although angelic supermodels are what made the brand such a staple in pop culture, it is doing nothing to protect them”

Victoria’s Secret refused to evolve in the face of changing expectations from consumers. Whilst companies like American Eagle Outfitters’ Aerie or Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty are providing women with the inclusivity they want and are doing all the better for it (Aerie reported a 38% increase in same-store sales for the first quarter of 2018 and Rihanna’s lingerie fashion show was picked up by Amazon Prime), Victoria’s Secret remained staunch. Last year, L Brands’ chief marketing officer, Ed Razek, spoke to Vogue about why Victoria’s Secret was not a fan of inclusivity. He asserted that transgender models had no place on the runway because “the show is a fantasy”. Of plus-size models, he said, “We attempted to do a television special for plus sizes [in 2000]. No one had any interest in it. Still don’t.” Although this was already a bad look for the brand, they looked even sillier when they later ended up hiring their first transgender model, Valentina Sampaio, and featuring plus-size model Ali Tate Cutler in a campaign. It’s quite transparent that this was only an attempt to un-do the bad publicity caused by Razek’s words. So not only are they bigoted, unqualified dictators of women’s beauty, but they’re also spineless sell-outs too.

image credit: Vikram Valluri, Shutterstock

But Victoria’s Secret’s decline is not only down to bad publicity; I believe there is a greater trend at play, of an increasing rejection of the male gaze. It is clear, with the lingerie brand’s mistreatment of its models and its exclusion of large parts of the female population, that Victoria’s Secret does not have the best interests of women at heart. And it’s quite easy to explain why. Though the store’s merchandise was intended to clothe women, it was conceived to benefit men. Victoria’s Secret’s founder, Roy Raymond, had no qualms about admitting that the idea for the brand was born whilst he was lingerie-shopping for his wife. Walking into a department store in the late 70s, Raymond found that there was a disappointing lack of sex appeal when it came to women’s underwear: “I was faced with racks of terry-cloth robes and ugly floral-print nylon nightgowns”. So, he set about making a lingerie store for women, stocked with pieces that appealed to men. “Part of the game was to make it more comfortable to men… I aimed it, I guess, at myself,” he told Susan Faludi. But these uncomfortable, frilly, lacy – and not to mention reportedly poor quality – pieces were marketed as empowering for women. This was done, in the words of Raymond, to allow him “to sell these garments without seeming sexist”. In 1999 the company placed an ad for its fashion show during the Super Bowl. Is there a more comically obvious way to portray that the lingerie brand was intended for the straight male gaze? 

“No wonder so many consumers are flocking to the loving arms of Rihanna”

With this in mind, it’s no wonder that Victoria’s Secret seems uncomfortably outdated. And when looking at the fall of another company which was famously exclusionary, the now culturally irrelevant Abercrombie & Fitch, a pattern seems to emerge regarding what young consumers will put up with. Almost a decade ago – I would have been 11 or 12 when I was begging my mum for an overpriced, logo-bearing A&F T-shirt – the brand made a lot of money off marketing to the “cool kids”. The then-CEO made this no secret too, and the combination of bad publicity and the cultural shift away from preppy, “all-American” style to a more “hipster”, “grunge” trend has made Abercrombie & Fitch a shadow of its former self. In the same way that A&F’s topless male models posed outside the store and the scantily-clad, tanned, fit and blonde sales-girls gave off an outdated, hyper-sexualised, unfriendly air, Victoria’s Secret is dripping with an inherent need to appeal to the male gaze. Compare this to Rihanna’s lingerie brand, Savage x Fenty: in her 2019 show she not only included women of all colours and sizes, but all ages too. She notably featured pregnant women, saying that she wanted to exhibit beauty in all stages of womanhood. No wonder so many consumers are flocking to the loving arms of Rihanna.

Refinery29 calls Victoria’s Secret “the house that white men built”, and I think that’s apt. Young consumers increasingly want to give their money to something that represents them, whether that be representation on the runway or simply knowing that the business they’re supporting has their interests at heart. Victoria’s Secret, arguably, was never meant to empower or uplift (or any other number of feminist buzzwords) women. It was created by men, for the gaze of men, which I believe is no longer compatible with the young market. We want to support designers and brands who are catering to us, rather than desperately trying to fit the mould set by sexually frustrated, middle-aged, white men.

Follow Anastasia on Instagram. Check out her blog here.

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