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The Complicated, Messy Reality of 'Canceling' Victoria's Secret

Can one ignorant CMO tank a $12 billion-plus business?
The finale of the 2018 Victoria's Secret Fashion Show. Photo: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

The finale of the 2018 Victoria's Secret Fashion Show. Photo: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

Earlier this month, on the day the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show was set to tape in New York, published an interview between Nicole Phelps and two of Victoria's Secret's execs: Monica Mitro, executive vice president of public relations, and Ed Razek, chief marketing officer of L Brands. While Mitro's responses were run-of-the-mill, tone-deaf, media-trained attempts at putting a positive spin on the company's laundry list of troubles, it was Razek's comments — particularly those regarding the transgender and plus-size communities — which sparked a firestorm of vitriol and hot takes across the internet. Victoria's Secret was, in internet parlance, "canceled."

While the revealing story may have frothed up the industry and the public at large for a week or so, plans to air the annual fashion show on Dec. 2 have continued apace, with only a single Twitter apology issued by the brand late on a Friday night. It's easy to declare something #canceled; to actually accomplish such a thing is more difficult. The Victoria's Secret problem is a deeply tangled one, but it's worth trying to get to the bottom of — if only just to see whether it can be salvaged before driving it into the ground.

The main issue at play isn't necessarily the company's distinctive "fantasy" itself. While many comments on the issue have posited that Victoria's Secret's vision of femininity and sexuality is outdated in the age of #MeToo, it's undeniably true that women who want frilly, sparkly, bow-bedecked underthings in their drawers do still exist. (Whether they want these things because they've bought into a patriarchal vision of femininity is an entirely different essay for a writer more adept than I.) For every customer looking for Negative Underwear-style simplicity or either Lively or Everlane-level unfussy comfort, there's another who wants Agent Provocateur-style ornateness. There's also the basic fact that Victoria's Secret does provide something quite practical — undergarments — at an affordable price in a relatively accessible manner to a vast consumer base.

This is complicated by the fact that the Victoria's Secret fantasy is run by two men — Leslie Wexner and Ed Razek — whose outdated ideals have left many, if not most, American women feeling left out in the cold, and who have stood in the way of any changes which could potentially improve the brand's damaged image. It's no coincidence that a woman brought in to right the sinking ship was also the one who went down with it after two years of tumbling sales; though details are scarce, it seems likely that Jan Singer was unable to bring any meaningful change which would run counter to Wexner and Razek's laser-focused vision for the brand.

Adhering to Victoria's Secret's insular messaging negated any possibility of expanding the so-called fantasy its execs hold so dear to include people from all walks of life: all body types, all genders, all ages, all abilities. In other words, the full spectrum of potential Victoria's Secret customers in the U.S. and beyond. This fact is something the public grabbed onto quickest. However, it's challenging to take this same sort of finger-wagging about casting seriously when it comes from the hand of an industry insider. Fashion is just as guilty of promoting one singular body type — the body type, in fact, often seen on Victoria's Secret runways — in its editorials and advertisements.

Many of these takes, especially regarding size diversity, are coming years too late. Razek told that Victoria's Secret's models were once dubbed "too 'fat' [per] the prevailing wisdom of fashion at the time," but that didn't change because the fashion industry began embracing curvier models; it changed because Victoria's Secret started making a play for fashion by booking its top-tier models for its own annual show. The curvier models plucked to be Victoria's Secret's first Angels — women like Laetitia Casta and Tyra Banks, who are still supermodels in their own right — started to give way to more stereotypical runway stars with the age of Angels like Behati Prinsloo and Lily Aldridge towards the late aughts.

In fact, most (if not all) of Victoria's Secret's current Angels started as high-fashion models, and top talents like Karlie Kloss and Cara Delevingne have walked the show — not to mention the current frenzy generated by Instagirls and luxury fashion favorites like Gigi and Bella Hadid, Kendall Jenner and Winnie Harlow. And who could blame a model for making the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show their dream gig? After walking the show, these women see their follower counts skyrocket — the first step in gaining a serious industry presence, which in turn grants them the power to turn down or accept jobs as they see fit, higher rates and more lucrative contracts, particularly of the beauty variety. 

It's the modeling golden ticket. Many Angels have been able to parlay the media frenzy and the dedicated fanbases — another group who isn't ready to cancel Victoria's Secret just yet — into meaningful platforms for charity. Josephine Skriver regularly does work for the LGBQT+ community; Martha Hunt, who once struggled with scoliosis herself, aims to be a spokesperson for the condition. This is to say, none of this is to knock the women who work so hard to achieve this milestone in their career; instead, consider what a wider variety of Angels and Victoria's Secret models could accomplish, especially for young fans.

Still, it's easy for fashion insiders to judge Victoria's Secret for sticking with standard sized models because, let's face it, as much as the industry has embraced the guaranteed page views that come from covering the show (or, perhaps, the paychecks that accompany the branded advertorial content), it aims to stay at arm's length from the mass-market spectacle of it all. It's a lot harder to hold fashion's bigwigs responsible for their own casting processes year-round, from seasonal runway collections to magazine editorials to ad campaigns; it's their "artistic vision" that can't be compromised, it's "too challenging to make plus samples," it's always passing the buck. Even some of the most progressive champions of diversity in fashion still lack the imagination to find models of different body types, genders or abilities outside a select handful of those who still fit within the confines of accepted beauty standards.

Backstage at the 2018 Victoria's Secret Fashion Show. Photo: Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images for Victoria's Secret

Backstage at the 2018 Victoria's Secret Fashion Show. Photo: Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images for Victoria's Secret

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However, it wouldn't be hard for Victoria's Secret to make a few tweaks that would cost them relatively little (and in fact, might even save them money in some cases) and help vastly improve their image: Add a few curvier (preferably genuine plus) girls into the mix, both on the runway and in their e-commerce imagery; loosen up the near-robotic media training mandates on their Angels; ditch Michael Bay's male-gazey take on the annual holiday commercials for a female director with a modern vision; and, of course, expand the brand's sizing options to be fully inclusive, something which they have the resources to manage easier than almost any other lingerie brand on market.

These are all changes which still fit within the Victoria's Secret blueprint. Broader changes would involve things like completely revamping the brand image, down to the store designs, moving away from the padded and pushed-up-to-here styles the brand has been shilling for so long and perhaps even rethinking the concept of its Angels altogether. A recent Business of Fashion article suggested the brand should go so far as to ditch the fashion show, noting that the 2016 Paris marketing extravaganza cost some $20 million alone.

I'm not convinced this is necessary, considering that it's basically Victoria's Secret's one big commercial and that, in 2015, the brand reported a 3 percent bump in comparable stores sales over the five weeks following the fashion show, leading to $2.2 billion in sales. (While the brand's sales have suffered in the years following, the same period in 2017 saw at the very least a stemming of the blood loss from the brand's bottom line.)

Though the views are undoubtedly down — especially in the U.S. where the 2017 Victoria's Secret Fashion Show netted under 5 million viewers, a noted 30 percent drop from the year before — the 2016 show still received some 1.4 billion views and 150 billion media impressions worldwide, according to a release from the brand. (Also worth mentioning: The brand definitely misses out by scheduling such a delay between taping and airing, with Dash Hudson noting that social media impressions have been higher year-over-year on the day the show films.) None of those numbers are anything to sneeze at, by any means — any fashion company on the planet would kill for that sort of reach. 

It's easy for those who are inside the industry or otherwise engaged on social media to believe that Razek's offensive comments were enough to seal the brand's coffin. But how likely is it that the customer stopping into their neighborhood Victoria's Secret to pick up some underwear, or maybe a holiday gift, are even aware of Razek's comments — let alone who he is at all? As Rachel Tashjian writes for Garage, many businesses — like the often-troubled Dolce & Gabbana — are able to weather these controversies because their core shopper either doesn't know about them or doesn't care.

The fact of the matter remains that Victoria's Secret is, at this point, almost too big to fail. As Cora Harrington, editor-in-chief of The Lingerie Addict and author of "In Intimate Detail," rightfully points out, even with inclusive businesses like Savage x Fenty and Aerie snapping at their heels, Victoria's Secret still has the benefit of a large network of stores, some of which are the only options for women to go and try on lingerie for miles. (In fact, Harrington has some of the sharpest commentary on both the Victoria's Secret debacle and the lingerie industry in general, and she's worth a follow.) Though the brand may be hemorrhaging younger customers to cooler, more progressive competitors, it's not dead yet.

Ultimately, Victoria's Secret's space in the lingerie market could easily make it a force for good. Think of what the lingerie giant could do with a broader size range, more inclusive marketing and one of the most visible, diverse runways in the world. But what if — as Erin Cunningham posited for InStyle — the people in charge of the brand aren't interested in making those changes?

Shareholders upset that their stocks have been significantly slashed in the last year should look at company leadership and ask why they're not willing to make these needed changes. While Abercrombie & Fitch — also a one-time Les Wexner project — may never again be a leader in the teen apparel market, cutting out a problematic figurehead (in their case, Mike Jeffries) and making difficult changes has lead to a respectable turnaround in business; there's no reason Victoria's Secret couldn't do the same, though hiring another male CEO seems like a misstep. And for those who are understandably upset about the deeply offensive comments made by Razek, continue to support brands who support you with your wallet, especially by finding indie designers and retailers. The lingerie market can only benefit from having more options.

In the meantime, however, it's clear that Victoria's Secret's narrow version of what is sexy no longer sells. Whether they receive that message remains to be seen — but don't count them as #canceled just yet. 

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