For more than 20 years, Victoria’s Secret had bolstered its image built on a man’s vision of sexiness with one big annual event: its fashion catwalk extravaganza, with supermodels like Naomi Campbell sashaying down the runway in Swarovski-crystal covered wings, thongs and million dollar fantasy bras.
Now, after a four-year hiatus, the lingerie brand came back Wednesday night with a complete overhaul that was part fashion event and part preview of a documentary-style film featuring 20 global creatives. It celebrated all different body shapes — girth and all.
Top models like Winnie Harlow, who has vitiligo, a skin condition, showed up in some of the designs. The event also showcased the creators’ looks on headless mannequins of all body types.
The Victoria’s Secret World Tour, to be aired globally on Amazon Prime Video on Sept. 26, marks the company’s biggest marketing investment in the past five years and its latest efforts to reverse its supercharged sexy image that left it irrelevant to many women, leading to several years of sales declines.
Those efforts include revamping its marketing to highlight fuller-figure women in ads and store mannequins, and expanding into mastectomy bras and comfy sports bras. It’s also refreshing its stores with brighter lights and blush pink walls. And it replaced its supermodel “Angels” with a group of 10 diverse women who have advised the brand and promoted it on social media.
“My motive to be here is that I have girls,” said Brazilian supermodel Adriana Lima, a long-time Victoria’s Secret Angel, on the red carpet. “Some of my girls want to be models so I feel that in this day, Victoria’s Secret and other brands are embracing and celebrating women in their different stages. So that’s a beautiful thing.”
Campbell told The Associated Press that there are many girls who want to work and create for Victoria’s Secret, “and now they will have the chance to.”
But Victoria’s Secret faces an uphill battle, some experts say.
While the brand is still the largest lingerie label by sales in the U.S., its market share has eroded to 18.7% last year from 31.2% in 2017, hurt by smaller rivals like American Eagle’s Aerie and other online startups that were inclusive from the get-go and offered more comfort, according to market researcher Euromonitor International.
Last year, Victoria’s Secret bought online rival Adore me for $400 million in cash but the Reynoldsburg, Ohio-based company still delivered another quarter of sales drops for the period ended July 29. And it forecasts sales will continue to fall for the rest of the year.
Victoria’s Secret CEO Martin Waters told analysts last week that turning around the business will take some time.
“We recognize that neither our brand revolution nor our strategy will return the full potential overnight,” Waters said. ”We’re on a journey. We also believe that there is a clear path to growth through the current turbulent environment and into the future.”
‘The story became toxic’
It wasn’t so long ago Victoria’s Secret had a long unparalleled run of success.
The brand was founded by the late Roy Larson Raymond in the late 1970s after he felt embarrassed about purchasing lingerie for his wife. Lex Wexner, the founder of the Limited Stores Inc. that was rebranded as L Brands in 2013, purchased Victoria’s Secret in 1982 and turned it into a powerful retail force. By the mid-1990s, Victoria’s Secret lit up runways and the internet with its supermodels.
But Victoria’s Secret’s sales started to tumble in 2017 when the #MeToo movement began, emboldening women to look for brands that focused on positive reinforcement of their bodies. In 2019, Victoria’s Secret’s long time marketing chief Edward Razek resigned. That same year, the company said it would rethink its fashion show.
Wexner — who apologized in 2019 for his ties with the late financier Jeffrey Epstein, indicted on sex-trafficking charges — stepped down in 2020 as CEO and chairman of L Brands and then severed his final ties by exiting the board a year later. In 2021, Victoria’s Secret split off from L Brands as its own separate public company.
“They had a very clear story,” said Allen Adamson, co-founder of marketing consultancy Metaforce. “Unfortunately, the story became toxic.”
Last year, singer Jax came out with a song titled “Victoria’s Secret,” in which she criticized the brand in her lyrics: “I know Victoria’s secret and, girl, you wouldn’t believe. She’s an old man who lives in Ohio making money off of girls like me.”
Adamson said Victoria’s Secret is now pushing the same message as everyone else about diverse body types and comfort. But it isn’t standing out.
Sierra Mariela, a 20-year-old sophomore at University of Pennsylvania, hasn’t stepped into a Victoria’s Secret store in at least five years because she was turned off by the messaging. Instead, she has been going to Target or Depop, a privately-held marketplace for used clothing, for her lingerie needs.
“I grew up as someone who’s not stereotypically thin, and I just felt like the environment created was for a very specific type of person,” she said. ”I just felt more connected with other brands.”
Waters noted on last week’s investor call that Wednesday’s fashion event offers the brand an opportunity “to reclaim its position at the center of cultural relevance, whether that’s fashion, art, music or popular culture.”
It reflects the company’s mission: “to uplift and champion women — on a global scale.”
The event, headlined by a performance by Doja Cat, showed snippets of the feature length film that includes runway shows of both the creators’ looks and a couture collection designed by the company’s design team. The company is offering 13 designs inspired by the couture items —silky robes, lacey pants and bustier bras — for sale in late September. The film features many of the original show’s famous models like Campbell, Lima and Gigi Hadad, but also includes many fuller-size models like Paloma Elsesser that the brand has been working with for a few years.
Melissa Valdes Duque, a 24-year-old designer from Bogota, Columbia featured in the film, created crocheted looks that symbolize women’s physical and emotional scars. She acknowledged the brand had upheld certain unrealistic standards.
“There were certain standards about bodies and beauty that we all follow,” she said. “But brands and people… we all grow up.”