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VICTORIA'S KEEPING SECRETS
KARLY BURLOCK AND STONE LEE
When you hear Victoria's Secret, what immediately comes to mind is their lingerie campaigns and annual fashion show featuring world-renowned models, commonly referred to as VS Angels. At first glance, Victoria's Secret seems like an all-encompassing brand that empowers women and celebrates body openness. However, this display of grandeur and glamour is carefully curated to mask key parts of their operations. Over the years, VS has faced massive amounts of backlash from customers, celebrities, and the public for the way the brand represents itself and its inner operations, and many people believe VS continuously lacks diversity and enforces negative body images.
Prior to the 2018 Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, the Chief Marketing Officer Ed Razek made a disheartening statement that deeply hurt the VS community. He said, “If you’re asking if we’ve considered putting a transgender model in the show or looked at putting a plus-size model in the show, we have … We market to who we sell to, and we don’t market to the whole world. We attempted to do a television special for plus-sizes [in 2000]. No one had any interest in it, still don’t.” In response, public figures and trans models Gigi Gorgeous and Carmen Carrera spoke out against the brand. By posting videos on Instagram and stating their refusal to make future purchases from the brand, their outspoken disdain for the brand alone decreased sales by a whole 5 percent the following year.
Although Ed Razek later resigned in 2019, the immense controversies surrounding Victoria’s Secret continued. Because of the scandal within these comments, people started uncovering secrets that were hidden from the public, including the discovery of Victoria’s Secret’s connection to Jeffrey Epstein, an infamous sex offender who was arrested on federal charges of sex trafficking minors in 2019. A group of journalists found that during the 1990s, Epstein was involved in some of the decision-making within the company while serving as an advisor to the Chief Executive Officer at the time, Les Wexner. Epstein and Wexner’s relationship began in the 1980s when Wexner allowed Epstein to borrow money, sign his tax returns, hire employees, and make acquisitions for the company. Because of Epstein’s close relationship with the company, he used his power to coerce women by posing as a recruiter to young, upcoming models. These models believed they were getting their big break, but what unfortunately occurred instead was Epstein abusing his authority and sexually assaulting these women. In Angels and Demons, the popular documentary on Victoria’s Secret’s scandals, Alicia Arden discussed how she was invited into a hotel room by Epstein, where he put his hands on her and tried to undress her. These allegations eventually led Wexner to resign in 2020, but the unveiling of the company’s relationship with Epstein turned much of the public against the brand. With a steep drop in net sales from 7.5 billion US dollars in 2019 to 5.4 billion US dollars in 2020, it was clear that their secrets had caught up to them.
In efforts of regaining their once beloved image, in 2019 Victoria’s Secret attempted to include more plus-sized models in their campaigns to promote body inclusivity. They partnered with UK lingerie brand Bluebella, a brand known to promote inclusivity through their large size range and representative campaigns. The model chosen for this campaign was plus-size model Ali Tate, and although seemingly the perfect move for redemption, it was ultimately a massive failure for VS. The problem was that Tate was technically hired by Bluebella not by VS, and that Tate is a “smaller sized” plus-size model at size 14. Even with this effort, VS failed to shake their harmful reputation and might have made it even worse.
Customers and celebrities did not respond well to this mishap. Many saw this as a money making idea rather than a change in what the brand actually stood for. It seemed like VS only made this move to try to keep up with a new, highly competitive brand SavageXFenty, an inclusive lingerie company launched by a famous singer, Rihanna. Customers believed their campaign was simply a publicity stunt to combat customers opting for other brands, and were extremely disheartened by this move.VS eventually canceled their 2019 fashion show due to the immense amount of backlash in response to the events that unfolded months prior. In order to stop receiving criticism for their shows and choice of models, VS eventually halted their shows altogether.
Then, earlier this month, in March 2023, VS just recently announced the end of their 4-year hiatus and is bringing back their fashion shows. It will be interesting to see how VS reinvents themselves and if there has been any progress in the brand’s inclusivity efforts. While VS is sure to captivate audiences with a dramatic comeback, keep an eye out not for their new flashy line nor their iconic angel wings, but for a true change within the brand.