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Victoria's Secret swaps angels for female empowerment. Will women buy it?

With Megan Rapinoe, Eileen Gu, and Priyanka Chopra Jonas among others, Victoria's Secret is spearheading what may be the most extreme and unabashed attempt at a brand turnaround in recent memory with seven women famous for their achievements and not their proportions

By Sapna Maheshwari and Vanessa Friedman
Published: Jun 17, 2021

Victoria's Secret swaps angels for female empowerment. Will women buy it?A photo provided by Victoria’s Secret shows Eileen Gu, a skier who plans to compete at the Olympics. She is a member of the VS Collective, a group of seven accomplished women who will spearhead an effort to redefine the version of “sexy” that Victoria’s Secret represents (and sells) to the masses. (Jacob Sutton/Victoria’s Secret via The New York Times)

The Victoria’s Secret Angels, those avatars of Barbie bodies and playboy reverie, are gone. Their wings, fluttery confections of rhinestones and feathers that could weigh almost 30 pounds, are gathering dust in storage. The “Fantasy Bra,” dangling real diamonds and other gems, is no more.

In their place are seven women famous for their achievements and not their proportions. They include Megan Rapinoe, the 35-year-old pink-haired soccer star and gender equity campaigner; Eileen Gu, a 17-year-old Chinese American freestyle skier and soon-to-be Olympian; the 29-year-old biracial model and inclusivity advocate Paloma Elsesser, who was the rare size 14 woman on the cover of Vogue; and Priyanka Chopra Jonas, a 38-year-old Indian actor and tech investor. 

They will be spearheading what may be the most extreme and unabashed attempt at a brand turnaround in recent memory: an effort to redefine the version of “sexy” that Victoria’s Secret represents (and sells) to the masses. For decades, Victoria’s Secret’s scantily clad supermodels with Jessica Rabbit curves epitomized a certain widely accepted stereotype of femininity. Now, with that kind of imagery out of step with the broader culture and Victoria’s Secret facing increased competition and internal turmoil, the company wants to become, its CEO said, a leading global “advocate” for female empowerment. 

Will women buy it? An upcoming spinoff, more than $5 billion in annual sales, and 32,000 jobs in a global retail network that includes roughly 1,400 stores are riding on the answer. 

It is a stark change for a brand that not only long sold lingerie in the guise of male fantasy, but has also been scrutinized heavily in recent years for its owner’s relationship with sex offender Jeffrey Epstein and revelations about a misogynistic corporate culture that trafficked in sexism, sizeism and ageism. 

“When the world was changing, we were too slow to respond,” said Martin Waters, former head of Victoria’s Secret’s international business who was appointed CEO of the brand in February. “We needed to stop being about what men want and to be about what women want.” 

The seven women, who form a group called the VS Collective, will alternately advise the brand, appear in ads and promote Victoria’s Secret on Instagram. They are joining a company that has an entirely new executive team and is forming a board of directors in which all but one seat will be occupied by a woman. 

Rarely has a company so dominant in its sector been exposed as trailing so far behind the culture as Victoria’s Secret was in the wake of the #MeToo movement. 

It was, Rapinoe said bluntly, “patriarchal, sexist, viewing not just what it meant to be sexy but what the clothes were trying to accomplish through a male lens and through what men desired. And it was very much marketed toward younger women.” That message, she said, was “really harmful.” 

Victoria’s Secret’s cultural influence is a product of its industry standing. Though the company’s share of the U.S. women’s underwear market dropped to 21% last year from 32% in 2015, according to Euromonitor International, it is still a powerhouse. Its next closest competitor is Hanesbrands, with a 16% share. 

Founded in 1977 as a store where men could feel comfortable shopping for lingerie, even the name referred to male fantasies of prim Victorian ladies who became naughty in the boudoir. Retail billionaire Leslie H. Wexner bought Victoria’s Secret in 1982 and turned it into a phenomenon that helped shape society’s view of female sexuality and beauty ideals. Central to its ethos were the “Angels” — supermodels like Heidi Klum and Tyra Banks who posed exclusively for the brand, often in G-strings, stilettos and wings. In 1995, it introduced the Victoria’s Secret fashion show, a sort of cross between a runway show and a pole dance that aired on network television for nearly two decades. 

It has taken years for Victoria’s Secret to acknowledge that its marketing was dated. In that time, the value of the brand eroded and a slew of competitors grew in part by positioning themselves as the anti-Victoria’s Secret, complete with more typical women’s bodies and a focus on inclusivity and diversity. 

The brand has also come under fire after Wexner’s close ties to Epstein came to light in 2019 and a New York Times investigation last year showed that Wexner and his former chief marketing officer, Ed Razek, presided over an entrenched culture of misogyny, bullying and harassment. 

“I’ve known that we needed to change this brand for a long time, we just haven’t had the control of the company to be able to do it,” Waters said. As for the Angels? “Right now, I don’t see it as being culturally relevant,” he said. 

Razek and Wexner will not be a part of the new Victoria’s Secret, which will split from L Brands and Bath & Body Works to become its own public company this summer. (The pandemic scuttled a sale to a private-equity firm and swallowed $2 billion in revenue.) There are more women in charge, including a new chief marketing officer, Martha Pease, who has led the Collective initiative. The stores that survived a year of culling are becoming lighter and brighter, and mannequins — which have typically been a size 32B — will come in new shapes and sizes. The Angels imagery, which once even appeared on store bathroom TVs, will be phased out. The company will still sell products like thongs and lacy lingerie but its purview will expand, especially in areas like sportswear. 

“In the old days, the Victoria brand had a single lens, which was called ‘sexy,’” Waters said. While that sold for decades, it also prevented the brand from offering products like maternity or post-mastectomy bras (not considered sexy) and prompted it to sell push-up sports bras (sexy, but not so popular). It also meant, he said, “that the brand never celebrated Mother’s Day.” (Not sexy.) 

There are plenty of people who do, in fact, find motherhood seductive, but the myopia of the Victoria’s Secret lens was such that they were never acknowledged, let alone listened to. 

“As a gay woman, I think a lot about what we think is sexy, and we are afforded the ability to do that, because I don’t have to wear the traditional sexy thing to be sexy and I don’t think the traditional thing is sexy when it comes to my partner or people I’ve dated,” said Rapinoe. “I think functionality is probably the sexiest thing we could possibly achieve in life. Sometimes just cool is sexy too.” 

Victoria’s Secret, which did finally introduce a Mother’s Day campaign last month and even featured a pregnant model, will soon begin selling nursing bras. It also said it would work with its new partners like Rapinoe and Chopra Jonas on product lines set to appear next spring. 

While it was “probably time for the Angels to go,” the lingerie powerhouse will have to strike a balance between moving forward and maintaining existing customers, said Cynthia Fedus-Fields, former CEO of the Victoria’s Secret division responsible for its catalog. 

“If it was a $7 billion business pre-COVID, and much of that $7 billion was built on this blatant sexy approach, be careful with what you’re doing,” she said. 

According to Raúl Martinez, who joined as creative director in January, every aspect of the brand is being reconsidered. 

“It has to have a purpose, a reason, be there for the consumer to say: 'Wow, they’re really evolving,'” he said, acknowledging that it was his 15-year-old daughter who convinced him to join Victoria’s Secret. “She said, ‘Dad. Do it for us. The Gen Zs.’” he recalled. 

Still, the question remains: Why would women like Rapinoe and Chopra Jonas want to risk their names by placing their stamp of credibility on Victoria’s Secret? The line between selling out and infiltrating from within can be hard to discern. 

“Of course there will be people who are like, ‘Does this make sense?’” said Rapinoe, who acknowledged that when she was first approached, “I, too, was like ‘What? Why do you want to work with me?’” She said she had been convinced by the willingness of the brand’s executives to acknowledge their mistakes and history, and by the fact that her role is not limited to the typical “brand ambassadorship,” but extends to consulting on language the company uses, the assortment of products it offers and narrative it’s putting out. 

Elsesser said her decision to join Victoria’s Secret “goes back to the sheer metrics of the situation.” 

“I didn’t start modeling to just do all the cool stuff; I did it to change the world,” she said. “With platforms like VS, where you enter the living rooms of all people, that’s where you make radical change.” She saw part of her role as lobbying for Victoria’s Secret to increase their sizing to XXXXXL, she said. (It currently carries up to 42G in bras and XXL in nightwear.) 

The VS Collective also includes Valentina Sampaio, a Brazilian trans model; Adut Akech, a model and South Sudanese refugee; and Amanda de Cadenet, photographer and founder of #Girlgaze, the digital platform for female photographers. All of them, in the words of Rapinoe, are people who were not “typical brand targets in the past.” As for the fashion show, Waters said it would most likely return in 2022 in a very different form. What the brand will offer soon is a podcast featuring the women in the collective, a medium that requires no visuals. 

“To rebrand is going to take a lot of steps to ensure that they have the consumer trust, that this isn’t just inclusivity-washing,” said Erin Schmidt, a senior analyst at Coresight Research. 

Victoria’s Secret is betting a chunk of its marketing budget that persuading such unexpected personalities to join their cause will in turn convince consumers, and potential investors, to similarly believe in its shift, giving a new meaning to halo effect. 

As Rapinoe said, “I don’t know if Victoria has a secret anymore.”

©2019 New York Times News Service