Victoria’s Secret exchanges its angels for the emancipation of women.  Will women buy it?

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Written by Sapna Maheshwari and Vanessa Friedman

The Victoria’s Secret angels, those avatars of Barbie bodies and playboy reverie, are gone. Their wings, floating confections of rhinestones and feathers that could weigh nearly 30 pounds, collect dust in storage. The “Fantasy Bra”, which hangs from real diamonds and other precious stones, is no more.

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

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

Will women buy it? An upcoming spinoff, over $ 5 billion in annual sales and 32,000 jobs in a global retail network that includes approximately 1,400 stores is the answer.

It’s a sea change for a brand that has not only long sold lingerie under the guise of a male fantasy, but has also come under close scrutiny 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 changed, we were too slow to respond,” said Martin Waters, former head of international affairs for Victoria’s Secret who was named CEO of the brand in February. “We had to stop worrying about what men want and what women want. “

The seven women, who form a group called the VS Collective, will take turns advising the brand, appearing in commercials and promoting Victoria’s Secret on Instagram. They join a company that has an entirely new management team and forms a board of directors in which all but one seat will be occupied by a woman.

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The beleaguered lingerie giant is attempting the most extreme brand turnaround in recent memory: an effort not only to redefine itself, but also to redefine the very idea of ​​what “sexy” is. (Cass Bird / Victoria’s Secret via The New York Times)

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

It was, said Rapinoe bluntly, “patriarchal, sexist, seeing not only what it meant to be sexy, but what the clothes were trying to accomplish through a male lens and through what men wanted. And it was heavily marketed to younger women. That post, she said, was “really hurtful.”

Victoria’s Secret’s cultural influence is a product of its reputation in the industry. Although the company’s share of the U.S. women’s underwear market fell 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 the masculine fantasies of staid Victorian women getting naughty in the boudoir. Retail billionaire Leslie H. Wexner bought Victoria’s Secret in 1982 and made it a phenomenon that helped shape society’s view on female sexuality and beauty ideals. At the heart of his philosophy were the “Angels” – models like Heidi Klum and Tyra Banks who posed exclusively for the brand, often in thongs, stilettos and wings. In 1995, he presented the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, a kind of cross between a catwalk and a pole dance that aired on television for almost two decades.

It took years for Victoria’s Secret to recognize that its marketing was dated. Around this time, the brand’s value eroded and many competitors grew in part by positioning themselves as the anti-Victoria’s Secret, with more typical female bodies and an emphasis on inclusiveness and diversity.

The brand has also come under fire after Wexner’s close ties to Epstein were revealed in 2019 and a New York Times investigation last year showed Wexner and his former marketing director Ed Razek presiding over a deep-rooted culture of misogyny, intimidation and harassment. .

“I knew we had to change that brand for a long time, we just didn’t have control of the company to be able to do it,” Martin said. As for the Angels? “At the moment, I don’t consider it to be culturally relevant,” he said.

Razek and Wexner will not be part of the new Victoria’s Secret, which will part ways with 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 up $ 2 billion in revenue.) There are more women in the driving seat, including a new chief marketing officer, Martha Pease, who led the company. collective initiative. Stores that have survived a year of slaughter are getting lighter and brighter, and mannequins – who were typically size 32B – will come in new shapes and sizes. Images of angels, which even once appeared on store bathroom TVs, will be phased out. The company will continue to sell products such as thongs and lace lingerie, but its scope will expand, especially in areas such as sportswear.

A photo provided by Victoria’s Secret shows model and inclusivity advocate Paloma Essler in the center. (Zoe Ghertner / Victoria’s Secret via The New York Times)

“In the past, the Victoria brand had only one goal, which was called ‘sexy’,” Waters said. While this has 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 bras from push-up sport (sexy, but not so popular). It also meant, he said, “that the brand never celebrated Mother’s Day.” (Not sexy.)

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

“As a gay woman I think a lot about what we think is sexy, and we have the option of doing that, because I don’t have to wear traditional sexy clothing to be sexy and I don’t think the traditional is sexy when it comes to my partner or the people I’ve dated, ”said Rapinoe. “I think functionality is probably the sexiest thing we can accomplish in life. Sometimes just cool is sexy too.

Victoria’s Secret, which finally kicked off a Mother’s Day campaign last month and even featured a pregnant model, will soon start selling nursing bras. He also said he would work with his new partners like Rapinoe and Chopra Jonas on product lines that are expected to appear next spring.

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

“If this was a $ 7 billion business before COVID, and a lot of that $ 7 billion was built on this blatant sexy approach, be careful what you do,” he said. she declared.

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

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

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

“Of course there will be people who will ask, ‘Does this make sense? “Said Rapinoe, who admitted that when she was first approached,” I too was like ‘What? Why do you want to work with me? ‘ She said she was convinced by the willingness of the brand’s executives to recognize their mistakes and their history, and by the fact that her role is not limited to the typical ‘brand ambassador’, but to herself. extends to advice on the language used by the company, the assortment of products it offers and the storytelling it disseminates.

Essler said his decision to join Victoria’s Secret “fell within the parameters of the situation.”

“I didn’t start modeling to do all the cool things; I did it to change the world, ”she said. “With platforms like VS, where you walk into everyone’s living rooms, that’s where you make a drastic change. She considered part of her role to be lobbying for Victoria’s Secret to increase their height to XXXXXL, she said. (He currently wears up to 42G in bras and XXL in sleepwear.)

The VS collective also includes Valentina Sampaio, a Brazilian trans model; Adut Akech, a South Sudanese model and refugee; and Amanda de Cadenet, photographer and founder of #Girlgaze, the digital platform for women photographers. All of them, in Rapinoe’s words, are people who were not “typical brand targets in the past”. As for the fashion show, Waters said it will most likely return in 2022 in a much different form. What the brand will soon be offering is a podcast featuring the women of the collective, a medium that does not require any visuals.

“The rebranding is going to take a lot of steps to make sure they have the trust of consumers, that it’s not just an inclusiveness wash,” said Erin Schmidt, senior analyst at Coresight Research.

Victoria’s Secret is betting part of its marketing budget that persuading such unexpected figures to join their cause will in turn convince consumers and potential investors alike to believe in its change alike, giving new meaning to the effect of halo.

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

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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