Annabel Begeng, Junior Copywriter at 50 Crates
The damning exposé revealed decades of alleged inappropriate conduct and sexual harassment of models and other female employees at the hands of Ed Razek, former longstanding top executive at L Brands, the parent company of Victoria’s Secret.
From models who were dismissed after rebuffing Mr Razek’s advances to Weinstein-esque private meetings in hotel rooms and unpaid nude shoots for the brand’s favourite photographer, Russell James. Three witnesses even say that during a 2018 fitting with Supermodel Bella Hadid, Razek declared “forget the panties”and went on to discuss whether the TV network would even let Ms Hadid walk “down the runway with those perfect titties.”
The scandal is just the latest in a string of public controversies and embarrassments that have plagued the company over the last 18 months. In 2018, Mr Razek went viral for stating that trans and plus size models didn’t fit the “fantasy” of the brand’s infamous runway show. The very same runway show that would be cancelled just months later after nearly two decades on network television.
Fifty-three stores were closed in 2018 alone and L Brand’s stock price has been declining steadily over the last four years, down 75% from its peak in 2015. This fall from grace is not the result of Mr Razek’s actions alone, but rather an overarching failure to respond and stay relevant to the changing culture of the customers that they seek to serve.
The lingerie giant was founded in 1977 by Roy Raymond with the vision of creating a place where men would feel comfortable shopping for lingerie for their wives or girlfriends. The intention was to create a women’s underwear brand that was targeted at men. After Lex Warner (founder of L Brands) purchased the company in 1982, the brand changed its direction to focus on women as the main consumers. Despite this attempted pivot, the male gaze has continued to define and dominate the brand for its 42 years of trade.
Often criticised for its over sexualised aesthetic, whispered voices, red lips, pushup bras and female models draped over one another have dominated the brand’s commercials since the early 90’s. The ‘fantasy’ that Mr Razek held to so firmly is undoubtedly one that lives in the heads of teenage boys and bored husbands, not confident adult women.
Ina more literal sense, the male gaze has been firmly upheld by the brand’s go-to photographers, most of whom have been male. Australian photographer Russell James was reportedly paid tens of thousands of dollars a day for his work with the company and would allegedly ask models to partake in unpaid nude shoots for his personal portfolio, later released in a glossy collectors ’book which is priced at $1,800. The book’s jacket labels the book as a ‘voyeuristic journey’ – need I say more?
Many of Victoria’s Secret’s adult customers have been alienated by the brand’s ultra-pink stores with towering images of glamorous models in fluffy angel wings. The sickly-sweet perfume that wafts from the bath and body section smells like a thirteen-year-old girl headed to the school dance. And the high gloss black lacquer around the store screams cheaply made basics, not the intimate indulgence of an empowered woman.
In fact, the brand’s size range barely even caters for the average American woman. The largest size carried by Victoria’s Secret is 40DDD, while the average bra size in the U.S. is 34DD and growing.
Victoria’s Secret has become a destination for tweens and teens to buy cheap, low-quality bras that make them feel more adult, while adult women now look to higher quality, comfort-focussed brands like Hanky Panky and Savage X Fenty for their everyday wear, and more boutique lingerie brands like Agent Provocateur and Honey Birdette for their more risqué indulgences.
The last five years have seen a major shift in the discussion around diversity and representation in fashion and entertainment. Growing consumer apathy for the womanly ideals of old and the rise of influencer culture has helped to expand the definition of the word ‘model’ to include women who may not be cis-gender, femme, over 5’9 or a traditional sample size.
Female consumers had grown tired of seeing the same white women with tiny waists and perky breasts and slowly but surely, brands started to react. In 2014, American Eagle’s underwear label Aerie ditched the airbrush and launched its body-positive #AerieReal campaign and was met with applause from its consumers.
In May 2018, pop music and fashion icon Rihanna launched Savage X Fenty, a lingerie brand that boldly declares itself as “created for the female gaze, not the male gaze." The brand championed diversity with a runway show that featured models of every shape, size and colour, with inclusive sizing to match. Push-up bras, the cornerstone of the Victoria’s Secret brand, formed only 6% of the brand’s offering. Curves and stretch marks, sagging stomachs and six packs, even a pregnant belly – nothing was off limits.
Women were making it clear that they weren’t interested in underwear that would make them look like their partner’s supermodel fantasy. They wanted quality lingerie that worked with their lifestyle and made them feel comfortable and sexy in their own skin.
And while brands like Aerie and Savage X Fenty responded to the market’s changing values in an authentic way, Victoria’s Secret stuck to its formula and continued to rely heavily on push-up styles and their ‘Angels’ fantasy. It wasn’t until late 2019 that the brand even made an attempt at thinly veiled reactionary attempts at saving themselves through diversity. Cue their August 2019 announcement that they had cast openly transgender model Valentina Sampaio in the aftermath of Mr Razek’s damning comments. It’s too little too late, and you’re not fooling anyone.
Their team had every opportunity and every resource available to grow with their consumers but instead they chose to hold fast to what was working twenty years ago. Much like the Chads of the world, they chose to assert that they knew what women wanted instead of just listening when women tried to tell them. It’s hard to say if they have one year left or ten, but one thing is for sure; the angels have fallen.