Last week, American staple and powerhouse lingerie brand Victoria’s Secret announced that their Angels, the group of stunningly beautiful models chosen each year for their titular fashion show, would be replaced and rebranded with the “VS Collective,” a group of models, athletes, entrepreneurs, and other notable female figures.
The decision received support, but also a lot of understandable confusion — the annual fashion show is the epitome of the brand’s identity, and their Angels are used to exemplify that brand. Is the end of the VS Angels also the beginning of the end of beauty in marketing?
The decision doesn’t come without a lot of speculation as to the brand’s true intentions. Victoria’s Secret hasn’t been wildly successful in recent years, and the shadiness associated with its owner, Les Wexner, as well as its former CMO Ed Razek is also frequently cited as the real reason behind this rebranding.
For decades, Victoria’s Secret has been the go-to staple of everyone from high schoolers to working women, but over the years the customer experience has deteriorated. While the VS Collective is unique and definitely a different take on the brand’s vision, it also means parting ways with the cultural pantheon that were the Angels.
Nostalgia Is Powerful
For many of us, myself included, Victoria’s Secret conjures nostalgia more than anything else. To Wexner’s credit, when he acquired the brand in the 1980s, he decided he wanted to give women the feeling that they were shopping in a high-end, luxury boutique with the famous boudoir-like décor and color scheme present in all VS stores.
Many of us probably bought our first bra at Victoria’s Secret (I definitely did), and it felt like we were part of a selective, exclusive club.
This feeling is intentional. Wexner decided that he wanted the store to create the feeling that it was where high-end models shopped for their lingerie, but also allowed everyday, “average” women to partake in that fantasy. The annual fashion show featuring the brand’s Angels only reinforced this idea — women could see famous models wearing the products they may have also bought — and it kicked the career of notable figures like Heidi Klum and Gisele Bundchen to super stardom.
The VS Angels represented a world in which normal women could feel sexy just by wearing the right underwear.
Although the brand was originally designed to be marketed to men buying lingerie for their wives, women embraced the fantasy of Victoria’s Secret. The Victoria’s Secret fashion show was a night to get together with girlfriends to enjoy the music and the spectacle. After all, considering it was a runway of women in underwear, an astounding 70% of the audience was in fact female.
With most underwear brands marketed for comfort or shape-improving benefits, the fantasy of sexy lingerie for everyday wear still held an appeal. Though stunningly beautiful, the VS Angels represented a world in which a normal woman could feel sexy just by wearing the right underwear.
There’s something to be said for the aspirational quality VS instilled in many women — the idea that we could be all the things women are — moms, employees, etc. — but also be pretty, sexy, and empowered. Victoria’s Secret was once the place to go for bras and underwear, the ultimate “treat yourself” destination. But for many of us, that excitement faded over time, and for good reason.
Victoria’s Secret’s Controversial Past
Behind the very glamorous, curated exterior of one of America’s most reputable brands is a history that isn’t as pretty.
Les Wexner, owner of L Brands (VS’s parent company) was the central bankroller of disgraced financier and pedophile Jeffrey Epstein. Like many connected to Epstein, Wexner maintains that their relationship was purely business, but those within the pair’s inner circle often questioned the true nature of their relationship. According to Vanity Fair, Epstein boasted on more than one occasion that he was Wexner’s “fixer,” and if it ever came down to it, Wexner would never testify against him.
Wexner stepped down from the executive board following these revelations, and sold a majority of his shares in the lingerie brand for an estimated $327 million.
Ed Razek said the brand had no interest in casting “transsexuals” and plus-size models in the fashion show.
Then there’s Ed Razek, the brand’s former CMO, who many believe to be the real reason behind this huge shift in ad campaigning. In 2018, Razek famously said that the brand had no interest in casting “transsexuals” and plus-size models in the annual fashion show, which received considerable backlash. Now, the new VS Collective features transgender model Valentina Sampaio and plus-size model Paloma Elsesser, and upper leadership has been replaced with an almost all-female executive team.
Marketing with Women in Mind
While many of us know Victoria’s Secret for their push-up bras, 5-for-$20 underwear deals, Pink brand, and signature perfume, we also might know it for a different reason. Over the years, it’s evident that while the steep prices have stayed the same, the quality of the lingerie has definitely decreased. This led to the business’s stock value falling 55% in 2018, and the years since haven’t seen great success either. That same year, 20 stores closed nationwide, and thousands of clients took to social media to complain about the poor quality of what was once their favorite store.
The brand has also received backlash from its own employees. One employee disclosed that because employees were definitely part of the “fantasy,” attractiveness was the number one quality stores looked for when they hired, over qualities like experience or capability. Store policy also dictated that employees be “on call” in case they had to go in at inconvenient times, which, given the pay rate, wasn’t entirely worth it. That, coupled with allegations that the brand used child labor to make their products, spelled marketing disaster.
While the steep prices have stayed the same, the quality of the lingerie has definitely decreased.
Additionally, there’s been warranted criticism about the real target of the VS brand — are the shiny posters of skinny-yet-busty models really an inspiration for everyday women, or are they more about appealing to a male fantasy?
Brands such as Thirdlove and Aerie, the lingerie brand under American Eagle, picked up on this and used it for their own benefit. Aerie famously uses models of all body types and skin colors, and their marketing campaigns and ads are a stark contrast to VS’s commercials of yesteryear. This 180 on the part of VS’s marketing team seems much more in line with those tactics, though only time will tell if it can bring the brand back from the proverbial dead.
Once upon a time, Victoria’s Secret was the epitome of what it meant to be beautiful and sexy. Over time, though, it’s evident that the priorities of women have changed, while the brand still stayed the same.
The rebranded VS Collective has already been on the receiving end of major concerns as to whether or not it will actual appeal to its target audience, and therein lies the issue: Do women want to see models five sizes smaller than them selling them lingerie, or do they want to see women who are more “relatable”?
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