For the past two years, we’ve been tracking the decline of Victoria’s Secret. It’s still the predominant women’s underwear brand, but even though the brand was creating products for women, it was unapologetically catering to the male gaze. This was obvious in the brand’s origin story, which involved the founder creating a store that would make it more comfortable for men to shop for women’s underwear, as well as the brand’s flagship fashion show, which was designed to be titillating.
But we also know that the company was run by men with particularly retrograde views about women’s sexuality. New reporting about Jeffrey Epstein’s involvement in Victoria’s Secret in Bloomberg makes this clear: Epstein was close to top executives at the company and was involved with the hiring of models for the shows. Disturbingly, models working for Epstein would also welcome guests at his mansion. (We reached out to Victoria’s Secret for comment and will update this post if we hear back.)
For decades, the brand’s approach to sexuality did not seem to affect the bottom line. But this appears to be changing. Here’s why we think that is:
VS sales began tanking post #MeToo
Since 2000, Victoria’s Secret’s revenues had been climbing consistently, with a small blip in the aftermath of the Great Recession. But in 2017, the brand’s sales took a major tumble, with sales falling to $7.4 billion down from nearly $8 billion the year before. This is exactly the moment when the #MeToo movement took hold. The New York Times published its first exposé of Harvey Weinstein in October of 2017. This may have been on people’s minds when they went out to do their Christmas shopping that year. Over the past two years, the brand has not been able to climb out of this rut.
VS is losing market share to progressive underwear startups
Victoria’s Secret is still a powerful force in the underwear industry. In 2018, it had a 24% market share, but this is a big decrease from 2013, when it had 31.7% market share, according to analyst firm Coresight Research.
During this period, we saw a rise in new underwear startups billing themselves as the anti-Victoria’s Secret, including Thirdlove, Lively, MeUndies, and TomboyX. These brands are all empowering to women, size inclusive, and focused on comfort rather than being sexually appealing to men. This was also a period when Aerie, American Eagle Outfitter’s underwear brand, began growing considerably with an empowering and inclusive message to young consumers.
The VS fashion show is losing its audience
For 23 years, the Victoria’s Secret fashion show gave the brand a big media boost. Supermodels—or “angels” in the brand’s parlance—like Karlie Kloss and Adriana Lima would walk the glittering stage in revealing underwear for a televised show. The show’s viewership has been on the decline for years, but it truly bottomed out in the wake of #MeToo. In 2017, it hit an all-time low of five million viewers (down from 6.6 million the previous two years). Then, in 2018, it went down further to 3.3 million.
In May of this year, reports emerged that Victoria’s Secret was rethinking the show and may no longer broadcast it on TV. Victoria’s Secret’s top brass says it may explore other outlets for the show, including streaming. But if it just repackages the show for Netflix or Hulu, this will reveal exactly how blind the brand is to the culture. The problem is not that the show is being broadcast on the wrong medium: The problem is that its striptease sensibilities—however glittering and well-produced they may be—feel problematic to many consumers in a post-#MeToo world.