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The unbearable maleness of Victoria’s Secret could be its undoing

The unbearable maleness of Victoria’s Secret could be its undoing
[Photo: Flickr user torbakhopper]

Victoria’s Secret is in desperate need of a makeover. The brand’s sales have been in decline for the last three years, and while there are many reasons for this downward spiral, the most obvious is that its core message—that lingerie is a way for women to titillate men—no longer resonates in a post-#MeToo era.

At an investor meeting earlier this week, the brand’s chief executive officer, John Mehas, said it was ready to evolve. He wants Victoria’s Secret to be a brand perceived to be “by her, for her.” But here’s the problem: Victoria’s Secret’s leadership is predominantly male, and almost all of the people who spoke in the investor meeting were men.

Mehas’s instinct is correct. Over the last few years, many lingerie startups have popped up with a strong feminist point of view. This includes Third Love, Evelyn & Bobbie, and Lively (which recently got acquired by Wacoal). All of these brands were founded by women, and it shows. They’ve each focused on innovating products, to ensure they are as comfortable, functional, and size-inclusive as possible. And their advertising has an undercurrent of female empowerment.

Victoria’s Secret now wants to steal from the playbooks of its smaller, newer, more tuned-in competitors. But for these startups, the perspective of strong women is built into their DNA. It’s going to be hard, to say the least, for Victoria’s Secret to run away from its own DNA, which was and is profoundly sexist. For a primer, here are some key parts of the brand’s history:

  • It was founded in 1977 by a couple, Roy and Gayle Raymond, because Roy found it embarrassing to buy lingerie for his wife at department stores. The original concept of the Victoria’s Secret store was to make men more comfortable.
  • In 1995, the brand launched its annual fashion show, which featured supermodels walking a catwalk in extremely revealing underwear, turning a titillating show into prime-time entertainment. Models wore wings and were described as Angels, partly in an effort to make the spectacle seem less seedy. Over the last few years, ratings of the show have been in decline, and the brand has announced it is calling off the show.
  • Jeffrey Epstein, the financier and accused pedophile who recently committed suicide, was deeply entwined with Victoria’s Secret. Epstein was close to Ed Razek, the brand’s longtime CMO, who recently stepped down, as well as Les Wexner, the CEO of L Brands, which owns Victoria’s Secret. Epstein was spotted at the front row of the fashion show and sometimes lured aspiring models into his home by promising to get them modeling gigs with Victoria’s Secret.

This is what Mehas is up against right now in his efforts to resuscitate his declining brand. Victoria’s Secret seems to want to paper over this history by presenting itself as a women-centric brand, rather than actually doing the work of remaking itself from inside out for today’s consumer. After all, it hasn’t even done the bare minimum of bringing more women into its leadership. A Victoria’s Secret spokesperson declined to comment.

None of this bodes well for its future. If the brand doesn’t evolve past its caveman-like mentality, it is likely to continue losing consumers.

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