After years of tracking the slow decline of Victoria’s Secret, it seems radical change may be coming to retrograde lingerie brand. The Wall Street Journal reports today that Leslie Wexner, the 82-year-old billionaire who helped build the brand and continues to serve as its CEO, is in discussions to step aside and perhaps even sell it, according to people familiar with the matter. “The discussions are ongoing and could result in a full or partial sale of Victoria’s Secret, some of the people said,” write reporters Khadeeja Safdar and Corrie Driebusch.
Reached for comment, a spokesperson for Victoria’s Secret told Fast Company, “We would not comment on such rumors.”
I’ve made no secret about my belief that drastic change must come to Victoria’s Secret if it is to survive. The brand debuted in 1977, at a very different moment in American culture and retail history. The origin story of the company was that Roy Raymond felt uncomfortable buying lingerie for his wife in the context of department stores. He cofounded Victoria’s Secret with his wife, Gaye, as a place where men would feel at home. In 1982, Raymond sold the company to Leslie Wexner, who created L Brands, an umbrella company that includes Bath & Body Works.
As Wexner oversaw the brand over the following decades, it continued to be defined by the male gaze that Roy Raymond envisioned. Victoria’s Secret catalogs, and later, the spectacular fashion show, presented supermodels in hyper-sexualized poses. It wasn’t the sexuality itself that was the issue. It was that many people felt that women were objectified throughout this marketing; they did not seem to be empowered figures in control of their own sexuality. It was a retrograde approach at a time when female-founded underwear startups like Cuup, Lively, and Thirdlove were emerging, with a message focused on comfort and self-empowerment.
All of this was made worse in the wake of the #MeToo movement, which drew attention to how workplaces in which men were in power and women were subordinates facilitated sexual abuse. In the context of Victoria’s Secret, revelations emerged that Jeffrey Epstein, the convicted sex offender and indicted sex trafficker who committed suicide in prison, was also Wexner’s wealth manager. According to reports in the New York Times, Epstein allegedly utilized his proximity to Wexner to lure women with promises that he might be able to help them become models for Victoria’s Secret. (Wexner says he ended his relationship with Epstein more than a decade ago and did not know about his alleged criminal behavior.)
Victoria’s Secret revenues have been in free fall for the past five years. The Journal reports that Victoria’s Secret comparable sales fell 12% during this past holiday season, and L Brand’s market value has dropped to less than $6 billion from $29 billion in 2015. Part of Wexner’s calculus in possibly selling the brand may simply come down to economics: the brand is hemorrhaging money.
But Victoria’s Secret is still a leviathan in the underwear industry, generating $7 billion in annual sales. So it remains a valuable asset. The brand now has an opportunity to reinvent itself for the current era. This would involved placing women in leadership roles, designing high-quality and comfortable products, and importantly, making it clear that the brand is run by, and for, women—not men.
It’s unclear whether a 4o-year-old brand will ever be able to shed its ugly past. But it will be an interesting challenge for whoever is brave enough to take it on.