FIONA GOLFAR: It's WOMEN who want Victoria's Secret to bring sexy back
Once a byword for fun and glamour, the lingerie brand has recently been proving the adage: Go Woke, Go Broke. Now bosses have done a screeching U-turn and FIONA GOLFAR says: It’s WOMEN who want Victoria’s Secret to bring sexy back
When I worked at Vogue House as the fashion bible’s editor-at-large, there was a shop across the road on Bond Street that some of us staffers would visit — part retail therapy, part entertainment.
Back in the Noughties, Victoria’s Secret, with its Swarovski-studded, heavily under-wired bras and neon lacy thongs felt fun, aspirational — empowering, even. This was the era of Juicy Couture-clad WAGs, and being as overtly boudoir-sexy as a burlesque dancer wasn’t remotely frowned upon. I was seduced by the brand’s sexy half-cup lacy bras.
My then teenage daughter was obsessed with the celeb-crammed catwalk extravaganzas that it was famous for. She adored the Angels (as its top models are known) with their glamazonian proportions, mermaid hair and lashings of make-up. Adriana, Candice, Heidi, Alessandra …
Since then, however, Victoria’s Secret has gone through something of a self-censoring makeover. Long gone are the ‘Angels’; the feathers, the froth, that all-American sprinkle of stardust.
When the fashion world — along with the rest of the planet — went woke, the boardroom panicked.
Victoria’s Secret has gone through something of a self-censoring makeover. Long gone are the ‘Angels’; the feathers, the froth, that all-American sprinkle of stardust (File Photo)
The glitzy catwalk shows were dispensed with (the last ‘classic’ show, crammed with celebs, feathers and sparkles, was in 2018) and in came a procession of body-positive models.
The goal was both to attract Gen Z and retain their original customers — a difficult task at the best of times. But when I asked my daughter, now 25, if she’d shop at the new and improved Victoria’s Secret, she recoiled. Not only is it desperately ‘uncool’, it smacks of ‘inauthenticity’, which is a far greater crime, apparently.
It turns out its target audience — and the many social media critics — aren’t as gullible as these big brands might imagine. Not only can they smell the stench of desperation, they can spot a cynical marketing ploy from a mile away. Now, Victoria’s Secret executives are realising the truth of the mantra ‘go woke, go broke’. Revenue for this year is projected to be down £1.1 billion since 2020.
Surprise, surprise, the brand has now decided to bring sexy back and to prioritise sex appeal over today’s more body-positive images that its core consumer has shunned.
And I, for one, say hurrah for that! Because however much times have changed since the Angels’ glittery heyday, women still enjoy a healthy dose of aspiration. And when glamour is what I’m after, I don’t necessarily want to see myself or women like me.
Brands may think that women feel excluded and insecure every time they see a model thinner, younger and better-looking than themselves, but it’s just not the case. We know how we look and, by and large, the appearance of the women on billboards and catwalks won’t change that.
Victoria’s Secret Celebrates The Tour ’23 at The Manhattan Center in New York City on September 06, 2023
So what we really want is not another mirror held up to us in a misguided attempt to make us feel better about ourselves (far easier to compare flaws with a ‘normal’ woman than a supermodel) but a portal to another world. Because while I don’t want to be bombarded with heroin chic-style stick insects, the truth is that when I see a plus-sized model I instantly think less about the clothes than I do the woman wearing them. I remember when, in my day, Vogue, too, was often criticised for using skinny models. In fact, our editor was battling to get designers to make realistic sample sizes (to no avail), and photo retouching often involved making the girls look bigger, not smaller.
But, still, the magazine’s job was to make magic. Something to dream about. Beautiful escapism.
And that’s what the Victoria’s Secret of old did. It dished out Charlie’s Angels-style glamour because it understood that women wanted to dream.
Yes, we do want to be made to feel better about ourselves — and a gorgeous new bra or pair of knickers really can do that. For a moment, we can suspend disbelief; if I wear the same lingerie as fashion thoroughbreds such as Adriana Lima, I can feel sexy, too.
It is understandable that the MeToo, body positivity, diversity and gender-identity movements sparked change. But in the wake of woke, Victoria’s Secret found itself embroiled in a series of scandals.
In 2018, the then-marketing boss Ed Razek sparked a backlash when he declared that Victoria’s Secret would never cast plus-size models in its annual fashion show.
Razek resigned the following year, and in 2020 the New York Times reported that he was accused of inappropriate behaviour with models — allegations he denied.
Heidi Klum models Victoria’s Secret 11 million-dollar bra with Ed Razek of Victoria’s Secret
In 2019, an investigation by the New York Times uncovered ties between Victoria’s Secret’s parent company L Brands’ former chief executive Lex Werne and convicted paedophile Jeffrey Epstein, which sullied the brand’s reputation still further.
You can imagine the sheer panic in the boardroom — and the clamour to shed its regressive, hyper-sexualised image, fast. But how do you de-sexualise the sexiest brand on the planet? It was like asking a sex shop to start selling hymn books.
Victoria’s Secret chose to do a handbrake turn — from twirling, burlesque glamazons to Dove-advert worthiness. And I believe its customers just weren’t ready for this dramatic transformation.
The big catwalk shows with ‘Angels’ were retired, and the company declared its aspiration to be ‘the world’s leading advocate for women’. To that end, recent campaigns featured stars such as former U.S. women’s football captain Megan Rapinoe, plus-size models Paloma Elsesser and Ali Tate-Cutler, and Brazilian transgender model Valentina Sampaio.
Although the fashion show returned last month, there was no runway, and instead model Naomi Campbell recited a poem. Yawn.
So I applaud this return to sexy and can’t wait to see it. Now, as the brand’s bosses struggle to strike the right balance between iridescence and inclusivity, they should take a leaf out of the book of more modern, women-led brands such as Kim Kardashian’s Skims and Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty. Here, the models are curvier than the Angels of old, but they’re healthy rather than outsized.
What’s sexy should be defined by women — not by a boardroom desperately trying to be woke.
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