When Victoria’s Secret was founded in 1977, it was revolutionary. Founder Roy Raymond opened his first store as a place to make men feel more comfortable buying lingerie for women (the interior resembled a Victorian boudoir and its primary focus was accommodating the male customer). This strategy — women’s underwear, but served to men — worked quite well, and the company went on to gross $500,000 in its first year of business, later being sold to The Limited’s Les Wexner in 1982 for $1 million. Raymond couldn’t have predicted that Wexner would grow Victoria’s Secret to be one of the largest intimate apparel retailers of all time, nor that, despite all of its success, 41 years later, Victoria’s Secret would be mired in controversy.
Sales have been on the decline for years now. Stores are closing. Its annual Fashion Show routinely receives criticism for its lack of diversity — and for the fact that it continues to project a very specific idea of beauty. And VS executives have been making bad business decisions for years (the company cut swimwear despite it being a revenue-driver, it was late to bralettes). This is just the latest.
On November 8, Ed Razek, chief marketing officer of L Brands (Victoria’s Secret’s parent company), sat down with Vogue.com ahead of the filming of the 2018 fashion show. His comments about why he doesn’t think the show should include more plus-size or any transgender models (whom he referred to as “transsexuals”) — “Why not? Because the show is a fantasy.” — sparked boycotts and petitions for Razek to be removed from his position. (Razek has since apologized for his remarks.) Nearly a week later, Victoria’s Secret confirmed rumors that its CEO Jan Singer — not Razek — would be resigning. She is being replaced by John Mehas, president of Tory Burch, who will start his position in 2019.
“John is an outstanding retail merchant and we could not be more excited for him to lead Victoria’s Secret Lingerie to a new phase of success,” Wexner said in a statement on Monday, November 19. “Our number one priority is improving performance at Victoria’s Secret Lingerie and PINK. In doing so, our new leaders are coming in with a fresh perspective and looking at everything: our marketing, brand positioning, internal talent, real estate portfolio, and cost structure.”
On his plate? According to a live quarterly earnings webcast on Nov. 20: reintroducing swim (yes really), improving the company’s digital presence and e-commerce capabilities, reevaluating its real estate investments (i.e. likely closing more brick-and-mortar stores), and attempting to restructure (and pay off) its growing debt (Victoria’s Secret cut its annual dividend from $2.40 to $1.20 and will use the $325 million in savings to contribute to the deficit). There was no mention of bringing its embattled reputation back from the brink; no acknowledgment of the people the brand continues to alienate or exclude.
In Wexner’s statement, he also briefly addressed Singer’s resignation, saying: “I wish Jan well. I greatly appreciate her passion and know she will succeed in whatever she pursues next. We appreciate all that she brought to the brand.”
Singer, who joined Victoria’s Secret from Spanx in 2016, is reportedly leaving her role as a result of declining sales, though the company has not confirmed the reason for her departure. Per The Hollywood Reporter, “Singer previously tried to compete in the evolving lingerie business by embracing a fast-fashion model for panties with lower prices and new styles dropping more frequently. Despite her efforts, Victoria’s Secret has faced commercial struggles in recent years, with same-store sales dropping 5 percent in 2018.”
When Singer was hired, her mission was clear: attract a younger customer. In a company conference call in May reported by CNBC, Singer said Victoria’s Secret was “aggressively” attempting to court a new generation of consumers, which is something she’d already done for Spanx.
There, Singer was tasked with improving the brand’s mission and messaging — which, like Victoria’s Secret, was focused on helping women achieve the “perfect” body. Instead, she touted the importance of authenticity and inclusivity for a consumer-facing brand. “Women have permission to just be who they are,” she said interview with WWD in March 2015, which is supported by reports that show millennial and Gen Z customers do look at companies’ diversity and transparency when shopping. That vision (and full rebrand) led Spanx into its next phase: less shapewear, more everyday wear. The rabid fandom around their leggings alone point to this as a success.
With a proven track record, helping Victoria’s Secret connect with that younger customer should have been seamless. But saying that’s your plan is one thing. Actually being empowered to make changes to accomplish that goal is another. In order for Singer to make a tangible difference, she would have had to construct a rebrand that was basically the antithesis of Victoria’s Secret’s existing message. But in her two years at the company, it’s clear (especially given Razek’s comments) that progress toward that objective has not been made. And it’s hard not to wonder whether Singer was ever even given the opportunity to try.
But for a company founded by (and still very much run by) men, Singer’s resignation — and the fact that she was replaced by a man — could be seen as something more: that Victoria’s Secret actually has no interest in breaking from the male gaze. How fresh of a perspective can Mehas offer when he comes from places like Tory Burch and Club Monaco, two brands that have a very specific (and limited) point-of-view (both companies, for example, don’t even offer plus-sizing — just like Victoria’s Secret). And neither is exactly breaking the internet with forward thinking. While at Club Monaco, Mehas said in an interview: “For me, it’s all about the store and what we create, not the personality,” a perspective that won’t bode well considering Victoria’s Secret continues to shutter retail locations, and is competing more and more with Instagram-focused brands. Where Singer could have changed Victoria’s Secret, Mehas will likely feed into the status quo — perhaps that’s precisely why he was chosen — one that claims it wants to connect with the consumer, but refuses to actually figure out how.
“Victoria’s Secret is one of the biggest companies in the world, so it’s challenging for them to make changes that transition toward the mindset of women today,” Michelle Cordeiro Grant, founder and CEO of Lively Lingerie and former Victoria’s Secret employee, tells InStyle. “They’ve built an extremely cohesive business with a very strong, disciplined structure that’s proven to be successful. Their brand is based on the idea of fantasy and they are trying to stay true to what they’ve built over the years … However, consumer behavior has shifted and today’s mindset has changed.”
In June, EVP of brand strategy and design at design firm WD Partners, Lee Peterson, who worked with Wexner at The Limited in the ‘80s, told Retail Dive: “Victoria’s Secret’s issue centers around one thing — they’ve been unable to move the premise of the brand off of what’s been successful. It’s the Mike Jeffries syndrome — he was at Abercrombie for 20 years and what happened probably happens to rock stars. You’re so big, everyone’s telling you what you want to hear and you stick to your guns when in fact you need to evolve.”
Here’s the problem: Many applaud companies like ThirdLove and Savage x Fenty by Rihanna for doing what Victoria’s Secret isn’t — and rightfully so. But it’s hard to compare their scale and reach. Victoria’s Secret has built its success on availability and accessibility: it has nearly 1,200 stores worldwide. “Little things we take for granted now, such as being able to walk into a lingerie shop and choose your own product off the rack, having bras available in a wide range of colors and prints, and having access to a lingerie store even in smaller towns … those are all things Victoria’s Secret either brought to the American intimate apparel market or popularized,” says Cora Harrington, founder and editor-in-chief of The Lingerie Addict. And even with sales declining, the brand’s revenue still vastly outweighs that of its more progressive peers. Victoria’s Secret has never been a ‘for women, by women’ company, and it still owns one-third of the lingerie market. So is evolution really necessary?
“Victoria’s Secret fell into the trap of believing that, because of their size, they no longer had to keep up with consumers,” Harrington says. “They believed their position was unassailable and that they set the trends. However, consumers are not only savvier now, they have more options … which means people no longer have to shop at Victoria’s Secret, a predicament the company was wholly unprepared for.”
At face value, Victoria’s Secret seems to have acknowledged the retail landscape has changed (it’s seemingly why they hired Singer, after all). But while the company may be an example of success by scale, newer brands (particularly direct-to-consumer ones) aren’t just surviving — they’re thriving — without stores. This may be a hard pill to swallow for Wexler, who once said smartphones were a passing fad, but the customer Victoria’s Secret has allegedly been trying to court would rather scroll through Instagram than drive to the mall.
“Victoria’s Secret needs to fundamentally shift its marketing,” Harrington notes. “It’s clear the ‘Angels’ are no longer resonating with the American public. When the Angels campaign first debuted in the 1990s (shortly after Wonderbra’s “Hello Boys” campaign), it was revolutionary. Most lingerie brands in America did not advertise to the public, and they certainly didn’t use supermodels, much less stage full runway shows. However, the conversation has shifted. People no longer want to be told what is beautiful; they want to be told they’re beautiful as-is. Victoria’s Secret is either willfully unaware of that shift or has chosen to ignore it, which is being reflected in their sales.”
While Victoria’s Secret may have built its empire on ‘accessibility,’ the definition of the word has transformed, too; it’s no longer just about being readily attainable and affordable — it’s about being available to everyone. Exclusionary language that limits your possible consumer base does not equal accessible, so by not evolving with the demands of today’s consumer, Victoria’s Secret isn’t living up to its own mission. This is what stands to hurt it the most.
“I don’t think Victoria’s Secret’s reputation is dead-and-buried,” Harrington says. “Simply because of market share, they have time and space to recover if they so choose. That recovery would likely look like either abandoning or dramatically expanding the concept of the ‘Angels,’ along with updating the look in their retail stores, and adding significantly to their size range and style catalog — on the axes of plus-size (40+ bands) and/or full bust (DD+ cups).” Perhaps they should’ve hired her. Of course, that would mean a desire to take on any of this forward momentum.
During the live quarterly earnings webcast, the brand cited ongoing industry pressure, asking: “How can we have more of the good stuff and less of the bad stuff?” For the “good stuff” it touted the success of the T-shirt and Illusion bras as markers for future growth. The “bad” went unsaid. So any hope of doing away with it? That just seems like fantasy.