Victoria's Not-So-Secret: Wings To Woes?
Oct. 31, 2023
By: Elva Lei
What comes to your mind when you think of Victoria's Secret? Is it the dazzling runway shows, or perhaps the unrealistic beauty standards associated with the brand? The iconic lingerie brand has long been synonymous with glamor and femininity, but in recent years, many have criticized Victoria's Secret for its limited representation of body types and its sometimes controversial marketing strategies. Can a brand that has been a symbol of a certain ideal for so long successfully pivot and embrace a more inclusive image?
Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, 2014, Courtesy of Getty Images
The Victoria's Secret Angels, a select group of top-tier models, have transcended the catwalk to become a cultural phenomenon. Models such as Adrianna Lima and Tyra Banks embodied a vision of beauty beyond the ordinary, making them symbols of aspirations to women of all ages. At the time, these models portrayed a sense of fantasy as they were characterized by skinny yet curvaceous figures, glass skin, and other features that were realistically unattainable by an average woman. Since many young women in the early 2000s and 2010s were attuned to these models, they came to embody the prevailing notion of ideal beauty and pressured women to conform to these ideals to look beautiful. Beyond a mere display of lingerie, Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show became a combination of fashion, entertainment, and fantasy. Intricately choreographed performances, set designs, and collaborations with chart-topping musicians made it a must-watch event. But why would a company spend around $20 million for a single fashion show? For Victoria's Secret, the event served as a potent marketing tool: reinforcing the brand’s association with glamor and sensuality to attract young millennials to shop their products to feel as beautiful as the models on the runway.
In the late 2010s, societal expectations evolved towards inclusivity and body acceptance due to the body positivity movement. Still, Victoria's Secret lagged behind as they failed to adapt its vision to the changing landscape of consumer preferences. Traditionally, the brand's marketing and runway shows predominantly featured a very narrow definition of beauty—models with a specific body type characterized by tall, slender frames, and low body mass index. Consumers believed that this approach not only excluded the vast majority of women who didn’t fit this specific mold but also reinforced harmful societal norms that can contribute to body dysmorphia and self-esteem issues.
Additionally, the company has faced allegations of problematic workplace and culture. Reports by female staff suggested instances of inappropriate behavior and unwanted advances by executives at the company. Former employees and models shared their experiences, revealing that those who dared to speak out or defend themselves against such behavior were met with threats and retaliation. The emerging scandals not only tarnished the brand's reputation but also had a tangible impact on its bottom line, as consumers believed that the brand was objectifying the portrayal of women rather than empowering them. These revelations gained public attention, and consumer confidence in the brand eroded, leading to a significant decline in sales. In 2019, these issues led to the cancellation of the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show, marking a pivotal and disillusioning moment for consumers who turned away from shopping at Victoria's Secret.
Attempts to Rebrand
Lizzo questioning the true intent of VS campaigning with diverse models, Courtesy of X
A year later, in 2020, Victoria's Secret introduced new faces and body types into its marketing campaigns in response to the backlash for its historical lack of representation. The company photographed its first openly transgender model, Valentina Sampaio, and more plus-sized models such as Candice Huffine. While these efforts were seen as a step in the right direction, many argued that they fell short of genuine inclusivity. For example, plus-size models chosen for these campaigns still seemed to conform to certain body proportions, typically ranging from a size 12-14 with an hourglass figure. This tendency leaves the average woman feeling unrepresented in terms of body shape and size. Due to its long history of promoting unrealistic body standards, it's easy to view this attempt as mere tokenism. If you were to shop their products online today, most products still feature slender and toned models.
In 2021, the brand announced the official retirement of its Angels as spokespeople and replaced them with athletes, activists, and actors. By featuring individuals with diverse achievements, talents, and roles in society, Victoria's Secret aimed to redefine its image and appeal to a broader audience. The inclusion of athletes and activists, in particular, such as soccer player Megan Rapinoe and activist Paloma Elsesser, aligned with the growing consumer preference for brands that champion social causes and celebrate a wider range of role models. Although the reason for retiring the Angels was to cater to what women wanted rather than the male gaze, people believed that it was more of a symbolic gesture than a substantive change, with concerns that the underlying issues of representation and empowerment were not adequately addressed.
Models of Victoria’s Secret: The Tour ‘23, Courtesy of Victoria’s Secret
More recently in September of this year, they even announced the comeback of the fashion shows but with a twist. Rather than having an extravagant runway, the brand opted for a documentary format that shifts the spotlight onto global artists and their individual stories and called it Victoria’s Secret: The Tour ‘23. Much of the Gen-Z audience was left disappointed and even confused as they were expecting the iconic angels gracing the runway in lingerie. Although Gen-Z consumers wanted more representation, authenticity, and diversity, they still wanted to see the extravagance and glam that the original fashion show had. Instead, they were met with a mediocre documentary that stripped the artists of the expected pizzazz, depicting them in mundane clothing. In other words, Victoria’s Secret failed to bring the same quality from the runway shows into this new documentary. It seems that Victoria's Secret can’t please everyone no matter what they do. They have to somehow balance the allure of its past extravagance with the demand for a more genuine and representative narrative such as having the original glamorized runway with underrepresented women in the market.
On the other hand, a more successful step in rebranding was the introduction of VS Adaptive this month, a lingerie collection featuring magnetic closures and sensory-friendly fabric that caters to women with physical disabilities. The campaign for this collection included models in wheelchairs and sporting prosthetics which addressed the often overlooked segment of the market. By acknowledging and actively catering to the needs of women with disabilities, Victoria's Secret is making a meaningful and positive impact. The Adaptive collection not only broadens the brand's customer base but also resonates with consumers who value brands committed to social responsibility and inclusivity. Instead of utilizing the same models with the same lingerie in these campaigns as they did in their previous rebranding advertisements, the brand finally made a product suited to the needs of disabled people but also allowed disabled women to walk the runway to showcase the accessibility that the new product offers.
Runway of Dreams showcasing the VS Adaptive line with physically disabled models, 2023, Courtesy of Getty Images
Compared to Victoria’s Secret, other undergarment brands such as Skims and Savage X Fenty have committed to body positivity and inclusivity from the outset. These brands prioritizing diversity, inclusivity, and comfort are gaining traction in response to changing consumer preferences and values. Therefore, the success of Victoria’s Secret rebranding hinges on the brand's ability to substantively and authentically embrace a more inclusive and culturally attuned identity.
Although they are now taking a step in the right direction to be authentically inclusive with the new VS Adaptive launch, it will still be difficult for them to fully get rid of their long-standing reputation of being non-inclusive, especially when their attempts at rebranding seem performative compared to its competitors. Victoria's Secret might fail as a brand in the near future unless it makes changes in its marketing department to combine the elements of fantasy and glam with a more diverse and holistic vision of beauty. If the concept of representation isn't embedded as a core organizational value, how can they effectively implement a vision that resonates with the values of consumers? To truly rebrand effectively, Victoria's Secret needs to go beyond showcasing diverse models in lingerie and actively engage with a broader range of women. Collaborating and partnering with a diverse array of consumers is essential to understanding and addressing what women genuinely value and desire in the lingerie industry, moving beyond the approach of featuring models who may not resonate with the average woman.
Elva Lei is a junior studying economics and business studies. She is passionate about social media trends, makeup, and finding good eats around NYC.