Victoria’s Secret has recently come under fire for its “culture of misogyny” in a recent New York Times investigation which uncovered the “widespread bullying” and gross abuse of male power within the brand. The company’s downfall has been spelled out by its controversial marketing strategies, refusal to be more inclusive, and reports of harassment.
Victoria’s Secret was all you could smell if you walked down the halls of my high school in 2013. Smelling like a “baby prostitute” was sexy, it was hot. If we went to school dances, our favourite body mist Pure Seduction would offend anyone who passed us by. Some of us believed that this very secret would land us our dreamy crush. When we got old enough to care about what bras we wore, any girl who bought a Victoria’s Secret bra from the United States or London was instantly guaranteed elevated social and sex symbol status.
We used to “oooo” and “aaaah” in the PE changerooms, marvelling at how perfectly sculpted Hannah’s breasts looked in the lacy, pink bra. Dieting was common, and sometimes scary, but we so desperately desired their bodies and their lives that skipping lunch was nothing to be concerned about. We bought this life-style package that Victoria’s Secret sold us because as teenagers discovering our sexuality and our bodies, we thought it gained us the currency of male attention. We were supposed to be hot, but not for ourselves, for the boys in our lives whom we wanted to impress so badly.
Many of us left those ideas behind when we entered adulthood. Our perceptions of sex, sexuality, and attraction were altered as body positivity movements popularised social media and Feminism taught us to embrace who we are. The women around me who used to proudly tout their Victoria’s Secret bags and pencil cases have become disenchanted with the brand too. We have since chosen to embrace lingerie and brands that make us feel good, not whomever may be lucky enough to get a peek. Gone are the days of drenching ourselves in Pure Seduction and pushing our already perfect breasts up in the too tight, uncomfortable Bombshell Bra.
It seems oddly fitting that as we grow out of the toxic fantasies of Victoria’s Secret, its toxic culture is being unveiled. The disillusionment with Victoria’s Secret has no real beginning date, but the earliest that comes to mind is 2014, when billboards screamed “THE PERFECT BODY” and a slew of predominantly white, skinny, photoshopped bodies stood behind the letters.
A resounding wave of shaking heads could be witnessed all over the world as society realised that Victoria’s Secret had let everybody down, yet again. This campaign resulted in more than thirty thousand signatures on a petition that called for Victoria’s Secret to make a public apology and change the campaign. Social media rightfully condemned the brand, with many women posting their own perceptions of “the perfect body.”
Victoria’s Secret released a statement that did not, in any way, sound like an apology and replaced the slogan with the almost nonsensical “A Body For Every Body.” This new wording still didn’t change the brand’s message. The same photoshopped, garishly thin women that giggled in their underwear perpetuated the idea that these unattainable bodies are “sexy.” Instead of empowering women, the brand has increasingly polarised its audience by refusing to create more inclusive campaigns.
The pinnacle of Victoria’s Secret campaigns have been their annual fashion shows, where the likes of Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, and Bruno Mars would serenade the “angels” as they showed off their latest unachievable body feats. Sisters Gigi and Bella Hadid laughed about and blew kisses to Kendall Jenner, letting their facades mock the audience. It taunted them with the false promise of how much the currency of male attention was really worth.
The obscenity of watching scantily clad women parade themselves on the catwalk as heartthrobs Harry Styles and The Weeknd performed and gestured at the “angels” made Victoria’s Secret’s toxic campaigning alarmingly transparent: the brand was merely using female bodies as an intermediary for selling male fantasies to women. It’s a relief that this marketing isn’t working anymore because it means women don’t want to be sold the key to male fantasies, but the key to female empowerment.
Victoria’s Secret’s annual fashion show hasn’t gone ahead since 2018. After twenty years of proclaiming itself as the most watched fashion show on television, it didn’t have enough funding, star power, or audience to have one for two years in a row. In 2018, its profits almost halved themselves and more than fifty stores closed in the United States in 2019. The once successful, sexy brand is now the worst performing stock on the S + P 500.
One of Victoria’s Secret’s major losing points is its total refusal to become a more inclusive brand. When the owner of its parent company Leslie Wexner was criticised for the brand’s complete lack of inclusivity he responded, without skipping a beat with “nobody goes to a plastic surgeon and says ‘make me fat.'” He argued that Victoria’s Secret was selling a fantasy, and that its audience was enticed by the possibility that they would have the currency of male attention by embracing the brand’s perpetuation of “sexy.” Those outdated notions have since failed to account for the changing social beliefs and norms, leaving Victoria’s Secret behind with its stale, harmful campaigns.
As society has become increasingly progressive and welcoming of all different women, regardless of size, shape, or colour, brands have successfully capitalised on this movement. Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty lingerie company had its debut on the catwalk last year, and has launched itself as a force to be reckoned with. It featured transgender women, plus-sized models, people of colour, and even pregnant women. Described as a “splendid celebration of human form, sexuality, and all women” the show proved that its campaign did want to “embrace individuality.”
Gigi and Bella Hadid, who were once Victoria’s Secret angels also walked the show. Bella Hadid declared “that was the first time on a runway that I felt really sexy…because when I first did Fenty, I was doing other lingerie shows, and I never felt powerful on a runway, like, in my underwear.” Bella’s statement not only referred to her role in the Victoria’s Secret fashion shows, but confirmed how the two brands starkly contrasted in its campaigns. Whilst Savage x Fenty is about being “unapologetically you,” Victoria’s Secret wants to sell us “the perfect body.” A brand that is relatable, encouraging and embracing of all bodies is the kind that women have now flocked to, leaving behind the icy and polarising Victoria’s Secret.
This month, Victoria’s Secret took a likely fatal bullet when the New York Times released its investigation into the rife sexual harassment and abuse within the brand.
They claimed that “inside the company, two powerful men presided over an entrenched culture of misogyny, bullying and harassment, according to interviews with more than 30 current and former executives, employees, contractors and models, as well as court filings and other documents.”
These two men were Ed Razek, a top executive of Victoria’s Secret’s parent company L Brands, and Leslie Wexner, the chief executive of the company.
Ed Razek was Wexner’s second in command, and had multiple complaints made against him for inappropriate conduct. But, because “the atmosphere was set at the top…[he] was perceived as Mr. Wexner’s proxy, leaving many employees with the impression he was invincible.” Casey Crowe Taylor, a former public relations employee at the company said “this abuse was just laughed off and accepted as normal. It was almost like brainwashing. And anyone who tried to do anything about it wasn’t just ignored. They were punished.”
When Jeffrey Epstein was charged with sex trafficking, Wexner and his company underwent intense scrutiny because the two were “tight.” The New York Times claimed that “on multiple occasions from 1995-2006, Mr. Epstein lied to aspiring models that he worked for Victoria’s Secret and could help them land gigs. He invited them for auditions, which at least twice ended with Mr. Epstein assaulting them, according to the women and court filings.” Apparently, “three L Brands executives said Mr. Wexner was alerted in the mid 1990s about Mr. Epstein’s attempts to recruit women” and that “there was no sign that Mr. Wexner had acted on the complaints.”
Wexner’s response seems to be his attitude to other accusations too. Ed Razek’s persona was summarised by Victoria’s Secret model Alyssa Miller as “I am the holder of the power. I can make you or break you.” It was revealed that “at castings, Mr. Razek sometimes asked models in their bras and underwear for their phone numbers” and “urged others to sit on his lap.”
One model that came forward was Andi Muise who explained that in 2007, Razek invited her to dinner, which she believed was an opportunity to forge a nascent, professional relationship. Instead, when he picked her up in a chauffeured car, he tried to kiss her, and despite being rejected, he persisted. During the months that followed, he sent the 19 year old intimate and suggestive emails, urging that they move in together. He wrote “I need someplace sexy to take you!” After Muise skipped a private dinner with him at his New York home, she was removed from the Victoria’s Secret fashion show, despite having a place in it for the previous four years.
In 2018, at a fitting before Victoria’s Secret’s final fashion show, Razek declared that Bella Hadid should just “forget the panties” because she might not be allowed to walk “down the runway with those perfect titties.” Apparently, “at the same fitting, Mr. Razek placed his hand on another model’s underwear-clad crotch.” This behaviour was reported to the human resources department and this was added to a document that listed “more than a dozen allegations” against him. These included “his demeaning comments and inappropriate touching of women.”
Despite the multiple complaints, Wexner still supported him and in 2013 “helped raise a $1.2 million fund” in his name at Ohio State University’s Cancer Centre.
Models were not the only ones subjected to harassment. The Times reported that when “Ms. Crowe Taylor, the public relations employee, went to get seconds” at a “buffet lunch for staff” she was intercepted by Razek, who “blocked her path and looked her up and down. Then, with dozens of people watching…he tore into her, berating her about her weight and telling her to lay off the pasta and bread.”
When the HR department ignored her complaint, she quit. Another public-relations executive, Monica Mitro, also “lodged a harassment complaint against him with a former member of the L Brands board of directors.” The next day, she was told that “she was being placed on administrative leave.”
One of Victoria’s Secret’s main photographers was Russel James who was paid “tens of thousands of dollars a day.” It was revealed that “at the end of sessions with models, Mr. James sometimes asked if they would be photographed nude.” Apparently, “he also had a close relationship with Mr. Razek.” The women often consented without realising that they weren’t being paid.
In 2014, he published a book titled “Angels,” which featured some of these photos. There are two books on his website and they are selling for $1800 and $3600. The book launch held in 2014 had many attendees, including some supermodels and Sharen Turney, the chief executive of the company at the time. The book’s blurb claimed that “readers will be taken on a voyeuristic journey into a world of subtle provocation.” One of the model’s agents “complained to Victoria’s Secret that his client’s photo was being used” without her consent.
The New York Times also detailed then 22-year old model Alison Nix’s experience of a “weekend event to raise money for the nonprofit foundation run by Richard Branson’s private Necker Island in the Caribbean.” Nix claimed that “she and other models who attended the event were provided with copious amounts of alcohol and were expected to mingle with men.” She recalled being “shipped out there, and these rich men were flirting with us” and asking herself “are we here as high-end prostitutes or for charity?”
Nix’s rhetorical question seems to be the echo that has reverberated within Victoria’s Secret’s walls as models have repeatedly found themselves in situations that were unsafe, uncomfortable, and predatory.
Where Does This Leave Victoria’s Secret?
Victoria’s Secret defined femininity for almost 20 years; it was often thought of as the pinnacle of lingerie, making it invincible to bad publicity and campaigns. However, its outdated ideas of “sexy” in a new, refreshing world of body positivity, Feminism and #metoo movements has spelled out its demise. As society moves away from the toxicity of its hallmark messages about “the perfect body,” the currency of male attention, and curating an image for societal approval, the brand has been left rotting in our past. We have safely moved onto companies whose campaigns help women feel complex, invigorated and empowered.
Victoria’s Secret’s culture of misogyny is its most fatal blow, and as we distance ourselves from brands that allow men to capitalise on women by being abusive, predatory and intimidating, it’s incredibly rare, if not impossible for the company to make a comeback. A complete upheaval of its business figureheads, its morals, marketing and campaigns would be necessary if Victoria’s Secret wanted to ever reach an inch of what it once meant to young women, but its demise seems like a long-awaited spiral into complete oblivion.
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