The "Sexy" Revolution That Victoria's Secret Needs To Own Again

If you’re among the 75% of Americans who regularly visit malls, you’re undoubtedly familiar with this scene: Outside of Victoria’s Secret, huddled groups of pre-teen boys jostle each other underneath the novelty of seeing a 15-foot airbrushed image of supermodels in push-up bras and angel wings. Inside, women navigate the pink-papered rooms to open up a million drawers filled with lacey underwear sets and constructed push-up bras. It smells like a sugar factory, and feels like a sanitized boudoir, and it’s been totally, exactly just this way since as long as you can remember. This has mostly been a winning model: The Columbus, Ohio-based brand that began as a speciality boutique in Palo Alto, California 40 years ago, today boasts annual sales of more than $7 billion and a 62% share of the American lingerie market. (Just to put that into perspective, Apple owns an estimated 43% of the U.S. smartphone market — and iPhones are everywhere.) It’s emerged as a major player in the beauty industry, and its annual fashion show is a pop-culture mainstay. The well-endowed, tiny-waisted hourglass Angels Victoria’s Secret has promoted have defined sexy for a generation.

That superiority of that exact Victoria's Secret body type have been supported by Hollywood, by advertisements, by porn, and even by science — but it's become clear that the Angels hegemony is on the way out. Even executives at Victoria’s Secret know that a younger, more socially-conscious generation are redefining sexiness in more authentic terms. And so they have a section of some stores devoted to those women too; nestled into one of the rooms is Victoria’s Secret’s offshoot, Pink, which started in 2002 as its line for younger shoppers. That’s where you’ll find soft bralettes and sporty, athleisure styles that look more suited for BFFs than supermodels. These newer styles only retail for $20, or about a third the price of Victoria’s Secret’s mainstay product, and although the Pink section of any Victoria’s Secret store is relatively small, Pink is Victoria’s Secret’s most profitable arm. Consistently ranked as one of the most popular brands with American teens, the capsule brand increased net sales by $17 million for the third quarter of 2016. In its 2016 annual report Victoria’s Secret called its performance “truly ‘Olympic.’”

This shift is meaningful, not just from a financial standpoint but also a cultural one. Because even as Pink continues to grow — the company is opening standalone Pink stores and expanding its footprint within current shops — the rest of Victoria’s Secret is finding that to remain a cultural leader means having to adapt. The definition of sexy is changing. And nowhere is the tension between the old and new more obvious than in a statement the company made in their 2014 annual report: “At Victoria’s Secret, we market products to the college-aged woman with Pink and transition her into glamorous sexy product lines, such as Body by Victoria, Angels, and Very Sexy.” This effort to straddle both worlds — the bralette version of Pink and the push-up version of their other lines — is an indication of how Victoria's Secret has attempted to respond to the ways that standards of beauty have changed over the past decades. The schism between Pink and the broader brand are more than just two different product lines; they represent two completely different modes of femininity. Given Pink’s success, it’s almost certain that Victoria’s Secret the company will get there. But it has to let go of the idea Pink’s version of femininity is a layover — not a final destination.

First let’s give credit where credit is due: Victoria’s Secret was the first to effectively sell lingerie — long considered a luxury purchase — to the masses. The first Victoria’s Secret was founded by Ray Raymond who opened the first shop in 1977 after struggling to buy lingerie for his wife. He wanted a place where men would feel comfortable, not embarrassed, shopping for women’s underthings. The shop did well, bringing in sales of half a million its first year and allowing Raymond to open more stores as well as a mail-order catalog. But the company didn’t really take off until L Brands acquired it for $1 million in 1982, immediately switching its target to the real buyers of lingerie: women. But even then, the advertisements and catalogs still catered to the male gaze (ask any teenage boy with access to mailboxes). In Victoria’s Secret’s world, women wore lingerie in order to be admired by men. That strategy has paid off: Victoria’s Secret was worth $1.9 billion by 1995.

Young women want to be able to see all body types as beautiful.

Pauline Maclaran
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Under the stewardship of L Brands, Victoria’s Secret did an incredible thing: It made sexy underwear accessible. What that did was reinforce the idea that the female body not only needed to be clothed, but that it needed to be rewarded and celebrated — and provided the everywoman with the handbook in feeling powerful in their nakedness. The stores, which grew to thousands of mall locations around the U.S., were outfitted like fantasy boudoirs, a vast improvement on the underwear rails at major department stores. The underwear itself was glamorous and exotic too, heavy on silky fabrics, embellishments, and rich colors, and lacking the cheeseball factor that competitors like Frederick’s of Hollywood relished in.

More captivating though were the catalogs and ads. Gorgeous models, resembling those seen in Cosmopolitan and Vogue, put on their sexiest poses and come-hither stares for high-end fashion photographers. By the 1990s, a Victoria’s Secret contract was considered the most lucrative in modeling, and many of its so-called “Angels,” like Tyra Banks and Heidi Klum, became household names. Women aspired to be just like them, and Victoria’s Secret promised them the means to push, pad, and cinch their way there. (For many, faking an Angels body was more realistic than faking the Kate Moss heroin-chic look that had dominated the scene.)

But if the ‘80s, ’90s and early ‘aughts were all about aspiration, today’s consumers want authenticity. They want to see real bodies, love handles and all. And they want underwear that is comfortable and caters to them — not to the male gaze. And that’s when Victoria’s Secret proper started to slip, and Pink began to grow.

“Victoria’s Secret did a very good job of making sexy underwear accessible to women and tapping into the fantasy elements of femininity,” says Pauline Maclaran, professor of marketing and consumer research at Royal Holloway, University of London. They entered a market where lingerie was considered a luxury product offering, and made it a mass consumer good — and has arguably had a helping hand in making sexuality a mass conversation. But, the problem is that the idea of what’s sexy has changed. “Young women want to be able to see all body types as beautiful,” says Maclaran.
If you want proof, consider the growing number of contemporaries like Aerie, Free People, and Calvin Klein Underwear that focused on pushing new notions of sexy, like body positivity and inclusivity. “These companies are making women of all sizes and styles feel special, which helps build stronger emotional connections and more brand loyalty,” says Emily Grant, director of strategy at global brand agency Interbrand.

Indeed, these brands catered to a growing number of women — particularly teens and the all-important millennial customer — who are trading in their skinny jeans for softer, more flexible leggings; and swapping out the structured, padded bras that are Victoria’s Secret’s speciality in favor of more natural, comfortable styles. And while Victoria’s Secret’s massive store network used to leave little room for new competitors to emerge, the web has changed all of that. Today, a lingerie brand can set up an online shop with comparatively little investment, position themselves as anti-establishment, and build a following through savvy use of social media. Which is what they did do. And then they changed the culture by providing a counter-narrative to Victoria’s Secret’s dominant story.

“For years we’ve seen lingerie in one context: women wearing it on a bed to do something with someone else,” says Marissa Vosper, co-founder of three-year-old lingerie brand Negative Underwear. “But women wear underwear every day of their lives, and most of the time no one sees it and that’s okay. Now it’s about, how do I feel good in my own skin?”

“I worked at Victoria’s Secret, and I have the utmost respect for it as a business and brand and for its market share,” says Michelle Cordeiro Grant, co-founder and CEO of lingerie startup Lively and a former senior merchant at Victoria’s Secret. “But I felt as a consumer another conversation wasn’t happening, and that was really around what lingerie can do a woman for a woman, for a woman.”

Unlike the lingerie brands of yesteryear, many of these emerging brands — Fleur du Mal, Lively, Naja, Negative Underwear, Nubian Skin, and True & Co. among them — were founded by women for women. They tend to take a feminist approach to their marketing that feels fresh and contemporary to today’s socially conscious shoppers.

Established brands made pivots, too. Plus-size retailer Lane Bryant captured headlines — and customers’ support — last year with the release of #ImNoAngel campaign, a not-so-subtle jab at Victoria’s Secret, which calls its spokesmodels “Angels.” Artfully shot in black-and-white, it featured a cast of models smiling in their underthings, stomach rolls and cellulite included.

“Our view, quite simply, is that all women deserve to be seen and celebrated,” says Brian Beitler, chief marketing officer of Lane Bryant. “Was there a tongue-and-cheek nod to Victoria’s Secret Angels? Yes. But the point is, we don’t want to represent some unattainable level of perfection. Angels, whether associated with Victoria’s Secret or not, represent perfection.”

Aerie, a youth-oriented lingerie brand owned by American Eagle Outfitters, has also taken aim at Victoria’s Secret heavy use of airbrushing, releasing ads with the tagline, “The girl in this photo has not been retouched. The real you is sexy. #aerieREAL.” Aerie has made considerable inroads with teens and millennial shoppers in recent years. In November, AEO reported that it had a record sales quarter, and showed a 17% increase from earnings per share from the year prior.

Maybe because Victoria Secret is still the industry leader raking in billions, the company was slow to respond until the new reality hit their bottom line. “Victoria’s Secret was late to major trends like bralettes and athleisure,” says Grant. But company earnings reports from October 2016 show that the introduction of these two product categories were key in increasing net sales.

We don’t want to represent some unattainable level of perfection. Angels, whether associated with Victoria’s Secret or not, represent [that].

Brian Beitler
In response, there have been some shake-ups at the company. Last February, Sharon Turney, the CEO of Victoria’s Secret for more than a decade, departed, and about 200 people were laid off. Two months later, the company announced a restructuring. The brand was divided into three businesses — Victoria’s Secret Lingerie, Pink and Victoria’s Secret Beauty — with three separate chief executives reporting to L Brands CEO Leslie Wexner. The famous catalog was eliminated, as were merchandise categories outside of its “core,” including swim.

And while the ads plastered on the storefronts still look mostly the same, another sign that the company’s marketing may be primed for a shift surfaced this fall, when the brand deftly posted a behind-the-scenes photo of Jasmine Tookes on set that, though plenty aspirational, made no effort to disguise the model’s stretch marks. (They did, however, use a retouched photo in the catalog.) “I love that Victoria's Secret is now using models which show off stretch marks,” one fan wrote on Twitter, echoing several others.

There’s also the matter of international expansion — after all, Victoria’s Secret treatment of sexuality and femininity is still considered progressive in many countries outside of the United States. While it has faced difficulties navigating cultural norms — particularly in more culturally conservative regions like mainland China where its stores stock fragrances and accessories, but not lingerie — it has an opportunity to push the same boundaries in other countries as it did for Americans in the ‘90s.

Because at its core, Victoria’s Secret still has the largest voice and the biggest platform to deliver the idea that women’s bodies are beautiful, and are worth celebrating. And that’s something that will always be revolutionary.
We reached out to Victoria's Secret for this story, but they declined to comment.
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