Tonight, CBS will air the 2017 Victoria’s Secret show, which was filmed one week ago in the Mercedes-Benz arena in Shanghai — the first time the show has happened in China. Harry Styles and Miguel performed. Lais Ribeiro wore the $2 million Fantasy Bra. Elsa Hosk stepped out in 275,000 Swarovski crystals, and Ming Xi became the first model to fall during a Victoria’s Secret show in more than 15 years.
If you’re one of the many, many people who’ve seen the show on a screen (an astounding 1.4 billion saw the 2016 show across 192 countries — that’s 19% of the world’s population), you might think that this was a blockbuster entree into what is predicted to be a $33 billion Chinese lingerie market. Backstage, models gave breathless interviews about what it meant to be in China: “We travelled so far to be here in Shanghai, and [we’re] so grateful to be able to do the show here,” said Hosk. “This is the first time I’m walking the Victoria’s Secret show in my home country. I feel very proud of my country, and very appreciative that Victoria’s Secret finally landed here,” said Chinese model Liu Wen.
But having watched the show unfold in person for the first time as a guest and not a viewer (not to mention, experiencing the thrill that comes with seeing a brand I grew up with celebrated in the country I was born in), I realised that there was a gap in reality: It was obvious that what was supposed to have been the culmination of a years-long partnership between an American brand and the Chinese government was less smooth than it will ultimately appear on television.
For one thing, the main performer, Katy Perry, had her visa denied days before the show, and needed to be replaced in the 11th hour. Then the same thing happened to model Gigi Hadid. Gossip items and rumours about red tape, delayed tickets, and internet firewalls began plaguing the show days before it was supposed to happen. Immediately after the last model left the catwalk, media in both China and the United States began picking apart the cultural messages stitched within the costumes. All that drama proved how difficult it has been for Victoria’s Secret to straddle two countries with widely divergent norms, from what modern female sexuality looks like to how government should interact with business.
It wasn’t always this complicated. When Victoria’s Secret first announced its plans in March of this year to take its signature show to Shanghai, there was a flurry of excitement. Hosting an event in China is a fashion trend in its own right, and Victoria’s Secret has followed a long queue of Western brands — like Dolce & Gabbana, Fendi, Louis Vuitton — that have all staged fashion shows there in recent years. But in many ways, Victoria’s Secret’s debut would be much more strategic. The show, a powerful marketing tool, intentionally coincided with a rash of store openings across the country. But, like many other Western brands that have attempted to take advantage of China’s emerging spending capabilities, Victoria’s Secret may have assumed that Chinese markets play by the same rules that businesses do back home. It became clear that was not the case.
In some ways, the fact that Victoria’s Secret is huge in China shouldn’t come as a surprise: The fashion show is routinely played in restaurants and cafes as background entertainment (seriously), and the Victoria’s Secret name — locally called 维密 (wei-mi), short for 维多利亚的秘密 (weiduoliya de mimi) — has reached the coveted double-syllable status, like Louis Vuitton (el-vi) and Dolce & Gabbana (di-gi). Downmarket shops even borrow from the store design and name, including a knitwear brand called Victorai Cashmere.
But even though Victoria’s Secret is a household name in China, up until earlier this year you couldn’t actually find Victoria’s Secret underwear in the country. The 26 stores in China were operated through franchises, and were only allowed to sell accessories and beauty products. Victoria’s Secret’s parent company L Brands decided to take over operations after seeing its potential; at an investor gathering last November, L Brands revealed that the first three Chinese stores are expected to bring in $150 million a year. (For comparison, L Brands reports that Victoria’s Secret stores made $6.2 billion overall in 2016). “China is our number one priority,” confirmed Martin Waters, CEO of international operations of L Brands during the meeting.
That Victoria’s Secret felt that the Chinese market was ready for its launch — even without having access to its signature lingerie — makes more sense when you consider that Victoria’s Secret doesn’t need sex to sell the mystique of sex. In the West, this bubble-gum boudoir version of sexuality might be a tired story. But in China, it’s an alluring one.
Traditionally, brick-and-mortar lingerie stores in China like Triumph, Aimer, Gujin, and Embry Form are as clinical to shop in as a drugstore. Bright fluorescent lighting and prosaic jazz music make underwear shopping feel like something responsible rather than naughty. Victoria’s Secret offers something else entirely. With darkly lit rooms, loud music, and images and videos of women luxuriating in the half-nude, Victoria’s Secret provides an alternative experience that some Chinese women may find more modern.
“I honestly don't think Victoria’s Secret is competitive to most Chinese brands because it's ‘too sexy’ for Chinese women,” says Daini Xu, founder and CEO of Chinese indie lingerie site, Oxygen. “As China has been a very conservative country, male-dominated values would say that if a girl dresses up like a Victoria’s Secret angel, then she's a bitch, a whore — or at least not good wife material. On the other hand, I’m very happy to see Victoria’s Secret come to China, so that we can educate young women [about] the new definition of sexiness, and that women should be confident and live a life of their own.”
In the West, Victoria’s Secret definition of beauty is not new — in fact, it has been so dominant, for so long, that other lingerie companies have found success in serving up a directly oppositional message. Millennial women are turning to soft bralettes that are comfortable to wear, and provide a natural breast shape — a trend that Victoria’s Secret failed to jump on. Under this new definition, lingerie is more about pleasing the wearer than the prospective viewer. Increasingly, American women are looking to shop at brands that believe a woman’s natural body — whatever shape, size, or age — doesn’t need improving.
Things are different in China. While there are many indie brands like Oxygen that are also offering the natural-woman kind of lingerie, most items on racks in China are Victoria’s Secret’s bread and butter: push-up bras that give your upper half the appearance of two overturned grapefruit halves at brunch. And in a country where overt sexiness is taboo, Victoria’s Secret presents an approachable product in a new way. In China, the brand has the kind of risky appeal it brought to the States decades ago. “It’s not just lingerie,” Liu Wen tells me backstage. “Victoria’s Secret has beautiful clothing as well. They just did a collaboration with Balmain. There’s sportswear. Evening gowns. Victoria’s Secret sells a lifestyle.” Instead of ignoring the connection, sex and lingerie go hand in hand — and in turn, sex and luxury. And for China’s modern women, that’s a vastly different story than their mother’s lingerie shops have told.
In March of this year, Victoria’s Secret opened its first flagship store in Shanghai, a massive four-story shop in a space that Louis Vuitton used to occupy, in the city’s bougie Lippo Plaza that includes a by-appointment-only private lounge and a pop-up museum of past Victoria’s Secret Show looks. The evening I was there prior to the show, the store crawled with two dozen shoppers, mostly looking at PINK merchandise and flipping through the underwear drawers. Though the store was stocked with the just-released Fashion Show 2017 silk robes printed with roses, those racks went untouched. On the giant screens, the Victoria’s Secret 2016 show played on every floor.
The 2016 show was held in Paris a month after the Kim Kardashian robbery. Page Six reported that guests were required to give information beforehand so security could complete background checks. Though the approval process for Paris was unusually complicated, I was told by guests who had attended both shows that Paris paled in comparison to Shanghai.
Lists to the event were closed in September (typically they’re open until much closer to the date of the event). Because China requires visas for any visitor from any country other than Singapore, Brunei, and Japan, most international guests did not have much time to secure proper credentials beforehand. A number of influencer applications were denied, leaving international PR with empty seats to fill without the ability to add names.
Invited press were asked to not post their credentials online, lest counterfeiters attempt to forge fake ones; I was told that if I did, the Chinese government had threatened to shut the entire show down. All tickets had to be approved individually by government bureaus, and many weren’t completed by showtime, which meant that a special triage desk had to be set up outside the show to deal with ticket-holders without tickets (some Chinese guests among them sat out the event altogether as to not lose face). WWD reported that while China’s event-management has different norms and rules in China, the Victoria’s Secret Show’s last-minute headaches were unique. Victoria’s Secret declined to comment.
There was also the matter of how to execute traditional marketing campaigns, when most Western social media accounts like Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook are banned in China; asking attendees and press to download VPNs to skirt Chinese firewalls seemed disrespectful considering the government’s involvement in the event. Page Six reported that television producers were running into red tape about shooting outside the venue. Additionally, three Russian models and a Ukrainian model were denied visas by the Chinese government, and publications like Fashionista and Business Insider wondered if it was related to this summer’s incident where a 14-year-old Russian model died in China while working at Shanghai Fashion Week.
Then came Perry and Hadid's visas issues. While an official reason was not given, The NYT reported that The Global Times — a Chinese state-run publication — wrote that “payback was inevitable, alluding to recent controversies where Perry and Hadid separately insulted the Chinese government and people. Perry wore a sunflower dress during a Taiwanese show, a symbol representative of Taiwanese independence; Hadid posed with a Buddha cookie by squinting her eyes in mock yellowface on her sister’s Instagram Stories — her Weibo apology was later derided by Chinese who felt that it was half-baked.
Much of the drama was already unfolding by the time I arrived in Shanghai, two days before the event. I was invited to attend by crystals producer Swarovski (who paid for my transportation and accommodations), which was celebrating 15 years of collaborations with Victoria’s Secret — its “Crystal Anniversary.” In honour of the event, Swarovski created a brilliant red-and-yellow look worn by Elsa Hosk — a clear visual homage to China’s classic swirling, fiery dragon head iconography. Swarovski is already a household brand in China, and was in many ways the ideal partner for Victoria’s Secret’s debut.
The look would appear within the segment called “Nomadic Adventure,” apparently a nod toward indigenous communities. It was a curious move for Victoria's Secret, considering that it had to issue an apology for putting Karlie Kloss in a feathered headdress in 2012 (the clip of her walking in the show was subsequently pulled from broadcast and marketing materials). As a brand strategy, Victoria’s Secret has long sold fashion by dressing it in a particular flavour of fantasy in which exoticism and approachability are forced to sit side-by-side. What that means for a runway is that you can end up with series of sexy Halloween-esque costumes that trade in outrage-article-generating Orientalist alongside indigenous garb, including Kenyan Maasai beadwork, American Plains Indians Nations war bonnets, and Navajo weavings — all of which appeared within the 2017 show.
However, it’s that cultural moodboard styling that gave Victoria’s Secret hype a giant boost in China over the past year. The brand has flirted with East-Asian consumers in the past, but 2016 marked the first time that its products would also be shoppable to its target audience (Victoria’s Secret’s much maligned “Go East” collection in 2012 was never actually available in the East). In 2016, the brand cast four East-Asian models — the most in its 40-year history. All four were Chinese, and two walked during a section that paid homage to traditional Chinese culture with dragons and phoenix wings that many on Chinese social media criticised as both out-of-touch and too on-the-nose. Regardless, buzz about the show and the brand reached a fever pitch. This year, in addition to Liu Wen, Xiao Wen, Ming Xi, and Sui He, they cast two additional Chinese models to much online fanfare. “We have more Chinese models here than ever,” said Liu Wen. “Everything is new. Everything is fresh. Everything is a surprise. Every year is different, but especially this year.”
By the time that the audience reached their seats, many had experienced the darker side of that “newness.” While the invitation asked guests to arrive at least a half hour before, it took many an hour and a half to get through all the various security points. Groups found that their seating was split up, and beleaguered PR and security began telling guests to sit wherever they could find an empty seat to expedite the process, which led to a few spats when the seat’s actual ticket holder came to claim the spot. I overheard two men complain of the service they received after spending so much money on a ticket. In an emailed statement, Victoria’s Secret reiterated that the show is invitation-only and it does not sell tickets nor does it authorise third-party agents to sell tickets on its behalf, though reports on Chinese media platform Sohu note that there were listings for tickets on e-commerce platform Taobao. Real or not, prices started around $13,700.
When Ming Xi fell on the stage, it was almost cathartic, like a confirmation that the exhaustion in the room was real. Everyone physically there — including those in the audience, those behind the scenes, and those walking down the runway — had been pawns in a showdown between American money and Chinese might. Each entity desired something the other has: Victoria’s Secret wanted financial and cultural access to China’s growing group of modern women; China wanted the confirmation and prestige that comes with having one of the most recognisable international brands come knocking at its door.
But while Victoria’s Secret may have seen this year’s show as an opportunity to revive their business, China saw this as a high-profile opportunity to make a statement about what it will — and won’t — accept from American power on an international scale. At the end of the day, despite the kerfuffle, the story that will endure will probably be seen through the same confetti filter as the show is usually perceived: On television, if not in real life, the 2017 Shanghai Victoria’s Secret Show will offer the impression that China is a modern country, and Western brands like Victoria’s Secret belongs there.
The secret, in this case, is that it all looked so easy.