Today, private equity firm Sycamore Partners bought a 55% stake in Victoria’s Secret in a deal that took the lingerie giant from a public company under L Brands to a privately held one. The deal comes after years of negative press surrounding the brand, including an inability to respond to what modern women want from their lingerie, advertisements and events that promoted unrealistic and male-set standards of beauty, a culture of misogyny and harassment, the dismal performance and problematic ethics surrounding the Victoria’s Secret show, and personal and financial entanglements between sex trafficker and financier Jeffrey Epstein and Leslie Wexner, who stepped down as CEO of L Brands as part of the deal.
"We believe the separation of Victoria’s Secret Lingerie, Victoria's Secret Beauty, and PINK into a privately held company provides the best path to restoring these businesses to their historic levels of profitability and growth," Wexner stated in an L Brands press release. According to Business of Fashion, Sycamore Partners is notorious for controversially breaking up acquired mall-based retailers like Talbots, The Limited, and Torrid into valuable parts to sell, earning the firm a windfall in payouts while the retailers themselves incur more debt to pay off investors. According to the press release, L Brands believes that Sycamore will help Victoria’s Secret return to its former levels of profitability.
Despite the major decline in sales and relevance, Victoria’s Secret is still the undisputed market leader for lingerie, a testament to just how successful the brand formerly was. As one of the most popular single-brand retailers in the United States, Victoria’s Secret was everywhere, as integral to the shopping experience as a food court. According to Time Magazine, as of July 2017, there are 1,100 malls in America; L Brands operates 1,100 Victoria’s Secret U.S. locations. There are Victoria’s Secrets in Times Square, the Mall of America, the Beverly Center, Michigan Avenue, hell, even Caesar’s Palace — name a shopping destination in America and it will almost certainly contain at least one Victoria’s Secret store.
For the majority of Americans, it is still more convenient and familiar to buy underwear from a Victoria’s Secret than online at Parade or Savage x Fenty. But as the total number of malls shrink, Victoria’s Secret footprint will shrink, too. Despite hundreds of more relevant, more ethical, more in-tune, more savvy brands vying for competition, Victoria’s Secret is still far ahead of the pack, as far as sheer numbers go.
So, will this be the true end of the Victoria’s Secret era? It’s hard to see this deal as anything other than the final stake that finally spells the retailer’s demise. But Victoria’s Secret’s unique market position and unmatched accessibility is a compelling reason for the retailer to start anew, in every way. It cannot fundamentally change how it does business without also changing how it does culture. Imagine what could happen if the loudest cultural broadcaster of female sexuality began creating products that were purposefully created to help us feel good about ourselves, our bodies, and our capabilities?