Recently, Victoria’s Secret launched a campaign promoting the brand’s new (and more inclusive) direction, called VSNow. Gone are the days of angel wings, glittery thongs and miles upon miles of tanned, toned legs — all of this has been shoved to the back of the closet with the rest of Victoria’s skeletons in favor of organic colors, clean lines, functional design and bodies (allegedly) untouched by Photoshop. In its own words, the brand has “moved from promoting an exclusionary view of what is sexy, to celebrating women throughout every phase of their lives.”
This effort has been met with backlash from the general public, criticizing the brand for implying that it is impossible to maintain glamor while being inclusive. The brand’s hamfisted efforts to make a comeback may be further hindered by the release of a new Hulu docuseries called “Victoria’s Secret: Angels and Demons” that details the rise and fall of the brand and its former CEO Leslie “Les” Wexner, as well as his murky ties to Jeffrey Epstein.
Through interviews with former Victoria’s Secret executives and workers, who are mostly women, the docuseries shines a light on every shady corner of Wexner’s legacy. Les Wexner is the founder and chairman emeritus of Bath & Body Works Inc., formerly known as L Brands, which included Victoria’s Secret, Abercrombie & Fitch, Express, and (of course) Bath & Body Works.
Wexner’s career is focused on brands that primarily cater to women, and throughout the documentary, it is made clear both by Wexner himself and the people who surround him that he considers himself an expert on what women want. The female executives that worked under Les Wexner said that he refused to view fashion through any lens besides his own. On one occasion, he looked around a room of female executives and said, “I am the only one in the room who really understands what women want.”
That arrogance and obstinance in the face of a changing industry is what eventually led to the brand’s fall from public favor in the 2010s. Up until then, however, the brand was wildly popular. Within the first episode, Wexner boasts that he pioneered the fast fashion industry by outsourcing labor to other countries and exploiting the workers, as well as by observing high fashion in places like Milan and Rome and producing cheaper, poorer-quality versions for his own brand. The highly wasteful practices of the fast fashion industry are already wreaking havoc on the environment, and it can be directly traced back to Wexner. At this point in the series, I already hated him, and we haven’t even gotten to his relationship with Jeffrey Epstein yet.
Epstein’s link to Wexner is complex and difficult to summarize. The docuseries provides a neat history of Epstein’s life leading up to his mysterious death in 2019. He was Wexner’s financial manager from the 1980s until 2007, when Wexner cut ties with him. According to the docuseries, Epstein would tell aspiring young models that he could connect them with the Victoria’s Secret brand if they met with him or went to dinner.
Wexner claimed to have no knowledge of this and ordered Epstein to stop acting as a representative of the brand. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. The docuseries provides no concrete answers to the questions it raises, but the viewers are left with plenty of information to draw their own conclusions. The facts do not paint a pretty picture. One journalist interviewed in the docuseries notes that any money spent at Victoria’s Secret was indirectly landing in Epstein’s pockets, which may leave a sour taste in the mouths of any former patrons.
The docuseries provides a wide variety of reasons to stop giving your money to Victoria’s Secret and its sister brands, if you weren’t already convinced. Many models who walked the famous Victoria’s Secret runway were being exploited behind the scenes. The docuseries is careful to avoid outright accusations, but the former executives interviewed communicate what they can’t say out loud through raised eyebrows and meaningful nods.
The brand’s legacy lives on in Instagram models, who Photoshop tiny waists and big butts and hawk “skinny tea” and weight loss lollipops to teenage followers. It is impossible to calculate how many women and girls developed eating disorders and body dysmorphia as a result of Victoria’s Secret’s marketing campaigns, but the damage has surely been done. The series also covers the infamous Vogue interview with former chief marketing officer Ed Razek, who scoffs at the idea of including “transsexuals” in the runway shows and, when questioned about size inclusivity, claims that the general public is “skinnyshaming” Victoria’s Secret models. He stepped down a year after the interview was published.
Now that Wexner and Razek are no longer at the helm, is the world willing to give the brand a second chance? Maybe, but hopefully not. There are plenty of underwear brands that have been inclusive and positive from the start — the docuseries names Fenty as one of the most prevalent competitors. As the brand makes a shift toward a more inclusive future, it may find that people simply don’t care, and rightfully so.
The brand’s best chance at survival may have been to stay true to its original vision, but expanded to include bodies in every shape, size and color. It is completely possible to be sexy without being a male fantasy come to life. Victoria’s Secret seems to have just given up on trying; as a result, the brand’s new campaign comes off as a passive-aggressive tantrum, as if the brand is saying, “There, are you happy now? We put fat people in our ad campaign, so stop whining.”
This raises a somewhat philosophical question for fashion brands as a whole. Victoria’s Secret marketed itself as a fantasy. They were selling sex, yes, but a dreamy version of sex, dressed up in feathers and pink glitter. It was a little campy, and it took itself less seriously than high fashion. The models didn’t stalk down the runway, they bounced. The cameras zoomed in on them hugging each other, blowing kisses to the audience.
Was it deeply problematic and dependent upon the objectification of women? Absolutely. The fantasy championed by Victoria’s Secret has always been a decidedly male fantasy, no matter how hard the brand tried to claim that hypersexualization is empowering.
The brand’s struggle to define modern sexuality is somewhat representative of the modern woman’s struggle to define her own sexuality: How do I feel sexy and desirable without objectifying myself? It feels like a trap with no escape. Feeling sexy without being confined to or influenced by male fantasy is a hard line to walk, and the journey to discover your own sexuality that is unattached to the male gaze can be deeply personal and difficult to define. A fashion brand, especially one like Victoria’s Secret, has no hope of defining that for any of us.
But why not apologize for the sins of the past and engineer a future that can be inclusive and glamorous? One must admit that for many women who grew up during the height of the brand’s fame, there would have been a sense of justice in seeing bodies in every shape, size and color paraded down the runway in the angel wings, as silly as it may sound. At this point, there is no turning back for the brand. Victoria’s Secret has always been a household name, but as we turn toward a more inclusive future that aims to empower every kind of body, the brand may fade into obscurity.