I keep thinking about this one scene in Victoria’s Secret: Angels and Demons, Hulu’s new docuseries about the dark business practices that built the brand into a retail behemoth (Canadians can watch on Amazon Prime). At one point in the third episode, Vogue journalist Nicole Phelps goes to the Victoria’s Secret offices to interview its then-chief marketing officer, Ed Razek, about the brand’s future and how it planned to keep up with the changing market. It was late 2018, and consumers had already embraced Rihanna’s super-inclusive Savage x Fenty line and indie companies with similar missions like ThirdLove and Universal Standard.
The resulting Q&A was significant not just for the things that Razek shamelessly said on the record (“Everybody keeps talking about Rihanna’s show. If we had done Rihanna’s show, we would be accused of pandering without question,” “We attempted to do a television special for plus-sizes [in 2000]. No one had any interest in it, still don’t,” and “Shouldn’t you have [trans women] in the show? No. No, I don’t think we should. Well, why not? Because the show is a fantasy” were some of the stand-outs) but also in the impact it had on Victoria’s Secret’s reputation. Viewership of that year’s Victoria’s Secret fashion show dropped by 34%.
Celebrities, including former VS Angels like Karlie Kloss and Bella Hadid, distanced themselves from the company, and critically, so did consumers. As the documentary showed, Razek’s flippant attitude toward diversity was totally out of step with what its customers wanted—and seeing him say it so plainly helped push them to shop elsewhere. In 2013, the company owned 31.7% of the intimate apparel market; by the end of 2018 that was down to 24% and by 2020, it had fallen even further to 19%.
At one point, in a fleeting moment of self-reflection, Razek says, “we didn’t sound offensive, did we?” There’s a beat, and then the company’s executive vice president of public relations, Monica Mitro, replies: “You did.” It’s just a few seconds, but it stood out to me because it highlighted the contradiction between what VS claimed to be (an empowering brand that helped women own their sexuality) and what it actually was (a business run by men and focused on the male gaze). What’s more, it showed how little the company cared if people knew that. Victoria’s Secret basically admitted to a journalist that it was only using the language of empowerment to sell underwear—and I honestly don’t think that’s so different from the strategies we’re seeing other companies use today.
In the beginning—the very beginning, like 1977—Victoria’s Secret was a lingerie brand founded by U.S. businessman Roy Raymond. Raymond, then 30, had gone into a department store to buy his wife lingerie but left, embarrassed because the saleswomen “made him feel like a deviant,” according to a 2013 Slate article on his tragic story. “Realizing that other male friends felt the same way, the 30-year-old saw an opportunity to create a market where none existed: A lingerie store designed to make men feel comfortable shopping there… He chose the name ‘Victoria’ to evoke the propriety and respectability associated with the Victorian era; outwardly refined, Victoria’s ‘secrets’ were hidden beneath.”
We live in a fashion climate of so much choice, that I can think it can be easy to forget just how little choice their used to be…especially if you’re of an age where there’s essentially always been online shopping. The other thing VS offered was (seemingly) endless choice.— Cora Harrington (@lingerie_addict) July 14, 2022
Raymond eventually opened several more stores, then launched the iconic Victoria’s Secret catalogue and in the process, helped propel lingerie from a utilitarian purchase to a fashion choice, another accessory that could communicate a woman’s personal style. But, by focusing on men who buy underwear for their wives, he was missing a huge (and also obvious) pool of potential customers: the women who would be wearing this underwear. And his business was failing because of this oversight.
Enter Les Wexner, a wealthy retail genius who had already helped precipitate the sportswear boom of the late 70s and early 80s with his store, The Limited. Wexner immediately saw Victoria’s Secret’s potential and what Raymond was missing; he bought the company in 1982 and immediately refined the vision, creating a “British-inspired aspirational world that the [female] American consumer would clamor to enter.” This worked very well for more than a decade, but things really ramped up when VS launched an iconic new campaign featuring models Helena Christensen, Karen Mulder, Daniela Peštová, Stephanie Seymour and Tyra Banks in 1997. With these ‘Angels,’ as the company began calling its brand ambassadors, VS moved away from the refined idea of desirability it had been promoting and toward a sexier, raunchier—and increasingly unrealistic—idea of femininity.
The Victoria's Secret doc on Hulu is so disturbing and also i cannot stress how much VS was a part of any understanding of womanhood from like 1995-2008. It was wild— Kaitlyn Greenidge (@surlybassey) July 19, 2022
Worse, it couched this marketing strategy in the language of female empowerment. As model Frederique Van Der Wal explained in episode one of the docuseries, “the way that they presented the photography with the catalogue… with all the great girls, it was chic, and we actually empowered women to own their bodies” (emphasis mine). Elsewhere in the doc, fashion reporter and author Teri Agins said, “They made it acceptable for mainstream women to want to buy and covet underwear. They were giving women permission to treat themselves.” To further perpetuate this idea, the company also crowed about the women it promoted off-stage. In that ill-fated Vogue feature, Razek asserted that “virtually all of the bosses here have been women, and have been for 30 years. Les Wexner has given more opportunities to women in business than any other fashion mogul I can think of, made more women millionaires and multimillionaires. He doesn’t see sex in job opportunity.”
It was heavy-handed, and not everyone bought it, but in general, this strategy worked beautifully: Victoria’s Secret would become the number one intimate apparel brand in the world, generating almost $8 billion in annual revenue by 2015. Wexner’s net worth rose in lockstep. By 1986, his net worth was $1.6 billion; he’s worth about five times that today.
Of course, there was a dark side. The doc spends a lot of time covering the various ways convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein was intertwined in Wexner’s personal finances, not to mention Victoria’s Secret’s actual business operations. (As early as the mid-1990s, he posed as a VS recruiter, setting up ‘meetings’ with aspiring models, something former employees say they flagged to Wexner to no avail. In 1997, Epstein assaulted a young woman during one of those ‘meetings,’ which Wexner maintains he did not know about, though the model, Alicia Arden, filed a police report. Wexner also sold Epstein a private jet and pricey midtown New York townhouse at below market value; the financier used both to abuse young girls.)
It makes me think of the docs that have come out about Hefner, R. Kelly, Woody Allen.— A Shady Dame From Seville (@SorayaMcDonald) July 15, 2022
How many men does it take to shape a culture, really? Not that many.
And these guys normalized the abuse and objectification of women and girls, at massive scale, for YEARS
But I was also struck by the far more banal reality that, though the company and Wexner publicly touted its dedication to hiring and promoting women, that didn’t translate into real decision-making power.
As Naomi Fry wrote in the New Yorker last week, “Victoria’s Secret, [Angels and Demons director Matt] Tyrnauer told me, became about ‘using sex to sell things you don’t need.’ This had a price. As a former employee of the company recounts in the series, Wexner and Razek rejected anything that had to do with women’s real-life necessities: ‘nothing to do with maternity, nothing to do with shapewear, nothing to do with comfort . . . It was just, like, boom, this woman shot out of a cannon and born perfect and impossible to become.’ Even the Angels, God bless them, had a difficult time keeping up. The images of some of the models, an employee recalls, were retouched to within an inch of their lives.”
That’s because two men—Wexner and Razek—with very specific ideas about what ‘sexy’ meant made the real decisions. In short, sexy women were white, able-bodied, cis, young and toned with improbably large breasts, a physique that was only possible thanks to starvation diets, excessive exercise and plastic surgery, plus camera tricks and Photoshop. So… damaging beauty standards? Check. Racism? Double—no, quadruple check. Way back in 2012, lingerie expert Cora Harrington even broke down another weird thing about the VS approach to marketing: the brand’s messaging leaned on an implicit Madonna/whore dichotomy that promoted rape culture even as it objectified women. “I'm not sure if you've noticed,” she wrote, “but in the past few years, there's been an increasing emphasis on the models’ (always heterosexual) relationships. It's as if to imply, ‘Yes, these women are famous for being underwear models, but they’re ladies. They're good girls, so everything’s okay.’ I know the company is attempting to capitalize on the ‘They're wives and moms just like you’ angle, but it’s very distressing when the legitimacy of their most popular models is so heavily linked to their relationship status. Because it reinforces the notion that expressing your sexuality or being a sexual being is only okay if you’re doing it the right way.”
But when the women Wexner gloated about hiring tried to speak up, to argue that VS customers maybe didn’t want thongs, or did want maternity bras or shapewear, or had moles and freckles—or, of course, came in a much wider variety of ethnicities, skin tones and body types than what the company showed in its advertising and served in its (extremely limited) size ranges, they were overruled. Horrifyingly, they were even subjected to the same restrictive beauty standards as the models—in the docuseries, one former employee recounts being fat-shamed by Razek at a company event, while a 2020 New York Times investigation uncovered an “entrenched culture of misogyny, bullying and harassment,” including multiple incidents of sexual harassment involving Razek and both men’s use of demeaning language toward women.
So all that empowerment stuff? It was clearly just talk.
Much of this had trickled into the public record in the early 2000s, when a 14-year-old told police Epstein had paid her $200 to give a massage that ended in a sexual favour. This is almost certainly why, when VS belatedly tried to rebrand to a feminist brand last year, everyone knew it was a marketing tactic borne out of desperation, not a genuine political evolution.
But watching this series made me think of other brands that may be doing the same thing right now. Post-#MeToo and 2020’s so-called ‘racial reckoning,’ the language of social justice has become currency. All your favourite brands are progressive. Their social media profiles are a study in aesthetic diversity and they say the right things about reproductive rights. But that doesn’t necessarily reflect their company culture or internal policies. It turned out that many of the girlbosses who built their public profiles on a corporate vision of feminism in the early 2010s build their actual businesses on the same old exploitative labour practices.
More recently, several huge companies that released statements pledging to help their employees access abortion by covering out-of-state travel costs were revealed as hypocrites. On July 7, a week after Estee Lauder released its statement, beauty industry watchdog Estee Laundry posted a message from an individual claiming to be an employee of the company that detailed the way the executive assistant to the president of La Mer (which is owned by Estee Lauder) was being treated. “Her mother is imminently dying of cancer, and her request to either WFH or take unpaid leave to care for her was denied. The Estee Lauder Companies… is terminating her effective immediately citing the reason as ‘inability to return to the office,’” it said. Similarly, journalist Judd Legum noticed some of the brands that pledged to protect their employees’ right to abortion had also donated to the very Republicans who had been working to curtail reproductive rights, including Match Group, the parent company of Match, Tinder, Hinge and OK Cupid.
This is why I think the takeaway of Angels and Demons shouldn’t be that Victoria’s Secret was run by bad men. It was, obviously, but if you stop there, you might mistakenly believe that’s because Wexner and Razek were bad apples. But in fact, they were the beneficiaries of an existing, exploitative system that hasn’t actually gone anywhere. So instead, our takeaway should be that corporate overlords are always going to glom onto what’s happening in the wider culture to try to sell their products, so we should be suspicious when they profess to have progressive values. After all, a company can literally change its PR strategy overnight to highlight its newfound politics—but actual systems never change that quickly.
There won't be a newsletter next week, but I will be posting on IG. Come hang out!
Filmmaker Nancy Myers’ very Nancy Myers home.
Jezebel’s sobering look at how quickly reproductive rights in the U.S. have eroded without Roe v. Wade.
The TikTok-famous (but obviously sketch) Pink Sauce.
Bonus: Emanuel Todd Lopez.
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