Victoria’s Secret Created an Impossible Ideal of Sexy. Now It’s Struggling to Stay Relevant

Picture a immature Candice Bergen look-alike–gorgeous and sophisticated–lounging in a dim, fluffy boudoir. She lives in London, where she runs her possess pattern studio. She’s in her 30s and globetrots. She has a accent of her English father, and her life is sensitive by a intemperate trips she took as a child with her French mom to Paris, Milan and New York City.

This is Victoria, a hypothetical creator of Victoria’s Secret. At slightest as corporate employees have been told over a years to prognosticate her: a secular lady who loves slip and is ardent about assisting women feel sexy. Customers might not know her backstory, though they should be drawn to her glorious as they travel by a stores. She’s a reason for that moist British accent in a brand’s commercials.

As unattainable as that life seems, a company’s open ideal might be even some-more out of reach. Victoria has for decades been embodied by a Angels, an chosen organisation of engaged supermodels who have helped conclude a American ideal of sexiness. Their come-hither glances and sculpted bodies–which frequency change in distance and shape–have successfully seduced millions of women into branch to Victoria’s Secret by default when they need a new bra. Those anointed–a organisation that includes Heidi Klum, Tyra Banks and Gisele Bündchen–are among a many famous models and women in a world, tangible to many by their initial names alone.

For a prolonged time, personification on these dual fantasies–being as alluring as a brand’s Angels and vital a life of European luxury–resulted in fanciful success. Victoria’s Secret depends 1,170 stores in a U.S. and Canada with an additional 460 in some-more than 70 countries around a world. It’s a usually tradesman with a possess conform uncover on network television. During a tallness of a popularity, in a mercantile year that finished in Jan 2016, Victoria’s Secret accessible some-more than $7.7 billion in sales, accounting for some-more than half of all income during a primogenitor association L Brands, that also owns Bath Body Works, among other brands. Just a few weeks earlier, L Brands’ batch reached a all-time high of some-more than $100 a share.

Since then, however, Victoria’s Secret has struggled. Sales have fallen. L Brands’ batch has plunged subsequent $40. On Nov. 19, a association announced it was slicing a annual division in half. And CEO Jan Singer recently stepped down after usually dual years on a job.

Perhaps a many critical cause in this decrease is a existence that a company’s one-note clarification of voluptuous is no longer common by many American women. Of course, copiousness are still meddlesome in push-up bras and would adore to have a abs of an Angel, and L Brands is frequency a usually brick-and-mortar tradesman to face headwinds in a epoch of online shopping. But as brands like Aerie, ThirdLove and Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty pierce into a market, capitalizing on a sex interest of all physique types, Victoria’s Secret finds itself an peculiar fit for lingerie’s new feminist era. (Victoria’s Secret declined to criticism on a minute list of questions from TIME.)

In an Instagram post in October, a indication Robyn Lawley called for a protest of a brand’s conform uncover until Victoria’s Secret “commits to representing ALL women on stage.” Meanwhile, Rihanna has drawn an pithy contrariety between their code and hers: “I’m not built like a Victoria’s Secret girl,” she told Vogue in a form touting a launch of Savage X Fenty.

Roxanne Meyer, sell researcher during MKM Partners, calls L Brands owner and CEO Les Wexner a “visionary” though questions if he’s environment adult his association for destiny success. “Everything I’ve review that Les has said–and I’m presumption he’s stranded by this–is he stands by his code and what’s voluptuous and that’s what his patron wants,” she said. “I do wonder, Do they see a intensity for Victoria’s Secret to develop during all divided from usually pristine sexy?”

Wexner, 81, has remained during a helm for decades, and L Brands’ arch selling officer, Ed Razek, 70, continues to be a pivotal figure moulding a brand’s image, even after new comments brought a cascade of disastrous courtesy to a company. Backlash was quick in Nov after Razek, asked by Vogue about casting transgender models in a conform show, said, “Shouldn’t we have transsexuals in a show? No. No, we don’t consider we should. Well, since not? Because a uncover is a fantasy.” Razek also pronounced a code had “looked during putting a plus-size indication in a show” though always motionless opposite it. (Razek after apologized for a comments and pronounced a code is open to casting transgender models.)

So when ABC front this year’s Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show on Dec. 2, a eventuality will expected demeanour flattering many as it always has–like a unwavering Victoria. But while what we see on TV might simulate a prophesy of a group in charge, it’s not indispensably one common opposite a company. Former employees contend that some internally have questioned a brand’s friendship to Razek’s perspective of “sexy” for years, even before increase started slipping.

“Their whole genius of this lady seems a tiny bit outdated,” pronounced one former worker who worked on a brand’s catalog in a early 2010s and who, like others interviewed for this story, requested anonymity for fear of career repercussions, “especially in today’s meridian where women have so many some-more of a voice and we don’t wish to be seen as sex symbols.”

 

In 1977, a businessman named Roy Raymond non-stop a initial Victoria’s Secret store after feeling ungainly shopping slip for his mother in a dialect store. A handful of stores later, in 1982, Wexner bought Victoria’s Secret for L Brands (known afterwards as The Limited Inc.) for $1 million. Lee Peterson, executive clamp boss during sell consultancy WD Partners, remembers visiting one of a initial Victoria’s Secret stores in San Francisco usually after a purchase.

“You went inside and it was like a boudoir … fluffy and sensuous velvet fate and all this–and we remember walking out of there like, What a ruin is he thinking?” Peterson said.

At a time, there were few options for sexy, affordable lingerie. Frederick’s of Hollywood had been around for decades though was seen by many consumers as too racy. Peterson, who finished adult operative for L Brands from 1980 to 1991 and considers Wexner a mentor, fast accepted a brand’s intensity as they started opening some-more stores. “They were on glow right from a get-go,” he said. By 1986, usually 4 years after it was acquired, Victoria’s Secret had 100 stores doing $100 million in sales.

The complicated Victoria’s Secret was innate when Razek assimilated a association in a mid-1980s. “He’s low-filter, humorous as hell, swears a lot,” Peterson said. Razek motionless a code indispensable to possess “sexy” and delicately tranquil his vision.

In a late ’90s he engaged Russell James, a conform photographer who continues to fire for a company. “I’ve worked with many brands over a years,” James said. “Ed is substantially a many hands-on.” Razek privately calls photographers before they get to set, attends any vital bra-launch fire and mostly creates changes on a mark once he gets there. He is famous to observe even tiny print shoots to offer his opinion on a model. James, who still infrequently sends Razek exam shots of new models for consideration, credits him with “an supernatural ability” to mark talent.

Razek still privately approves a casting of any Angel and is pronounced to be intensely protecting of these women, according to former employees. “I desired him,” Bündchen pronounced in a new interview. Razek gave her a life-altering agreement with Victoria’s Secret in 1999, that supposing 80% of her income by a time she left 8 years later, and she stays in hold with him. Reporting backstage before one uncover years ago, we beheld Miranda Kerr, afterwards an Angel, rising from her makeup chair to welcome Razek as shortly as he entered a room.

When Ivan Bart, boss of IMG Models and IMG Fashion Properties, initial started promulgation models to be expel for a conform show, even a thought of displaying slip on a runway was unusual. That’s all changed. “I would contend any indication that comes to see us right now,” he said, “the thought is to be on a Victoria’s Secret runway.” Added Maja Chiesi, an IMG comparison clamp boss and one of a world’s tip displaying agents: “I don’t consider there’s any other bearing on a runway that would substantially ever contest with Victoria’s Secret since you’re on TV.”

In 1999, Razek motionless to use a still rudimentary record of video streaming to put a conform uncover online. It was a Internet-breaking impulse of a era. Some 1.5 million visitors attempted to balance in, though many had difficulty as a outrageous assembly impressed a servers. In 2001, a uncover aired on ABC and Heidi Klum walked a runway as a show’s star, her familiar hardly contained by a multimillion-dollar diamond-encrusted “fantasy bra” that has turn a tack of any show. Some 12.4 million viewers watched. By final year, with live TV observation smashed by streaming and Victoria’s Secret’s sales down, fewer than 5 million people watched.

 

“Top 12 selling rules” is a list gathered by Razek that is good famous in a Victoria’s Secret selling department. Razek has updated a duplicate over time, though a manners have remained mostly a same. In a new chronicle common with TIME by a former employee, No. 11 reads: “Fall on your face, not on your ass.”

“There’s always a reason not to do something,” it continues. “Not to change a pointer pack, not to pierce to next, not to flip to a new photography … Marketing doesn’t work that way. It’s always about next, new, uninformed … Always pierce forward, always be aggressive, always get to next. Your universe will never be perfect. That’s not a reason not to make it improved now.”

But former employees contend there has never been many enterprise for change–perhaps since a regulation seemed to work so good for so long. Under Sharen Jester Turney, who was CEO of Victoria’s Secret from 2006 to 2016 after 6 years of overseeing approach sales, employees began pitching ways to develop a Angels’ image. Ideas enclosed interviews with a models about their lives or sharpened them though makeup. Some employees who were there during a time contend Razek, who as arch selling officer tranquil a brand’s visible direction, wasn’t interested. “I remember him observant something like, ‘No one cares about their voice, no one cares about a story, usually keep it elementary and sexy,’” one former worker who worked in a art dialect told TIME. A former worker who worked on duplicate agreed: “If we had a complicated idea, you’d PowerPoint it, representation it for a month. Then they’d say, ‘We adore this though we’re going to do what we did final year.’” Turney declined to comment.

The demeanour of a Angels remained so unchanging that even models with brief hair were deliberate a departure. “When Karlie Kloss cut her hair, it was a vast [moment]. Like, Oh my God,” pronounced a former senior-level employee. And opposite physique forms were not embraced by top management, according to this employee. “They’ve never felt a vast physique is sexy.”

During one meeting, according to a former art-department employee, Razek compared a models to “thoroughbreds” and pronounced he follows them closely on Instagram to make certain that they’re not being pushed too distant by their agents because, like racehorses, we can’t overwork them or they would get tired and not perform during their best. Victoria’s Secret did not make Razek accessible for comment.

Then, in 2016, with a Victoria’s Secret code still raking in sales, came 3 vast changes. First, Turney left abruptly in Feb of that year, citing a enterprise to concentration on her family, and Wexner, a L Brands authority and CEO, also took on a pursuit of CEO of Victoria’s Secret before appointing Jan Singer, before of Spanx, that June. (Singer did not lapse email requests for comment.) Second, Wexner motionless to kill a iconic though dear Victoria’s Secret catalog and restructure a company, laying off 200 people. And third, a month after a layoffs, Wexner cut a brand’s swimwear, alienating some shoppers who were drawn into a stores for showering suits and would collect adult other products along a way. “We were creation a lot of advance underneath Sharen,” a former senior-level worker told me, “but we feel like it reverted behind to where it was with a girls in a prolonged hair.”

 

Despite a open criticism and new financial losses, L Brands stays a behemoth, accounting for 62.8% of sum lingerie-industry income from U.S. brick-and-mortar sales, according to market-research organisation IBISWorld. Aerie, for all of a buzz, accounts for usually 3.5%, according to a IBIS World estimates.

“They’ll survive,” pronounced NPD sell researcher Marshal Cohen. While analysts criticized Victoria’s Secret for blank a trend of unpadded bralettes, Jennifer Zuccarini, a owner of upscale slip line Fleur du Mal who worked in pattern during Victoria’s Secret from 2008 to 2012, pronounced she always put bralettes in a collection though they didn’t sell. “They’ve lerned their consumer to wish a certain look,” she said. “A some-more impassioned underwire padded arrange of thing.” This gave Aerie an in, though Cohen pronounced he doubts it will harm Victoria’s Secret in a prolonged run. “Do we consider we’ll be articulate in a nearby destiny about how they’ve finished good on a miscarry side?” he said. “I consider give it some time and we will.” Just this month, a code announced on an gain call that it will move behind swimwear in 2019.

What’s more, a association is doing a lot of things right. People who have worked during Victoria’s Secret bring inexhaustible salaries, a high suit of women in care positions, and a gifted workforce as perks. But to get all that, a former art-department worker said, we have to “swallow this unequivocally vast pill”: a brand’s unapologetic objectification of women.

Some change seems inevitable, if usually due to Razek’s and Wexner’s advancing ages. “Les can’t be like 90 years aged and pulling Victoria’s Secret’s bralette business,” Peterson said. Next year, there will be a new Victoria’s Secret CEO to reinstate Singer: Tory Burch boss John Mehas. Which means a destiny of “sexy” is, once again, in a hands of a man.

Contact us during editors@time.com.

This appears in a Dec 10, 2018 emanate of TIME.

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