The age of the Victoria’s Secret Angels sauntering down the runway and gracing the cover of the Victoria’s Secret catalogs has come and gone. And now, in a way, has come again with the return of the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. While gone is the era of the VS Angels such as Gisele Bündchen, Adriana Lima, Heidi Klum, and Tyra Banks, once the embodiment and epitome of sexy, the company seeks to expand its view of what sexy means to all women.
But what will VS’s new version of sexy look like as they seek to transform its image into one that is more inclusive? Which begs another question, can Victoria’s Secret truly be empowering to women when the brand fails to empower those that make their clothing?
The VS fashion show is often cited as a fantasy, but as calls for inclusivity arose in previous years, questions surrounding whose fantasy were brought to light. Rather rhetorically, consumers immediately pointed to the brand and Victoria’s Secret subsequent fashion shows of the not so distant past, which have sold sexy primarily through the male gaze. But the aim with the brand’s new show and format is to let women reclaim the narrative around what they believe sexy looks and feels like. This rebrand of sorts is called The Tour – available September 26th on Amazon Prime.
Long before influencer culture brought fashion shows onto our feeds, Victoria’s Secret brought a fashion show into our homes. In VS’ own way, it made a fashion show more accessible to the masses. Of course, this wasn’t without controversy and those shows had always been mildly problematic. But, there is a nostalgia to the Victoria’s Secret fashion show that speaks to many of our millennial hearts, and as a young girl, I grew up watching the spectacle with my sister. So, there is a thread of warmth and joy that is kindled when I think about the VS shows of old.
Let’s start there and unpack a little bit about the, albeit sometimes sordid, history of the Victoria’s Secret fashion shows.
The shows started in 1995 in NYC at the Plaza Hotel. But, the show wouldn’t hit network television until 2001. While Victoria’s Secret branding has traditionally focused on tall, often thin models, the VS fashion shows were often more inclusive than their counterparts, including some of the most notable Black women in fashion such as Naomi Campbell, Tyra Banks, Veronica Webb and Beverly Peele. However, this was the 90’s and the 2000’s and many runway shows were often whitewashed, Eurocentric versions of beauty, but this was, and continues to be, much of a fashion problem, not strictly a Victoria Secret problem. And it is very much a reflection of the time.
As calls for more diverse models on the runways grew, Victoria’s Secret also included Malaysian model, Ling Tan, Canadian-Pakistani model, Yasmeen Ghauri and Canadian-Indian model, Saira Mohan.
The prominence of Black models continued through the brand’s history with Selita Ebanks, Chanel Iman, Lais Ribeiro, Jasmine Tookes and Jourdan Dunn being prominent faces for the brand. It’s Shanghai show in 2017, boasted 55 models from 20 different countries.
So, why did they stop? Well, it was kind of due to a perfect, and potentially, unavoidable storm. Now, the Victoria’s Secret shows might not have been in the upper echelon of high fashion shows, but as mentioned earlier, it was the only show that was broadcast, around the world, mind you, and thus had an undeniable impact on pop culture.
The world of modeling and gracing catwalks in remarkable creations seems like something out of the pages of a fairytale. But, in actuality, the process of being cast, followed by the intense hours of fittings, hair and makeup, rehearsals and then the actual show is a lot less inviting. Now, add into the mix walking the runway in nothing but lingerie and, perhaps if you’re lucky, some angel wings. Mind you, those wings could weigh anywhere from 10 – 30 pounds.
When asked about the casting process for the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Shows, creative director of the VS shows for nearly a decade, Sophia Neophitou-Apostolou noted that, “It’s quite terrifying for them.”
“It’s about being show-ready. It’s really like being an Olympian – they have to be in peak condition…” – Sophia Neophitou-Apostolou
“The final (casting) decision is made by the whole team, sitting at this long table in a room with really harsh lighting and they have to walk towards us and away from us. They all have to do it – even the contracted girls – and it’s incredibly nerve-wracking for them.”
But, as Sophia told British Vogue, “It’s about being show-ready. It’s really like being an Olympian – they have to be in peak condition. It’s not about being thin or anything like that – it’s about being ready to perform and be the best you can be in that moment.”
Degrading castings and grueling schedules are, sadly, an industry standard. In this unregulated industry, predatory behavior is often everpresent. Particularly because many of the models are often young women or girls that are highly impressionable. For example, Adriana Lima was 18 when she first walked the Victoria’s Secret Runway and then there was Jeffrey Epstein, whose manipulation of L Brands Chief Executive, Les Wexner, allowed him to often identify himself to young women as a talent scout for Victoria’s Secret.
Deception and exploitation run so rampant in the fashion industry that there is a push for legislation like the Fashion Workers Act, spearheaded by the Model Alliance to hold agencies and brands accountable.
“It starts with the internal work and being intentional about being inclusive. It’s our responsibility to do that,” – Brooke Wilson, Associate Vice President, External Communications at Victoria’s Secret.
While the #MeToo Movement began in 2006, it really gained momentum in 2017 and, at least at the time, the brand and fashion show didn’t seem to have any interest in changing or aligning with the social current and the growing demand from the public to include more body types and gender identities. In VS’ marketing campaigns that followed the 2017 notoriety of the #MeToo Movement, the brand made little changes to include people of diverse races, ages, bodies and genders. A choice that would ultimately show as a drop in viewership and sales. Not to mention some highly insensitive comments made about trans and plus-size models by Ed Razek, the once chief marketing officer of VS’s parent company, L Brands.
Officially, the shows were canceled in 2019.
Enter the VS Collective. Launched in 2021, the VS Collective is a group of ambassadors, all women, made up of activists, models, athletes, journalists and actors. It is important to note that Victoria’s Secret, now Victoria’s Secret & CO, split from L Brands and officially became a separate public entity on August 3rd, 2021.
“We got it wrong,” said Victoria’s Secret Chief Executive Martin Waters during a presentation shortly after the announcement. “We lost relevance with the modern woman. And she told us very clearly to change our focus from how people look to how people feel — from being about what he wants to being about what she wants.”
I appreciate the ownership. And after speaking with Brooke Wilson, Associate Vice President, External Communications at Victoria’s Secret, she echoed the sentiment and spoke of how the change in direction needed to happen internally first. To look at the brand’s own team, its own structure and take stock of how they could do better as a whole. As within, so without.
“It starts with the internal work and being intentional about being inclusive. It’s our responsibility to do that,” said Brooke Wilson, Associate Vice President, External Communications at Victoria’s Secret.
Now, The Tour. Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show Rebranded
The Tour is essentially the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show reimagined as it is also part documentary. This narrative shift is about storytelling through the lens of designers. VS went all in on making every piece of The Tour about women. There are four featured cities or four Houses (Tokyo, Lagos, Bogotá, and London) centered around five creatives from each city which make up the VS 20. These creatives were given total creative freedom with the underlying desire to give these women a larger platform. The company is showing true dedication to their altruistic vision and the designer’s creations won’t be used or commercialized by Victoria’s Secret for any purpose beyond the film.
Wisely, Victoria’s Secret seems to be utilizing unique voices and amplifying the work of designers who don’t fit VS’ previous mold. Armed with the new tagline: Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, Reimagined, the show boasts its championing of “creative freedom” that “centers on the appreciation and beauty of womanhood.” But, many, given the brand’s documented past, are wary of celebrating too quickly.
As The Tour’s marketing campaigns have rolled out, consumers fear that this may only be a ruse for prominent celebrities to get their turn at a set of wings. While The Tour does feature celebrities like Gigi Hadid, Hailey Bieber, Amelia Gray and Angels from the past like Adriana Lima, VS has also made a point to include new faces like Honey Dijon, a transgender DJ and electronic music producer, and Paloma Elsesser, a full figured model along with it’s VS 20 to highlight the diversity in fashion and society.
Notably, after researching and speaking with Brooke Wilson, a London artist, Michaela Stark went to the Columbus, OH VS headquarters to rummage through the archives and use whatever she saw fit. During her time there, as recounted by Wilson, she had a moment where she was confronted with how these fashion show relics contributed to her own body dysmorphia and insecurities growing up. But as we will see in The Tour, she is able to recontextualize and transform them into her own art and story.
Many brands try so hard, and largely in vain, to separate themselves from any outdated narratives or ill conceived beauty standards which they were complicit in perpetuating. No one can run from their past, not even multi billion dollar corporations and I hope that this continues to be a conversation that Victoria’s Secret embraces and alchemizes into positive change. But is it enough to change public perception in the long run?
Supporting Individuals Who Make and Wear Their Clothing
In an effort to dedicate their company to women empowerment, VS has included itself in conversations and movements surrounding the topic. Through marketing campaigns and initiatives, VS has centered inclusivity in its branding. But does it go beyond marketing?
Women’s empowerment is really trendy right now, with many women-focused brands like Victoria’s Secret dedicating campaigns to feature the diversity of women. For Victoria’s Secret, and all fashion brands for that matter, women’s empowerment doesn’t end with a brand’s target audience or would be consumers, empowerment must extend to the women who make the company’s clothes as well. Since VS’s split from L Brands it seems to be taking earnest efforts into where it has gone wrong and is actually walking the talk. For example, the brand came to the table to remediate the wage theft campaign and it released its first ESG report last year.
“At the company level, it is encouraging to see that VS&Co. is starting to make progress towards its diversity, equity and inclusion goals, and that it is increasingly giving a platform to creatives with a broader range of backgrounds and perspectives,” said Becca Coughlan, Remake’s Senior Advocacy Manager. “VS&Co. will only truly live up to its women’s empowerment marketing rhetoric, however, when it is ensuring that all of the women in its supply chains are working dignified jobs and being paid a living wage.”
The company does look to be integrating lessons learned from the wage theft campaign and channeling this energy of this rebrand and transformation as it looks to solidify itself as leaders and truly empower all women.
[M]ore than 1,250 Thai workers who sewed bras for Victoria’s Secret will finally be paid the $8.3 million in legally owed compensation.
We cannot talk about sustainability without a conversation about garment workers. VS has made strides there as well by increasing the stringency of its supplier code of conduct and disclosing the frequency with which supplier factories are audited, as well as for having in place a robust remediation program to address worker grievances and factory non-compliances.
However, after a 13-month long effort, largely led by Remake through the #VictoriasDirtySecret Campaign, more than 1,250 Thai workers who sewed bras for Victoria’s Secret will finally be paid the $8.3 million in legally owed compensation. While the lobbying for the owed wages was prolonged, progress is still progress and we hope to see Victoria Secret continue doing right by its workers. This also serves as a reminder to never underestimate your power as an individual and the power of the collective voice. And while VS has room for improvement, these are encouraging steps to greater accountability.
The ESG report goes on by stating, “Through our rigorous labor and workplace conditions standards for our suppliers, we believe we can continue to play an important role in ensuring the rights of workers, improving working conditions across our supply chain and empowering workers through worker engagement projects.”
Remake looks forward to observing Victoria’s Secret’s continued commitment to these initiatives and the deepening of their social and environmental justice efforts. The women who make the brand’s clothing, largely in the global south, are often bearing the brunt of the climate crisis and deeper insight into the rehauling of its purchasing practices to ensure garment workers are earning a living wage is a big part of these next steps.
Progress doesn’t happen overnight, and we really need to champion progress over perfection. This doesn’t mean that we give brands an out, it means that we continue to lift our voices together as agents for change while leaving room for conversation and connection. This also means that as brands begin to alter their identities to accommodate an increasingly expectant consumer base, as an industry we can’t just trust pretty packaging and marketing schemes. With the upcoming VS Fashion Show, many will be looking to Victoria Secret to prove that the brand is dedicated to change their sordid existence, trading their previous look for a new set of wings.