Victoria’s Secret is making a comeback - so how was it?
The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show was once iconic. Can it be redeemed in 2023?
-Note: This article has been updated to include a review of the 2023 Victoria's Secret Fashion Show documentary-
Miranda Kerr, Heidi Klum, Tyra Banks, Adriana Lima, Giselle Bundchen. To anyone into fashion and pop culture in the noughties, these women were synonymous with beauty, sexiness, celebrity, and the most exciting day on the fashion-watchers calendar: The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show.
A brand most famed for its lingerie, beauty products and lounge wear, Victoria's Secret reached new heights when it started airing its iconic runway show on broadcast television, bringing supermodels and their fantasy world of giant angel wings, celebrity front rows, million-dollar fantasy bras and live entertainment into our lounge rooms. It was unmissable event television at its finest.
At the time, the TV spectacles were an iconic special that would rake in tens of millions of viewers around the world, leading to lucrative endorsement deals for the models walking the runway, and billions of dollars in revenue for the company that showcased a sexual fantasy of supermodels, superstars - and super small underwear.
Women wanted to be them, men wanted to date them, and their impossibly tall and thin physiques were considered the singular epitome of unattainable female beauty.
But it all came crashing down.
Why did Victoria’s Secret fail?
In the latter half of the 2010s, change was brewing in the fashion industry, on social media and in wider society on what these so-called ‘beauty standards’ were doing for the mental wellbeing of, predominantly, women and girls.
Propelled by the #metoo movement, audiences started to demand more diversity, more realism, less tokenistic approaches, and less content geared toward the male gaze.
Brands like Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty launched in 2018. But instead of tall, waif-like women seen as the only possible form of model or beauty, this brand featured women in a range of sizes, ethnicities, sexualities and abilities. Women outside of the ‘standard’ model size were proudly celebrating their looks and sexuality, demonstrating it was fine – great, even! - to be a different size to the standard one of beauty the media had taught us to emulate and aspire to.
Many other brands like Aerie, ThirdLove and Lively came along, and appealed to an audience who increasingly wanted to see themselves or those society had ignored finally represented, rather than the same old campaigns that made women feel bad about themselves. And it wasn’t just about looks – a new generation of consumers wanted brands not just to talk the talk, but walk the walk when it came to being better – whether that was diversity in the media, equal pay behind the scenes, more women in leadership positions, open political stances, or more sustainable practises.
Nike introduced size 16 mannequins. A curvier Ashley Graham got the cover of Sports Illustrated, and trans models like Hunter Schafer got huge, as well as those from different races, sexes, gender identities, sizes, and ages. Finally, fashion was becoming inclusive for all.
But not at Victoria’s Secret.
In 2018, comments by then-CMO of the brand, Ed Razek, were leaked, including his response to those asking if trans people would ever be included.
"It's like, why doesn't your show do this? Shouldn't you have transsexuals in the show? No. No, I don't think we should," he was quoted in Vogue. "Well, why not? Because the show is a fantasy. It's a 42-minute entertainment special. That's what it is.” He had also previously stated that plus-size models didn’t “fit” the Victoria’s Secret brand and audiences had “no interest” in seeing them.
There were also the leaked reports of what was going on behind closed doors – alleged acts of bullying, harassment, and sexual misconduct, as well as strict rules on what to eat, how to stay thin, and the rapid repercussions if these regulations weren’t met.
Backlash was swift. Sales were declining. Introductions of popular new-age supermodels like the Hadid sisters and Kendall Jenner did little to stop the lack of progress the brand was clearly projecting. The appeal of looking like a singular ‘version’ of sexy just to impress men was over - and Victoria’s Secret was not getting the message.
In 2019, after 23 years of televised runway shows featuring supermodels in angel wings, famous musicians performing to celebrity audiences, million-dollar bras and bejewelled lingerie, the once-iconic runway show did not go ahead.
In a leaked email from CEO Leslie Wexner, he stated that TV was no longer “the right fit” for the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, and that the brand was taking time to “evolve and change and grow.”
But was it too little, too late?
The Victoria's Secret comeback – hold the wings
In 2021, the company announced a rebrand, fit with diverse models of varying sizes, races, ages, and abilities. The goods had a makeover too, with lingerie appearing simpler and more comfortable, and the famed ‘Angel wings’ hung up for the ‘diverse’ and ‘progressive’ new VS Collective.
However, to many consumers, it felt tokenistic. After years of propelling unrealistic standards of beauty - that women needed to be unhealthily thin to be considered sexy or beautiful, that no one wanted to see anything but this one version of female lest we ruin the ‘fantasy’ with our real figures, that the adjectives sexy, beautiful, hot, perfect, and stunning only belonged to one version of supermodel - it fell flat.
It didn’t feel like Victoria’s Secret were rebranding because they actually cared about diversity and inclusivity. It felt like they were rebranding as a last-ditch resort to save a company that was no longer deemed relevant, whose market share had dropped 33%, and who realised they had to evolve to survive.
So... how did they do?
Victoria's Secret: The Tour '23
So, I'll be honest. I didn't go into this with high hopes. The 'new look' show was said to 're-launch for streaming, featuring contemporary celebrities like Hailey Bieber, Gigi Hadid, Doja Cat and Julia Fox and an apparently new vibe from the 'VS Collective.'
First of all, there was no show. Let's get that glaringly disappointing fact out of the way. No proper runway, no wings, no audience, and one thing I also noticed was, no smiling. The difference with the VS Show was that the models were always smiling and having fun (well, on the runway, anyway).
It also seemed to be a contradiction of sorts. Here was VS telling us they are now 'diverse' and 'progressive,' but the intro featured pretty standard-looking blonde haired, white, slim model Gigi Hadid, who also narrated the whole... thing. Not show. Doco? I mean, whatever. But I just didn't really understand what I was watching. there were interviews with designers, some walking around dark labyrinths in clothing that didn't seem to be VS, features of some video makers and chats, but like... the whole time, I kept thinking, get to the fashion show!!!
I know there were some complaints on TiKToK that VS went 'too far' in their diversity and wokeness. I don't agree, the size of the models didn't bother me, in fact, the diversity was a welcome addition. I just didn't understand why I was watching some sort of eclectic documentary when I just wanted to eat junk and watch junk.
If they wanted to make this... thing, it probably should have been publicised as an offshoot, like, VS Presents: Spotlight on Other Designers. Cos like, we saw some famous faces like Naomi Campbell and Kaia Gerber modelling designs in some dark, conceptual way. But noone can buy them, they weren't VS, so the whole time you're just like... why?
All we wanted was a few more bodies on the runway that came with a 2023 lens. They didn't have to ditch the show, the celebs, the wings, the fun. Just make it fun and a healthy, good experience for the people involved, and let us enjoy the show we love.