Why lingerie label Victoria’s Secret is struggling to be “woke”

When millennial women opened Instagram they were met with “feminist” influencers posting from the show, describing how “empowered” they felt.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Victoria’s Secret, one of  the world’s most successful lingerie brands, recently held its 23rd “Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show”, which has been its biggest annual event since it first took place in 1995.

Having recorded five million American viewers last year (with tens of millions more re-watching the event around the world), the show has long been an industry leader; a place that turns girls into models and  that determines what is  and isn’t considered to be sexy.

The event has jump-started the careers of many supermodels, such as Adriana Lima, Gisele Bündchen and Tyra Banks, all of whom were awarded the status of a “Victoria’s Secret Angel” – the brand’s premier models. These fashion ambassadors don feathery, glittery angel wings; a garment so comically large it is reminiscent of a novelty cheque or farthingale hoop skirt.

One particular angel is given the show’s highest honour – the chance to wear the “Fantasy Bra”, an item that has featured nearly every year and is bedazzled with precious gems. The cheapest in its history was valued at $1m; the priciest reached $12.5m. Simply appearing in the show, whether as an angel or not, has become a landmark for models; Gigi Hadid broke down in tears at the news that she’d won a slot.

The mastermind behind the show is Ed Razek, Victoria’s Secret’s 70-year-old creative director and the show’s executive producer since 2001. Razek is responsible for the firm’s latest marketing ploy: rebranding this parade of predominantly white women, all six feet tall and six inches wide, into a “feminist” empowerment project.

Labelling phenomena as “woke” – politically conscious and progressive – has been part of Western culture for a decade, accompanied by the “problematic fave” – something beloved that has politically incorrect elements. The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show is an exemplar of this. Self-described feminists, such as the singer Taylor Swift and the model Winnie Harlow, have supported the show despite the objection that, as the US author Jill Filipovic wrote in 2016, “putting conventionally attractive women onstage – even if those women are more racially diverse than in past years – and using them as physical representations of  sex in order to sell bras isn’t exactly a manifestation of the feminist dream”.

The shift to wokeness has been fairly successful – when millennial women opened Instagram on 8 November they were met with swathes of “feminist” influencers posting from the show, describing how “empowered” they felt.

It’s obvious why this switch has been made. L Brands, Victoria’s Secret’s parent company, has endured falling profits, and the brand itself has also struggled financially. Many Victoria’s Secret staples, such as the famed “push-up” bra, have increasingly been shunned by women who are trading in traditionally sexy but uncomfortable bras for ones that do not force their breasts to fight gravity.

Because of bad press, low profits and a tarnished brand, adopting the newest, trendiest marketing tools – feminism, body positivity and diversity – appeared obvious.

But this year, Razek’s comments may prove the show’s undoing. Headlines of “empowerment”, “feminism” and “the most racially diverse show yet” were undermined by recent remarks he made to Vogue on his refusal to use transgender or plus-size models: “Does the brand think about diversity? Yes. Do we offer larger sizes? Yes,” he said. “Shouldn’t you have transsexuals in the show? No. No, I don’t think we should.”

Although he ultimately released a public apology for his comments, Razek was denounced by commentators – even ones with a history of supporting the show.

“An 81-year-old man owns the company and a 70-year-old man runs it,” wrote Cora Harrington, author, lingerie columnist and Victoria’s Secret fan, on Twitter, in reference to L Brands chief executive Les Wexner and Razek, respectively. “Their archaic perspectives – on women, on gender, on plus-size folks, on trans folks – are making VS a worse brand by the day.”

Even before these complications, Razek’s “woke” project had been fraught with problems. The show was criticised four years ago when a reporter was barred from asking a model about anything related to feminism. Similarly, just days before the 2014 show, the brand was rebuked for the poorly named “Perfect Bodies” campaign – eventually renamed “For Every Body” after accusations of body-shaming. The show has been also derided for its exaggerated claims of diversity (it remains overwhelmingly white), cultural appropriation in its costumes and its exclusive use of thin women.

The show’s “pivot to feminism” as a marketing strategy – and a marketing strategy alone – has been transparent and, more importantly, half-hearted. A backlash was inevitable.

In the same Vogue interview, Ed Razek defended his reliance on a narrow female aesthetic on the grounds that “the show is a fantasy”.

In this instance, at least, Razek is correct. The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show is divorced from the reality of women’s everyday lives. And, as long as this persists, the brand will never capture the label of “woke” – nor its lucrative benefits.

Sarah Manavis is a tech writer for Newstatesman.com

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer.

This article appears in the 14 November 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How the Brexiteers broke history