The first time I walked into a Victoria’s Secret store, I was 13. I felt like I had stepped through a portal into a different world—a world of adulthood, or more aptly, womanhood. Rows of lace panties and expensive bras were backdropped with photos of beautiful women wearing them. Closer to the door, greeting customers as they entered, were racks and tables filled with brightly colored sweatshirts and leggings, swimsuits and bags, bras more sporty than sexy, underwear with less lace and more coverage than the lingerie in the back. This was Victoria’s Secret’s Pink merchandise.
Pink was my and countless young women’s introduction to Victoria’s Secret. When I went to college, I was struck by the brand’s ubiquity on campus—the cool girls, the ones whose carefully casual topknots and just-clingy-enough leggings lived in the intersection of “perfectly put together” and “not trying too hard,” all seemed to wear Pink merchandise, often branded with our school’s logo. Campus reps for the brand handed out colorful underwear on the lawn above the library and occasionally paraded around in a giant pink bus with white polka-dots, where they blasted music and sold merchandise to enthusiastic students. Pink was an identity, a club for people who wanted so badly to belong that they would pay $50 for a pullover whose only remarkable quality was Pink’s block-lettered logo plastered on the front.
In 2016, Pink was hailed as “the future of Victoria’s Secret.” But this year, its fortunes have reversed and sales have dropped significantly, falling for the first time ever in March and hinting that any future Pink paves for Victoria’s Secret (and its owner, L Brands) will be rocky. The company blamed the decline on its swimwear line, which it subsequently scrapped. But analysts saw the downturn as part of a deeper problem, one catching fire across Victoria’s Secret. “PINK was the growth engine for VS in the past, and we continue to believe shares will decline as this brand continues to deteriorate,” said analysts at the Jefferies Financial Group, as quoted by Business Insider’s stock markets site Markets Insider. The downward trend continued, as executives announced in August that Pink sales “declined by single to mid digits in the second quarter,” followed by an announcement that Pink’s CEO, Denise Landman, would be retiring at the end of the year. Pink’s performance “makes it awfully hard to believe in the lofty ambitions” L Brands had assigned to the brand, Sarah Halzack wrote for Bloomberg that month.
At the same time, it’s clear that Victoria’s Secret and Pink’s trouble is not only financial—it’s also cultural. On Sunday, Victoria’s Secret aired its annual fashion show, an exercise in taunting viewers with something they probably will never have—a physique like a VS angel—in order to entice them to buy scraps of clothing they could get for half the price at Target. This year, the show was overshadowed by offensive and transphobic comments from L Brands’ chief marketing officer, Ed Razek, who said in an interview with Vogue that he did not think the show should include plus-size or transgender models. (He has since apologized that his remark “came across as insensitive.”) Singer Halsey, who performed at the show, was one of many people to criticize the “lack of inclusivity” demonstrated by Razek’s comments and the show more broadly.
For those who have followed Victoria’s Secret and its fashion shows, this lack of inclusivity is disappointing, but not altogether surprising. As Vox explained of the show, “Its exclusivity is baked into its allure.” The same could be said of the brand as a whole. VS prices aren’t so expensive that they’re totally out of reach for the average American, but just pricy enough to make the products feel like a luxury that not everyone can afford. Meanwhile, Pink’s campus outreach initiatives sell the belief that when you purchase Pink’s products, you’re not just paying for clothing—you’re also paying for keys to social-media cache , an experience, a lifestyle. You’re buying your way toward citizenship in #PinkNation.
American Eagle’s Aerie, perhaps Pink’s biggest rival among college-age consumers, is emulating Pink’s campus efforts, announcing in August that it was doubling its ambassador universities. The #AerieREAL campaign, which boasts unretouched photos, is a stark contrast to the “fantasy” Victoria’s Secret touts. “The goal of the program is for every girl to feel good and know that the REAL you is the best you,” the company said.
Evidently, the desire to access an exclusive “club”—a desire Victoria’s Secret and Pink have long tried to capitalize on— doesn’t seem to be changing much. What is changing? The type of club young women want to be a part of—one whose angels look less like Victoria’s Secret’s and a little more like themselves.