Victoria’s Secret Has Only Itself to Blame

After years of scandal and declining sales, the iconic brand is struggling to survive the coronavirus.

A diamond-studded VS bra on a mannequin
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Victoria’s Secret.

The following article is a written adaptation of an episode of Thrilling Tales of Modern Capitalism, Slate’s new podcast about companies in the news and how they got there.

Although it’s known for making products for women, Victoria’s Secret was created as a shopping experience for men. It began in 1977, when a guy named Roy Raymond wanted to buy some underwear for his wife. He tried the ladies lingerie section at the department store, but he felt unwelcome, and he couldn’t find anything that would make a good gift. He described the merchandise as “racks of terry cloth robes and ugly floral-print nylon nightgowns.” So Raymond, who had an MBA from Stanford, decided he’d create a store where men did feel comfortable shopping for women’s lingerie and where even everyday underwear had a touch of glamour. He named his store Victoria’s Secret because he thought it would evoke a sort of Victorian-era boudoir sexiness, and he outfitted his first base, in a storefront in Palo Alto, California, with dark wood, elegant rugs, and silk drapery. By 1982 he’d expanded into a few more stores around the Bay Area and also launched a mail-order catalog. The company had decent sales, but it was struggling to make its balance sheet work.

That’s when Les Wexner, an entrepreneur from Columbus, Ohio, came along. Wexner had launched a chain of women’s clothing stores called the Limited, and he thought Roy Raymond’s idea had potential. So even though Victoria’s Secret was losing money, Wexner swooped in and bought it for a million dollars. After that, the brand very quickly shot up in value.

Within a decade of taking it over, Wexner had Victoria’s Secret raking in more than a billion dollars in annual sales. Its stores were everywhere. Its hit products, like the push-up “Miracle Bra” of the early 1990s, seemed perfectly attuned to the zeitgeist. Millions of Victoria’s Secret catalogs flew into mailboxes across the country. The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show debuted in 1995 and evolved into a global media event. By 1998 Victoria’s Secret had 14 percent of the women’s underwear market, and that number was climbing. In 2002 it introduced a spinoff brand called Pink, which was targeted at teenagers, and this too became a success. By 2013, Victoria’s Secret had gobbled up about a third of the market share in its category. It seemed Les Wexner had the magic touch.

Victoria’s Secret had built its brand on images of absolutely flawless bodies, a level of perfection that no real woman—not even the models in those photos—could ever achieve in real life. This was a hugely successful strategy for decades, until a few of the company’s competitors realized the culture was ready for a change. In 2014, a brand called Aerie made a pledge not to photoshop pictures of its models in its marketing materials. It captioned the unretouched photos with taglines like “We think the real you is sexy.”

Casey Crowe Taylor, who used to work in the company’s PR department, says, “When Aerie started their no-photoshop campaign, somebody raised their hand and was like, ‘Would we ever consider doing something like this?’ And it was like, LOL. People were like, ‘No, don’t even bring that up. You might get fired.’ ”

A few years later, Rihanna launched a brand that put a very pregnant model in its lingerie fashion show. Some brands were using transgender models, older models, plus-size models. But Victoria’s Secret had built a $7 billion business around a very specific kind of fantasy: supermodels, glamour shots, angel wings, and diamond-studded bras. It was not about to throw all that away.

Just before the 2018 Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, which would turn out to be its last, chief marketing officer Ed Razek gave an interview to Vogue. He was asked whether the company might ever put a more diverse range of models on the runway. Razek dismissed the idea. He said there was no interest in a lingerie show featuring plus sizes. He didn’t think the Victoria’s Secret show should feature transgender models because he said the show was a “fantasy.” There was an uproar over these comments, and Razek left the following year. Around the same time, Victoria’s Secret hired a transgender model for the first time, to promote its Pink line. Meanwhile, Les Wexner, the man who’d bought Victoria’s Secret in 1982 and run it ever since, was facing his own image problems.

Wexner had a long-standing, somewhat mysterious relationship with the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. They were friends. When Epstein was arrested in 2019 on charges of sex trafficking involving underage girls, Wexner’s ties to Epstein were back in the news. It turned out that Epstein had preyed on women in part by falsely claiming he was a recruiter for Victoria’s Secret models. The New York Times reported that Wexner was aware of Epstein’s behavior.

Wexner has been praised for hiring and promoting a lot of women into top executive positions at Victoria’s Secret, but he also hired and promoted Ed Razek, and he fought as hard as anyone to preserve the idea of a lingerie brand as a world of airbrushed, unattainable fantasy. According to a Times story, when a staffer asked him if the company’s reliance on ultraslender supermodels was making it look behind the times, Wexner responded, “Nobody goes to a plastic surgeon and says, ‘Make me fat.’ ”

This February, Wexner, at 82 years old, the longest-serving chief executive in the S&P 500, stepped down as the head of his company. Around the same time, he attempted to sell a 55 percent stake in Victoria’s Secret to a private equity firm called Sycamore Partners. At a valuation of $1.1 billion, the sale price implied that Victoria’s Secret was worth only a fraction of what it had been just a few years before. But even with that discount, the sale fell through when the buyer got cold feet amid grave concerns about the pandemic’s effects on the business. Victoria’s Secret recently disclosed that its sales were down almost 50 percent, and it announced that it would permanently close about a quarter of its North American stores. It’s the bleakest financial moment in the company’s history.

In the interview that ended his career, Ed Razek called out one of the company’s upstart rivals by name. “We’re nobody’s third love,” he said. “We’re their first love.” So that rival underwear company, ThirdLove, which launched in 2012, seized the opportunity to promote its own different kind of brand, by responding with a full-page letter in the New York Times. The letter read, “How in 2018 can the CMO of any public company—let alone one that claims to be for women—make such shocking, derogatory statements? You market to men and sell a male fantasy to women. … Your show may be a ‘fantasy,’ but we live in reality.”

The letter highlighted the fact that the trends that Victoria’s Secret’s old guard were failing to embrace, things like online commerce, social media marketing, and inclusive messaging, were the things that new brands were making their focus. Heidi Zak, co-founder and co-CEO of ThirdLove, says the goal was to sell underwear not through the lens of sex but by focusing on comfort and fit and how women wear underwear in real life. She says that even a few years ago, this was a revolutionary approach. Back in the early ’80s, Roy Raymond thought the underwear on sale in the department store was old-fashioned and out-of-date. Maybe the idea behind Victoria’s Secret, of selling underwear with fantasy and glamour and multimillion-dollar fashion shows, is what’s out-of-date now.

Victoria’s Secret is still a giant player in the underwear business. It’s many times larger than a company like ThirdLove. But bigger means less nimble, at a time when slow-moving retailers are getting crushed. Victoria’s Secret has more than 900 brick-and-mortar stores in the U.S. alone. When sales were booming, those stores made the brand ubiquitous. But foot traffic in malls has been dropping for years. And meanwhile, the company is stuck with massive rent obligations. A company like ThirdLove that sells to consumers almost exclusively online can do lots of things that Victoria’s Secret, with its stocks of merchandise sitting in the backrooms of hundreds of stores, just can’t do as dexterously. If Victoria’s Secret ever reemerges from the mire it now finds itself in, it will have to learn to stop telling women how they should look. That’ll only happen if it takes an honest gaze in the mirror.

To listen to the full episode, click the player below or subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.