Swan Thong: The Rise and Fall of Victoria’s Secret

Listen to this episode

S1: I’ve been a freelance journalist for a long time. Sometimes it’s glamorous, sometimes it’s ridiculous, and sometimes it’s both. For instance, in 2014, I somehow got assigned by a lifestyle website to cover the Victoria’s Secret fashion show in London.

S2: Well, it’s.

S3: Oh, you added overhead on a brisk December morning, the day before the show, I boarded a chartered jet at a private air terminal in New York. The front of this plane was filled with supermodels. These were the Victoria’s Secret angels. A sort of phalanx of tall, beautiful women were being flown to London so they could strut around on a stage wearing Victoria’s Secret lingerie by the back of the plane was filled with journalists like me one by one during the flight. We were brought forward to interview the models. Somewhere over the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, I got my turn. I was directed to a seat next to Karlie Kloss, one of the most famous models of all. I felt more shlubs than I’ve ever felt as she flashed her trillion watt smile at me. I struggled not to be distracted by her exquisitely cantilevered cheekbones. She was extremely gracious and poised as she answered all my questions, which was, of course, her job, something she had to do for several interviews ahead of the show.

Advertisement

S2: Like this one, you’re wearing an iconic pair of Victoria’s Secret angel wings, which only a handful of people in history have been ever able to do. So it’s pretty special.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S3: Closs told me that she felt blessed to be Victoria’s Secret angel and that becoming an angel had fulfilled one of her life’s goals.

S4: The next night at the show, Karlie Kloss appeared on the stage several different times. At one point she wore lacy underwear beneath a flowing black cape. At another point, she wore a pair of giant butterfly wings. The other angels appeared on stage, too, as did Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande Day and a pair of jewel encrusted bras worth two million dollars each. I was in the audience jotting it all down in my reporter’s notebook. Sitting next to the other journalists from the plane, all of us were covering this marketing extravaganza like it was a news event. Hundreds of millions of people around the world tuned in on their TVs and computers.

Advertisement

S3: In retrospect, that might have been Victoria’s Secret’s pinnacle. Less than a year after that fashion show, Karlie Kloss had parted ways with the company. She later said she left because she no longer felt that being a Victoria’s Secret angel quote was an image that was truly reflective of who I am and the kind of message I want to send to young women around the world about what it means to be beautiful.

S5: A year after Karlie Kloss left what had been three decades of growth from Victoria’s Secret came to a halt as sales started to decline. The annual fashion show got canceled in 2019 after TV ratings tanked this February. The parent company of Victoria’s Secret made an agreement to sell 55 percent of the brands at a fire sale price that would have seemed shockingly low just a few years prior. And Victoria’s Secret’s longtime chairman stepped down amid a flood of controversy. That was all before the Corona virus pandemic shut down stores across the country, leading to even steeper financial losses and scuttling the deal to sell the company. How did Victoria’s Secret manage to become a retail behemoth that was nearly synonymous with women’s underwear? And how did its fortunes plummet so quickly? I’m Seth Stevenson. Welcome to Thrilling Tales of Modern Capitalism.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S3: Today on the show, Swan on the rise and fall of Victoria’s Secret. Although it’s known for making products for women, Victoria’s Secret was created as a shopping experience for men.

S6: If a man would give it to me, there will be an easier place. The Victoria’s Secret gift card. It’s everything she wants.

S3: It began in 1977 when a guy named Roy Rieman wanted to buy some underwear for his wife.

S7: 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, an ugly floral print, nylon nightgowns, Savoy Raymonds, 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.

Advertisement

S3: 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 Less Wexner came along. Wexner was an entrepreneur from Columbus, Ohio. He’d 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.

Advertisement

S8: Years later. One guy just went to buy a slice of paradise. You know?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S3: That’s from the 2010 film The Social Network. It’s not quite true. Roy Raymond died from suicide more than a decade after he sold Victoria’s Secret. And after some of his other business ventures had failed. It is true, though, the Victoria’s Secret very quickly shot up in value. After less Wexner bought it. Roy Raman’s inside had been that men did like shopping for women’s underwear at department stores, but less. Webster had a more important insight. Women didn’t like shopping for underwear department stores either.

S9: Back in the early 1980s, most women got their underwear at places like J.C. Penney, choosing from a narrow array of options and white, tan, pink or black. If they wanted something racier, they might be forced to shop at a place that felt kind of seedy. Victoria’s Secret made sure its stores had an upscale sheen and the merchandise on sale was attractive and fashionable. It felt like affordable luxury.

Advertisement

S6: Do you believe? I didn’t. Do you believe only Victoria’s Secret has the miracle to get America back to half? Oh, and you’re America’s enemy. Victoria’s Secret.

S9: 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. It had products like the push up Miracle Bra. The early 1990s seemed perfectly attuned to the case. 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 spin off brand called Pink, which was targeted at teenagers. And this, too, became a success. Things just kept rolling along. By 2013, Victoria’s Secret had gobbled up about a third of the market share at its category. It seemed less Wexner had the magic touch.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S10: There was kind of this attitude that Victoria’s Secret was gold and no one could touch us.

S3: Casey Crowe Taylor started working at Victoria’s Secret at the height of its success. Ever since she was a kid, Victoria’s Secret had loomed large in her conceptions about what was attractive, what was sexy.

S10: My dream job when I was 13, 14 years old was to work on the fashion show.

S3: She eventually landed a job in the Victoria’s Secret PR department. She spent her 25th birthday working backstage at the show, just like she dreamed it was huge for me.

S10: I worked so hard to get myself into that company for years and I finally got there.

Advertisement

S3: The Victoria’s Secret that had captured Taylor’s childhood imagination 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 realised the culture was ready for a change. Retouching? Never. We’re all perfectly imperfect. In 2014, a brand called Aeris 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.

S10: When Aeris started there, no Photoshop campaign. Somebody raised their hand and was like, would we ever consider doing something like this? And it was like. L.O. laughed out loud. People were like, no, don’t even bring that up, you might get fired.

Advertisement

S3: A few years later, the singer Rihanna launched a brand which put a very pregnant model in its lingerie fashion show. Some brands were using transgender models, older models, plus sized models. But Victoria’s Secret had built a seven billion dollar 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.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S5: One just before the Victoria Secret twenty eighteen fashion show, which would turn out to be its last chief marketing officer, Ed Rasekh gave an interview to Vogue. He was asked whether the company might ever put a more diverse range of models on the runway. Razik dismissed the idea. He said there was no interest in a larger ratio featuring plus sizes. He didn’t think the Victoria’s Secret show should feature transgender models because he said the show was a, quote, fantasy. There was an uproar over these comments, and Rasekh left the following year. Around the same time, Victoria’s Secret hired a transgender model for the first time to promote its pink line. What was it like to work for a guy like Rasekh or for a company built around that very specific kind of fantasy? According to Casey Crowe Taylor. It was pretty miserable.

Advertisement

S10: I was bullied, publicly shamed, bullied on sat by at Razack.

S3: In 2015, Taylor was working on a photo shoot. Was there a buffet lunch had been set out? And at one point, Taylor went up to get seconds. She never made it to the buffet table. She told The New York Times that Rasekh blocked her path, looked her up and down, and with dozens of people watching, began berating her about her weight.

S10: I was so upset. I, like, cried in the bathroom after and no one asked me about it after it happened. And to be honest with you, that was very normalized. That actually wasn’t the straw that broke the camel’s back. It was how. Management handled it when I tried to report it is what made me leave. When I tried to report it. The person who led my team tried to tell me that he was making a joke. And so for me, I just felt so disrespected. So, like, not even close to value that I was like, I don’t even know if I can, like, come into work tomorrow. And I quit like two weeks later. I resigned without another job.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S3: The Times story alleged that Rasekh had also made unwanted sexual advances at Victoria’s Secret models attempting to kiss and grope them. Razik told The Times the accusations in this reporting are categorically untrue, misconstrued or taken out of context. The paper said he didn’t comment on any specific allegations. Meanwhile, less Wexner, the man who’d bought Victoria’s Secret in 1982 and run it ever since, was facing his own image problems.

S11: How did Jeffrey Epstein use the billionaire behind Victoria’s Secret for wealth and women?

S3: The New York Times Wexner had a longstanding, somewhat mysterious relationship with the convicted sex offender, Jeffrey Epstein. They were friends power when Epstein was arrested in 2019 on charges of sex trafficking involving underage girls.

S11: Wexler’s ties to Epstein were back in the news, quote, within years of meeting Mr Epstein. Mr Wexner handed him sweeping powers over his finances, his philanthropy and private life, according to interviews with people who knew the man.

S3: It turned out that Epstein had preyed on women, in part by falsely claiming he was a recruiter for Victoria’s Secret models. The Times reported that Wexner was aware of Epstein’s behaviour.

S5: Wexler 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 and raise it, and he fought as hard as anyone to preserve the idea of a lingerie brand as a world of airbrushed, unattainable fantasy. According to the Times story, when a staffer asked him if the company’s reliance on ultra slender 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.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S7: 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 one point one billion dollars.

S5: 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. A bit 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.

S3: In the interview that ended his career, the one where he said Victoria’s Secret wouldn’t feature plus size or transgender models. Ed Rasekh called out one of the company’s upstart rivals by name. We’re nobody’s third love, he said. We’re their first love. I was shocked. Heidi Zech is the co-founder and co CEO of Third Love, a women’s underwear brand that launched in 2012.

S12: I mean, I was actually speechless. And that was what fueled the letter writing.

S3: When Ed Rasekh name checked the company and that Vogue interview, Third Love 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 Secrets 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 HEDIS access. Her goal at Third Love 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.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S12: Almost all lingerie brands at the time had photographs of multiple women together, lots of times, like in bed, doing a pillow fight or like these super odd situations. Right. And so one of our first really cool things we did on our home page and probably like 2015 was we actually shot women with our clothes on. And we showed a woman with our t shirt bra with a white button down on as she was going to work and you couldn’t see the bra. And the whole point was, you can’t see the bra. It’s a great bra. She looks really good in this white shirt. And so it was sort of just taking something that’s so basic to basically say most women who are going to work put on a bra so that it’s supportive and can’t be seen super basic. But we actually showcase that.

S7: 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 multi-million dollar fashion shows is what’s out of date now. Here’s Casey Crowe. Taylor again.

S2: We want to see people who look like us. We don’t want to be talked at anymore by the media. We want to be connected. We want to talk with people who are similar to us or look like us. And so I think the social media just kind of like broke the whole Victoria’s Secret fantasy world open because now we know what real women look like. We can see it every single day.

S3: Victoria’s Secret is still a giant player in the underwear business. It’s many times larger than a company like Third Love, 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 Third Love that sells to consumers almost exclusively online can do lots of things that Victoria’s Secret, with its stocks, have merchandise sitting in the back rooms of hundreds of stores just can’t do his dexterously. Yet even a few years ago, Heidi Zak had trouble convincing investors to back a business that sold bras over the Internet.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S12: When we were pitching the business back in 2013, I remember a lot of investors simply would say, I don’t believe women are going to buy a bra mine. And how would that even ever occur? And so even the idea of what you could sell online. That in itself was radical for us. A huge benefit of selling online is the number of sizes that we have. We could never sell 80 for bra sizes in a physical store.

S3: Heidi Zech says millions of women have used the company’s online fit finding tool, which gives third love a big advantage.

S12: We’ve collected a massive amount of data that we can use in product development and everything we do to really create a better user experience. And those kind of data points are much harder to capture in a physical environment versus a digital one.

S1: It’s not clear what will happen to Victoria’s Secret in the months and years ahead. Even when life returns to some form of normalcy, Victoria’s Secret feels like it’s the past, not the future. Casey Crowe Taylor, who once dreamed of working for Victoria’s Secret, says she’s come to recognize some of the harm done by the company’s approach to beauty.

S13: I remember even in college getting together to watch the Victoria’s Secret fashion show and like, we wouldn’t eat all day. Just to make sure that we felt the best we could feel watching the Victoria’s Secret fashion show. That is. So screwed up. I have a daughter now. I would never want her to do that. It’s crazy.

S1: If the choice 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. That’s our show for this week. This episode was produced by Jesse Miller, Ashurst Lucja and Megan Karlstrom, our technical director at Merritt Jacob. We’ve got additional technical direction from Kevin Bendis. Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director for audio. Alicia Montgomery is the executive producer of podcasts at Slate. June Thomas is senior managing producer of the Slate podcast network. If you’ll like this show, please leave us a review and I choose it helps other listeners find us. You can also help support us by signing up for Slate. Plus, Slate works hard to bring you podcasts like this one. And right now we need your help. It’s only thirty five dollars for the first year and you’ll get this and other Slate podcasts ad free. Sign up now at Slate dot com slash. Thrilling.

S7: Plus, I’m Seth Stevenson. More thrilling tales. Next week.