Victoria’s Secret is undergoing what the New York Times refers to as “the most extreme brand turnaround in recent memory.” The notorious underwear brand which made almost a third of the market in 2015, has drastically slipped. Now, the administration has to face the reality of the 21st century, marketing solely to the male gaze won’t work anymore.
Founded in 1977 as a store where men could feel comfortable shopping for women’s lingerie, Victoria’s Secret still reigns as the leading brand in women’s underwear. The company takes in 5 billion in annual sales across 1,400 stores. However, since holding 32% of the market in 2015, Victoria’s Secret has since fallen to holding only 21%. Behind this fall is an inability to adjust to the changing 21st century, as well as its leaders’ controversial ties to Jeffrey Epstein.
However, Victoria’s Secret has finally gotten the message. In place of a misogynistic corporate environment, is a board of directors that is entirely women, save one seat. At the face of the rebrand is The “VS Collective”, a select group of 7 women. The VS Collective includes Megan Rapinoe, soccer player for the US Women’s National Team and advocate for LGBTQ+ rights; Eileen Gu, a 17-year-old soon to be Olympic freestyle skier; Valentina Sampaio, a Brazilian trans model; and Amanda de Cadenet, the creator of a collective of female photographers.
A new force behind Victoria’s Secret
As members of the VS Collective, the women’s role extends beyond solely being brand ambassadors. The group will consult on the course of the brand, the products they are putting out, and the language the company uses. Paloma Elsesser is another member of the collective. She self defines as “a 29-year-old mixed Black fem in a size 14 body,” and is particularly excited to expand Victoria’s Secret sizing to XXXXXL sizes.
It is surprising that Rapinoe, and other prominent women with brands of their own, would want to partner with Victoria’s Secret. Rapinoe has spoken out about the harmful image created by Victoria’s Secret’s previous marketing calling it “patriarchal” and “sexist.” However, she says the leaders of the brand have been open about the mistakes of the company’s past. This open repentance, and the control that the women on the VS collective will have, was enough to convince Rapinoe that the partnership was worthwhile.
Function over sex appeal
The brand also cut the Victoria’s Secret Angels. The angels are a group of models knowing for walking the runway in lingerie and large sets of wings. All stick thin with perfectly toned legs and long flowing hair, they are the epitome of the traditional patriarchal belief of what is sexy. They are also the epitome of the harmful unrealistic body standards that women internalize from a young age.
In place of the angels, the brand is expanding to more include functional underwear options. They are incorporating maternity wear, sportswear, post-mastectomy bras, nursing bras, and celebrating Mother’s day for the first time. Having functional items rather than things purely to appear sexy shifts the focus away from women’s bodies as an object for only sex. Instead, brands succeed when supporting the fully rounded experience of being in a woman’s body.
The changes in the brand are a step in the right direction. However, what really stands out is that marketing toward the male gaze might no longer be sustainable.
A new age of sexy
It is not clear whether or not Victoria’s Secret’s fall from dominance is representative of a larger trend. Could the waning loyalty to Victoria’s Secret be a step in women reclaiming their own definition of sexiness? Some brands, advertising themselves, as the New York Times describes, as the “anti-Victoria’s Secret,” are gaining speed. Brands like Savage x Fenty, Parade, and Aerie all include greater representation and inclusion in their marketing. Rhianna’s Savage x Fenty runway show even swooped in to replace the recently canceled Victoria’s Secret fashion show (although it will be returning in a completely reimagined form in 2022).
The market is adapting to fit the needs of women, and it is becoming clear what succeeds in the underwear market. Marketing needs to match what actual women look like, and their varying sizes, shapes, and skin tones. The relationship between consumer and marketer goes both ways. The marketing responds to the consumer, which then responds to the marketing. Hopefully, with underwear marketing being taken in a new direction, women will feel more comfortable and validated in the variations of their bodies, but there is still a long way to go.