I remember buying my first pair of Victoria’s Secret knickers as a teenager in New York. I was so excited. I felt sexy, cool and glamorous in the high-cut pink lace, and I couldn't wait to show my friends. But now, more than a decade later, I can’t remember the last time I walked into the shiny pink-ness of a Victoria's Secret shop out of choice. I'd much rather turn to my old M&S cotton panties than splurge on a pair of uncomfortable “sexy” knickers I'll never wear.
I’m not the only one. Sales for Victoria’s Secret are officially down. Shares in L Brands, the lingerie maker’s parent company, are down more than 45% this year – making it the worst-performing stock in the S&P 500. Attempts to cut prices and extend sales seem to be having little effect. In the stores in the US, sales were down 5% in the first quarter of this year. Last year, they fell 6%. And the year before, they were down 1%.
It is little coincidence that sales started falling in 2016 – the year that body positivity (or #bopo, as it’s hashtagged on Insta) went mainstream. Ashley Graham became Sports Illustrated’s first plus-size model; Chrissy Teigen, Demi Levato and Zendaya all told trolls criticising their bodies where to go; and more diverse models stepped on to catwalks for fashion weeks in New York and London. Meanwhile, Victoria’s Secret carried on using its standard skinny, white, Barbie-shaped supermodels.
While companies like Dove and ASOS have been embracing the joys of diversity and celebrating women of all shapes and size over the last decade, Victoria’s Secret has persisted with the same angels it’s used for years: Gisele Bündchen, Gigi Hadid and Heidi Klum. These women are all gorgeous – but they don’t like look anyone I know. They’re next-level unattainable and they all play into the stereotypical male idea of what a “sexy” woman looks like in her underwear.
We don’t have to put up with bras with underwire that digs in so hard it leaves marks or the ugly-yet-functional contraptions designed for anyone over DD
In comparison, a number of new lingerie brands have sprung up, all catering specifically for women who want to embrace their bodies just as they are – squishy, lumpy, hairy, stretch-marked – rather than trying to look like a supermodel in satin. Brands like Aerie, Thinx and Lonely all sell lingerie that’s redefining sexy for the female gaze. Instead of the “hello, boys” Wonderbra style that Victoria’s Secret still seems to be emulating, these brands show models with pubic hair, bodies that clearly consume pasta, and all ranges of skin colours. They don’t specialise in padded bras with “push” and “lift” – their most popular items are all comfort-based, such as bralettes or crop tops.
When it comes to underwear in 2018, we women finally have more choices. We don’t have to put up with bras with underwire that digs in so hard it leaves marks or the ugly-yet-functional contraptions designed for anyone over DD. Lingerie companies have been quick to cotton on to the #bopo movement, and they’ve been at the forefront of putting women’s bodies first, from plus-size gorgeous bras to delicate but easily washable bralettes. Brands like Thinx and Wuka have even come up with new period alternatives; instead of just using tampons and pads, women now have the choice of using their long-use underwear, which absorbs period blood – sans leaks.
So, it’s conspicuous that Victoria’s Secret is carrying on exactly the way it has since the noughties. The brand and message it’s selling hasn’t changed. It feels reminiscent of La Senza (another of my fave underwear haunts as a teen), which fell into administration in the UK in 2014.
If Victoria’s Secret wants to avoid a similar fate, then it’s time to join the companies that are getting behind progress, equality and feminism – like Billie, a razor-blade company in the US that was widely praised this year for launching an advert that showed a woman removing *actual* hair from her legs. Or Aerie, which ran a campaign last month showing models with medical conditions, from a woman with vitiligo to another pumping insulin into her stomach.
The idea that feminism is being exploited for easy money is still an uncomfortable one, which is hard to resolve in our capitalist society, but at least those products being sold are designed and marketed with women in mind. A representative from Victoria’s Secret seems to think that’s exactly what their brand is doing, telling the New York Post: “Victoria’s Secret has always been about self confidence. When your bra fits, you stand a little taller, your clothes fit a little better, and you feel more comfortable and confident — and that’s sexy.”
But just selling well-fitting bras isn’t enough. The whole image of the brand, from its shows to the angels and the million-dollar glitz, just isn’t sexy anymore. It feels more like a boy’s teen fantasy from the 90s than a realistic catalogue of attractive and desirable underwear that women would invest in. If the brand wants to recover its place at the top of the lingerie market, then it’s time to ditch its idea of what a sexy woman looks like and start embracing the true sexiness of the women who are turning away from its doors.