US lingerie giant Victoria’s Secret is in a bother. This weekend, its 2018 show – once thought of as fashion’s own Super Bowl (if you call nylon thongs and fancy-dress wings “fashion”) – reached its lowest-ever audience, just three million viewers on ABC (versus three times as many in its heyday). What was once fashion’s hottest ticket is now in danger of becoming its droopy drawers.
Off the catwalk, the company is struggling. Sales are declining and its share price has dropped over 40% in the past 12 months. To add insult to injury, the show’s headline performer, Halsey, took to Instagram to speak out in support of the transgender community and distance herself from the transphobic comments made by Victoria’s Secret CMO, Ed Razek, in a recent issue of Vogue, published after the annual show’s recording (plus-sized and trans women aren’t included in the show because they’re not the “fantasy” that Victoria’s Secret is selling, he said). Days after the interview appeared, CEO Jan Singer stepped down, to be replaced next year by Tory Burch boss John Mehas, but it was presumably too late for Halsey to pull out of the ABC transmission of the catwalk show. "We stand in solidarity," Halsey wrote on Monday. "And complete and total acceptance is the only 'fantasy' that I support."
The controversy is no doubt the wrong kind of publicity – more than ever, we are seeing successful brands align their values with their modern and diverse customers’ and not shying away from strong opinion (Nike’s collaboration with Colin Kaepernick for one key example) while Victoria’s Secret’s view of women seems narrow and entrenched. But as much as we’d like to think the love lost for Victoria’s Secret is about customers standing up against bigotry, I suspect it’s as much to do with women rejecting nasty underwear best suited to Spearmint Rhino. Mehas has a shopping list of things to fix and he’d be wise to work through it:
Please let Victoria’s Secret (plus Agent Provocateur and many others, while we’re at it) learn what Freya, Fantasie, Miss Mandalay and Bravissimo have apparently no trouble in grasping: the big boobed are not automatically big all over, and the bigger all over are not automatically big boobed.
Plenty of large women have small, perky boobs that make a soft bralette a viable thing, while lots of tiny 28- and 30-chested women (myself included) couldn’t begin to entertain the prospect of one, and need big, underwired cups with proper straps and decent lift. I can’t buy a bra in Victoria’s Secret, because most of them start at 32 – too big, and finish at DDD – too small (and anyway, that’s Not A Thing. Please standardise sizing worldwide). With such incredibly narrow parameters, it’s hard to know how Victoria’s Secret has successfully managed to dress their size zero and frequently silicone-enhanced catwalk “Angels” for this long.
Ah, the lighting. Turn it down a smidge – but not so much that you’re feeling your way to the fire exit in pants, as in Hollister. A friend of mine recently visited a branch of Boux Avenue and found herself in the changing room faced with multiple buttons corresponding to lighting concepts – daylight, bedroom, candlelight and so on. She was so happy not to see her cellulite rippling under UV strip lighting that she stayed over an hour and tried on every garment she was offered. Which reminds me – a salesperson on hand to get other sizes is extremely useful to women who don’t want to do the hokey cokey in and out of their jeans and stagger across the shop floor worrying about the state of their toenails. As is a service bell, a proper customer loo, some drinking water, mood-boosting chocolates, a white T-shirt and tight top in every cubicle for gauging visibility under clothes and a proper one-size robe – not a stinky sateen thing – for staying warm between changes.
Did Victoria’s Secret miss the meeting where every woman agreed boy shorts are infinitely sexier that nylon bum floss?
Seriously, it is 2018. Did Victoria’s Secret miss the meeting where every woman agreed boy shorts are infinitely sexier that nylon bum floss? Or when we all agreed that those “demi bras” give you four boobs – and not in a good way? Please could someone forward the memo about metallic foiling making your wabs hurt, pleather making them sweat, stretch nylon lace making buttocks itch, the word “SEXY” emblazoned on anything guaranteeing the opposite effect and how the ubiquitous Victoria’s Secret logo in massive lettering on literally everything ceased to be cool at roughly the same time Davina left Big Brother? Victoria’s Secret’s biggest problem is how much of their underwear appears sourced from the 1990s launch party of Babestation. What women want is sexy, cool, comfortable and respectful of the fact that all these adjectives can apply to women of all shapes and sizes.
I once took a teenager into Victoria’s Secret and the staff member tasked with measuring her up was marvellous – well trained, warm and kind. Bravo. Our grateful faces fell only when she brought in the bras in the chosen size. Cheap-looking man-made fabric, thin-strapped things with cups moulded so rigidly and un-adjustably that my companion suddenly found being a grown-up a lot less fun than advertised. Victoria’s Secret and other traditional purveyors of lingerie should look to digital disruptors like ThirdLove, who offer half-cup sizes, and Heist, who’ve just launched the comfiest shapewear I’ve ever worn (no bloating, no digging, no fat back) and take a few tips.
Yes, I went there. Turn away now, proud Brexit dads of Twitter. What Victoria’s Secret seems to have got most spectacularly wrong is in their apparent belief that lingerie is still bought by furtive, basic men hoping to get laid. Men and women have changed. No woman I know would trust her partner to choose a good looking, well-fitting bra, and even if she did, he’d sooner take a bullet than go and look for one. And yet the show (a Sports Illustrated special for the small screen), the marketing, the models, the designs, those bloody wings – all are clearly targeted almost exclusively at the people who’ll never have to wear it. By contrast, consider Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty lingerie, modelled on women of all shapes, sizes and colours – their only shared characteristics, a cheerful, moody smize-free face and healthy looking body. By contrast, Victoria’s Secret feels like a wholly unattainable and unrelatable Playboy shoot. Showing me how amazing Gigi Hadid looks in a basque and marabou feathers tells me nothing but the already patently obvious. Show women how great someone you might conceivably know looks in your stuff – then they’ll lunge for their credit cards.
Oh man, the rest. If I want a sugar pink lipgloss, I’ll get it from Superdrug. If I need a perfume that smells like cupcake frosting, I’ll smear myself in Betty Crocker. I don’t need to see what very much appears to be paid product placement on the Kardashians’ Halloween costumes in order to buy a bra. Just sell me a bra that fits, that’s comfy, sexy and doesn’t look like a uniform from Hooters. And yes, please don’t be a bigot – be an angel. Then your brand may once again have wings.