The downfall of Victoria's Secret.

 Listen to this story being read by Erin Docherty, here.

Whether you watched the runway shows, bought the lingerie or followed the cult 'Angels' on social media, chances are you encountered Victoria's Secret in one way or another. As one of the biggest brands in the world, the stranglehold of Victoria's Secret was impossible to escape.

It was EVERYWHERE. And it was powerful. 

Victoria's Secret played an instrumental role in defining the standard of what 'sexy' looked like - from the skimpy, glitzy lingerie to the svelte globe-trotting models, and the annual televised runway shows. They set the standard of what was considered beautiful - no matter how unattainable or out of reach those ideals were.

Watch: Victoria's Secret Angels IRL. Post continues below.

Video via Mamamia

The sultry glances and sculpted bodies (always in one size and shape) cascading down the diamond-encrusted runways, lured millions of women into spending money with the brand whenever they needed a new bra or underwear.

And it worked. Back in its heyday, the company dominated the global market, becoming one of the largest and most valuable brands in the world. 


Then suddenly, things changed.

In the era of the #MeToo movement and inclusive brands like Aerie, ThirdLove and Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty moving into the market and promoting the sex appeal of all body types, Victoria's Secret refused to adapt. And people noticed.

Sales dropped. Viewership plummeted. A string of controversies involving sexism, harassment and bullying arose. And Victoria's Secret seemingly turned a blind eye to... all of it.

In an Instagram post in late 2018, Australian model Robyn Lawley called for a boycott of the brand’s fashion show until Victoria’s Secret “commits to representing ALL women on stage.” 


Around the same time, Rihanna painted the stark contrast between her brand and her more established competitor.

“I’m not built like a Victoria’s Secret girl,” she told Vogue in an interview around the launch of Savage X Fenty.

Despite the public criticism and backlash, the brand seemed impervious to change. It wasn't until early 2020 that Victoria's Secret scrambled to turn things around. 

L Brands (the company that owns Victoria's Secret) sold a 55 per cent stake in the brand to a private equity firm that promised to restore the business, increase sales and reinvent the brand.

But the deal fell through - the private equity backed out. After nearly six decades, L Brands’ CEO and chairman Les Wexner stepped down from the company. 

Since then, the company (still led by L Brands) has reshuffled its management team and is now focused on initiating change. 

The brand has recently announced what's being called "one of the most extreme brand turnarounds in recent memory", ditching its beloved 'Angels' and recruiting actress Priyanka Chopra Jonas and US soccer World Cup player Megan Rapinoe in an attempt to transform its image.


But is it too little too late? After once creating an idealised and untouchable version of what 'sexy' meant, is Victoria's Secret even relevant anymore? 

Let's take a look at the rise, fall and attempted comeback of Victoria's Secret.

When did Victoria's Secret start?

In the mid-70s, American businessman Roy Raymond went into a department store to buy his wife lingerie, but after walking out feeling 'embarrassed' and 'uncomfortable', he came up with a genius idea.

He told Newsweek at the time, "I was faced with racks of terry-cloth robes and ugly floral-print nylon nightgowns, and I always had the feeling the department store saleswomen thought I was an unwelcome intruder."

The 30-year-old saw an opportunity for a high-end lingerie store that was targeted at men. After borrowing money from his in-laws and the bank, Victoria's Secret was born.

Image: Getty


The name was supposedly a reference to the Victorian era of sophistication and propriety, while eluding to the ‘secret’ underneath the clothes.

To put it into perspective just how groundbreaking this idea was, until then underwear was all about practicality and functionality - fun, sexy lingerie just wasn't a thing in the '50s and '60s. But Victoria's Secret changed that.

Raymond opened up his first store in California, and within five years he opened a handful of stores and launched a catalogue. 

By 1982, the brand was pulling in annual sales of more than $4 million. But despite this, the company was nearing bankruptcy.  

This is where L Brand's (known as The Limited back then) Leslie Wexner came in. While visiting San Francisco on a business trip, he stumbled across Victoria’s Secret.

"It was a small store, and it was Victorian - not English Victorian, but brothel Victorian with red velvet sofas," Wexner told Newsweek in 2010. "But there was very sexy lingerie, and I hadn’t seen anything like it in the US."


Wexner bought the stores and the catalog for about $1 million. 

He flipped Raymond’s vision, and decided to transform Raymond's vision, focusing on women rather than men to help create greater demand. And it worked. Two years later, the company was worth $500 million. 

Tragically, in 1993, Roy Raymond jumped to his death from the Golden Gate Bridge.

The Victoria's Secret annual runway show.

By the early '90s, Victoria's Secret had blown up. It had become one of the largest lingerie retailers in America, with 350 stores and sales worth $1 billion.

Over the next few years, the brand continued to dominate the market. And in 1995, the iconic annual fashion show came about. The televised show was run by Ed Razek, who was chief marketing officer of L Brands. 

He was responsible for hand-picking the models to walk the show, and credited for launching the careers of supermodels such as Gisele Bündchen, Tyra Banks, and Heidi Klum.

Image: Getty


Ivan Bart, president of IMG Models and IMG Fashion Properties, said in an interview with Time in 2018 that setting foot on the VS runway had become 'the dream'.

“I would say every model that comes to see us right now,” he said, “the goal is to be on the Victoria’s Secret runway.” 

Maja Chiesi, an IMG senior vice president said: “I don’t think there’s any other exposure on a runway that would probably ever compete with Victoria’s Secret because you’re on TV.”

The Victoria’s Secret fashion show aired online for the first time in 1999. According to Time, "It was the Internet-breaking moment of its era," where 1.5 million visitors attempted to tune in, crashing servers around the world.

In 2001, 12.4 million viewers watched as Heidi Klum walked the runway wearing a multimillion-dollar diamond-encrusted “fantasy bra”, which soon became the staple of each show.


The cult of the Victoria's Secret 'Angels'.

The idea of the Victoria’s Secret “Angel” came about in the late '90s, after a commercial featuring Helena Christensen, Karen Mulder, Daniela Peštová, Stephanie Seymour, and Tyra Banks ran to promote its “Angels” underwear collection. From then on, the term became an important part of the brand. 

Those who were chosen to be an 'Angel' entered an elite group of models, many of whom become recognisable by their first names alone. 

And when it came to the look of the 'Angels', things remained consistent - everything from the size and shape of their bodies to the length of their hair did not vary. Their bodies and faces became an iconic standard of what it meant to be 'sexy'.

Image: Getty


Being anointed the heavenly title of an 'Angel' became one of the most coveted gigs in the modelling world. Not only did you become an icon on the runway, but you became a celebrity in your own right - think Tyra Banks, Karlie Kloss, Gisele Bunchden, Cara Delevingne and Adriana Lima.

Image: Getty


Playing on the fantasy of an 'Angel' resulted in fabulous success for the brand. Victoria’s Secret was booming again - with 1,170 stores in the US and Canada, and 460 stores worldwide. Not only this, but Victoria’s Secret had transformed the industry, being the only retailer with its own fashion show on network television.

In January 2016, the company recorded more than $7.7 billion in sales. To put this into perspective, this made up more than half of all revenue at its parent company L Brands. Around the same time, L Brands’ stock reportedly reached its highest moment yet, with more than $100 a share. 

The Victoria's Secret controversies.

Shortly after, however, things took a turn. Sales plummeted towards 2018, and L Brands’ stock plunged below $40, with the company announcing that it would cut its annual dividend in half. 

Perhaps the most integral marker of the downfall was the company's refusal to budge on their very sexist and outdated representations of women. It was an unrealistic standard that a new era of body positivity had quashed - but Victoria's Secret didn't reflect this new way of thinking.

As this movement picked up, inclusive underwear brands such as Aerie, ThirdLove, Savage X Fenty and Lively cropped up on the market - celebrating women of all body types. 

However, Victoria's Secret was slow to adjust, holding a firm grip around their once-iconic padded and push-up bras and missing the boat on trends like bralettes and sports bras.


Not only this, but shoppers had started to complain that the quality of its underwear had slipped. 

The teenage-based brand Pink - one of the brand's biggest assets - took a massive hit in sales, as Victoria’s Secret was called out for its over-sexualised ads aimed at teenagers. 

Image: Getty


"We believe Pink is on the precipice of collapse," analyst Randal Konik wrote in a note to investors in March 2018, commenting on the high level of promotions in store.

But things only got worse.

In an interview with Vogue, Razek was asked about casting transgender models in the fashion show.

Razek said he didn’t think the show should feature "transsexuals" because the show is a "fantasy." 

"It’s a 42-minute entertainment special. That’s what it is," he said.

Razek also said the brand had "looked at putting a plus-size model in the show" but always decided against it. 

The backlash was swift.

He later apologised for the comments and said the brand was open to casting transgender models - but the damage was already done. Razek resigned in 2019 after persistent public criticism.

In 2019, The CFO of L Brands, Stuart Burgdoerfer, announced the televised fashion show was ending. 

"We'll be communicating to customers, but nothing that I would say is similar in magnitude to the fashion show," he said. "You can be sure we'll be communicating with customers through lots of vehicles including social media and various, more current platforms, if you will."

In 2020 an explosive exposé, ‘Angels’ in Hell: The Culture of Misogny Inside Victoria's Secret' was published in the New York Times, revealing claims of sexism, harassment and bullying by company ­executives and the brand’s photographers.


At the crux of the complaints was Razek, who was accused by models of several unwanted advances, while at least two models said paedophile Jeffrey Epstein Epstein assaulted them. 

One model said: "I had spent all of my savings getting Victoria’s Secret lingerie to prepare for what I thought would be my audition. But instead it seemed like a casting call for ­prostitution. I felt like I was in hell."

Wexner addressed his ties to Epstein at L Brands’ investor meeting, saying: 

"At some point in your life we are all betrayed by friends... Being taken advantage of by someone who was so sick, so cunning, so depraved, is something that I’m embarrassed I was even close to. But that is in the past."

The fall of the Victoria's Secret Angel.

In 2021, Victoria's Secret announced it will be dropping 'VS Angels' and instead recruiting a 'VS Collective' of empowering women in an attempt to transform the brand's image.


“[The VS Collective is] an ever-growing group of accomplished women who share a common passion to drive positive change,” the company revealed in a press release.

“Through social, cultural and business relationships, the VS Collective will work to create new associate programs, revolutionary product collections, compelling and inspiring content, and rally support for causes vital to women.”


The major shift comes after a period of decline, with the company’s market share dropping to 21 per cent in 2020, down from 32 per cent just five years earlier.

The 'VS Collective' will also bring together activists, athletes, artists and models from across the globe for a 10-part podcast series. 

The group of celebrity activists include Sudanese-Australian model Adut Akech, Brazilian transgender model Valentina Sampaio, plus-size model Paloma Elesser, journalist Amanda de Cadenet and freestyle skier Eileen Gu.

In an interview with the New York Times, Martin Waters, the newly appointed chief executive of the brand said, “When the world was changing, we were too slow to respond.” 

"We needed to stop being about what men want and to be about what women want."


As the New York Times claimed, "It is a stark change for a brand that not only long sold lingerie in the guise of male fantasy, but has also been scrutinised heavily in recent years for its owner's relationship with the sex offender Jeffrey Epstein and revelations about a misogynistic corporate culture that trafficked in sexism, sizeism and ageism."

The reactions have been mixed, with some celebrating the change, and others calling it out as 'too little too late'.


Either way, the change was inevitable. Victoria's Secret has been shrouded in controversy, numerous financial obstacles and public criticism - it was simply sink or float.

As for whether customers will buy into the brand's updated messaging, only time will tell.

Victoria's Secret: Angels and Demons is available to watch on Amazon Prime Video now.

Feature image: Getty.