Victoria’s Secret’s Fall from Grace

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Tragedy comes in many forms. And when an iconic fashion brand stumbles, making critical brand and marketing mistakes that bewilder consumers, causing them to question brand identity and integrity, there should be a clarion call for disdain and regret.The drama around Victoria’s Secret’s innumerable brand hiccups are not necessarily fodder for tragedy in the mode of Shakespearian classics—no Lady Macbeth “out damned spot.” However, Victoria’s Secret’s fall from grace is of epic proportion, considering that for over three decades Victoria’s Secret was the go-to lingerie brand for female consumers.

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Though there has been a lot to cringe about in recent years, Victoria’s Secret is still the largest retailer of women’s lingerie in the US. Founded in 1977 in San Francisco by Roy Raymond, and his wife, Gaye Raymond as a response to badly packaged, unflattering American women’s lingerie, Raymond selected the moniker Victoria for his fledgling company in homage to the refinement of the Victorian Era. “Secret” referred to what was encased in the undergarments.In its first year, Victoria’s Secret grossed $500,000 in sales. Roy Raymond quickly established a niche for his brand in a market where female consumers usually bought undergarments in packages of threes with nightgowns and robes being dowdy or cheaply made. Only specialty brand’s like Frederick’s of Hollywood sold sexy lingerie to a very limited consumer base, mostly through catalog sales.

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Roy Raymond early on established four Victoria Secret stores in the Northern California area. By 1982, the company was grossing over $7 million dollars in annual sales with 55% of sales coming from catalog sales.In 1983, Roy Raymond sold Victoria’s Secret to Leslie Wexner, creator of Limited Stores Inc. for $1 million dollars. Wexner transitioned Victoria’s Secret’s merchandise to more mainstream underwear that was packaged in a glamorous, but tasteful way. By 1986, Victoria’s Secret was the only national chain of lingerie stores and was stealing market share from department stores with over 100 stores nationally.

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By the late 80s, the brand ventured into the fragrance industry. And by the early 90s, Victoria’s Secret began using supermodels to promote its products, culminating in an annual extravagant runway show. The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show began airing on primetime American television in 1995, streaming the show online in 1999. While viewership of the Victoria’s Fashion has grown from an initial viewership of 1.5 million viewers to 9.7 million viewers at its peak in 2013, in recent years viewership had declined as female consumers have moved from seeing sexy supermodels as aspirational figures. “ Women don’t want to be viewed as stereotypical sexy supermodels buying lingerie to impress men,” explained retail analyst Paul Lejeuz.Additionally, in the past five years Victoria’s Secret has been the subject of a laundry list of industry scandals. From the revelation that Victoria’s Secret was employing prison inmates in the US to produce product, to negative comments about plus-size and transgender models, to the lack of people of color working on production crews for their annual runway show, Victoria’s Secret’s decline in retail sales, as well as having major competition from such brands as Kiki de Montparnesse, Yandy, Aerie, ThirdLove, Lively, Journelle, and several others.

Prison labor scandal

Coinciding with Labor Day in the US, several US prison communities engaged in a continued national strike by refusing to work or eat. (The strike actually began on August 21 and ramped up on Labor Day.) This prison strike highlighted that prison labor is being used to make goods and services that consumers use daily, and that prison labor is paid as little as one dollar a day or less. In 2004, it was estimated that prison labor produced more than $2 billion dollars worth of commodities, according to a September 3, 2018 article on

Victoria’s Secret is one of the said companies that used prison labor to create their product. It had been discovered that Victoria’s Secret since 1995 has been purchasing some of their more casual lingerie from a company called Third Generation. A 2015 article in the Washington Post revealed that Third Generation employed 35 inmates in at the Leath Correctional Facility in Greenwood, South Carolina to make casual lingerie and other clothing products.

Third Generation’s president explained that they turned to prison labor because “[they] could not find enough qualified industrial sewers in rural South Carolina, and the prison labor solved a real problem for us in that respect.” Victoria’s Secret has since stopped using Third Generation as a subcontractor to make its’ casual lingerie.

There have been other recent scandals that Victoria’s Secret has worked hard to qualm. And many of these scandals have come on the heels of the company’s declining retail sales.

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Victoria’s Secret’s tokenismIt was recently discovered that Victoria’s Secret uses very few people of color as production staff for their annual runway show. Though the brand for several seasons has increased the amount of models of color on the runway, backstage is almost lily white. (And many of the production jobs are union jobs that pay very well.) Is the inclusion of more of models of color on the runway just window dressing? Some fashion insiders chorus that tokenism is the order of the day at Victoria’s Secret while others contend that the brand is no guiltier than similar brands of its ilk.

No place for trans models

In an interview with Vogue magazine in November, Victoria’s Secret’s Chief Marketing Officer Ed Razek was asked if the company felt “the need to address the way the market is shifting,” featuring plus-size and transgender models. Though Razek stated that the brand had “… looked at putting a plus-size model in the show …” Razek continued that he would not consider including a transgender model in the annual runway show.

Later, Razek apologized for his comments; “My remarks regarding the inclusion of transgender models in the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show came across as insensitive. I apologize. To be clear, we absolutely would cast a transgender model for the show,” as reported in the Washington Post.

Bella Hadid and Halsey by Taylor Hill/FilmMagic

Razek’s remarks caused lots of clapback from consumers and celebrities. Halsey who performed at the 2018 Victoria’s Secret show taped on November 8, posted on Instagram and Twitter after the national telecast on December 2, “I have adored the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show since I was young. Performing this year alongside other amazing artists and hard-working models/friends was supposed to be the best night of my year. However, after I filmed the performance, some comments were made regarding the show that I simply cannot ignore.” “ As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, I have no tolerance for a lack of inclusivity. Especially not one motivated by stereotype,” Halsey continued. Halsey ended by stating, “ And complete and total acceptance is the ‘fantasy’ that I support.”Plummeting stock and viewership

The New York Times recently detailed that while Victoria’s Secret is still the top lingerie brand in the US, its sales have declined significantly with stock dropping 41 percent. According to the New York Times, in a Wells Fargo 2018 survey 68 percent said they like Victoria’s Secret less than they used to.

Adding to declining sales and failing stock prices, viewership for the 2018 Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show dipped to 3.7 million viewers compared to 5.37 million in 2017. Washington Post’s Robin Givhan commented that, “the show was too boring to be reviewed.”

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What’s next?Though many Victoria’s Secret models still contend that they are a part of a sisterhood and that when they walk in the show “they are being sexy for ourselves and for who we want to be, not because a man says who have to be …,” it is very apparent female consumer’s taste has evolved past Victoria’s Secret’s brand DNA. If the brand wants to align itself with consumers changing tastes, the brand has to reposition itself in the market, evolving past its current design aesthetic and brand awareness.

Oh, how the mighty has fallen!! Can Victoria’s Secret forge a new direction? Only time will tell!!

—William S. Gooch


  1. Cameron Rose says

    VS needs to evolve not just in who walks in the show but who it’s customer is. Plus size women who make up the majority of the market and are screaming “TAKE MY MONEY” want to represented and included. Sexy angels may get attention but you need to give them items they will actually want to buy and wear.

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