The misogynist culture at Victoria’s Secret comes as no surprise: is change possible?
The Victoria’s Secret brand is based on the idea that women should be sexy for men. It is therefore not shocking that the men who ran the company allegedly took this to heart and presided over a misogynist culture. Will the retailer be able to survive a culture change and catch up with its time?
the New York Times interviewed former Victoria’s Secret employees and models and discovered a pattern of harassment and objectification of women. The majority of the complaints were directed against Ed Razek, who had been a senior executive at L Brands, the parent company of Victoria’s Secret. Apparently he tried to kiss models, asked them to sit on his knees, sent intimate emails and touched his crotch before the Victoria’s Secret 2018 show. A model who refused Razek’s advances says she was then skipped for the annual fashion show. Others said they felt pressured to pose nude for a Victoria’s Secret photographer. Razek left L Brands last August.
The culture inside the company seems to mirror the Victoria’s Secret brand which also targets women. Victoria’s Secret has clearly failed to embrace the changing notions of what is sexy and beautiful, and this is reflected in their share price which has fallen 75% since its peak in 2015. Even their annual televised fashion show was canceled in 2019. One investigation as of 2017, a majority thought the brand was “forced” or “fake”.
Modern notions of sexy include a wide range of body types, but Victoria’s Secret has not embraced these changes. Razek has recognized that the annual Victoria’s Secret TV fashion show was all about fantasy, and when asked to include models with different body types or transgender models, he wasn’t interested. Wexner, founder and CEO of L Brands, seems to agree. Asked at a meeting last March about the inclusion of different body types, Wexner would have replied, “Nobody goes to a plastic surgeon and says, ‘Make me fat. “”
The problem seems to be that Victoria’s Secret has the male consumer in mind, but women buy the majority of female lingerie. And these women are turning to start-ups that focus on comfort and relativity, not overdone sex appeal.
Several women entrepreneurs have recently started lingerie companies to meet the demand for underwear brands focused on authenticity and positive body image. Third love, Vrai et Cie, and Knix are examples of the direction this industry is taking. They don’t offer scantily clad models strutting in front of helicopters, motorcycles and fiery explosions. Their models also don’t wear giant angel wings. Instead, these startups are offering quizzes to help consumers get the best fit, new technology to prevent sweat and leaks from seeping through underwear and models that look like real people.
Can a brand that has stuck to the goal of making women sexy for men survive in the 2020 market? Fashion ideals are constantly changing and those who are trying to survive have to keep pace. In the Victorian era, big butts and petite waists were all the rage. Women wore corsets, petticoats, hoops and corsets. But, in the 1920s, the curves were out and the flat was in, and flappers preferred to wear clingy dresses. Our current culture, post- # MeToo, is quite different from what it was five years ago, but Victoria’s Secret hasn’t changed. It’s like they’re trying to sell corsets and petticoats to a generation of boys.
Wexner, now 82, is apparently considering retirement and is explore sale the lingerie giant. Victoria’s Secret will have to undergo a big culture change both within the organization and the brand if they are to survive another generation.