When the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show taped on November 8, there are some things we know to expect: pink satin robes, glossy air kisses, bedazzled push-up bras, elaborate angel wings. If the casting announcements are any indication, we can also expect to see the usual army of 5’10, size-two models—not surprising for a runway show, perhaps, but a far cry from the direction much of the lingerie industry is headed.
During the past few years, Victoria’s Secret’s competitors—including Aerie, ThirdLove, and Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty—have built their brands on messages of self-acceptance and body positivity, touting diverse casts of models, Photoshop-free campaigns, and (relatively) broad size ranges. And they’ve reaped rewards in the form of sales and social media accolades. Nearly every new startup in the lingerie space has “inclusivity” baked into its mission statement. And at the mass level, retailers like Target and J.Crew now cast non-sample-sized models in marketing materials as a matter of course.
Victoria’s Secret appears to be holding their ground, a fact that some of the brand’s rivals and critics have seized upon as a marketing opportunity of their own, calling for boycotts and staging campaigns with pointed hashtags like #ImNoAngel (Lane Bryant) and #weareallangels (ThirdLove and curve model Robyn Lawley). Ashley Graham—perhaps the most obvious candidate for a spot on Victoria’s Secret’s roster, with her 7.5 million Instagram followers and ample runway experience— skewered the brand on social media last year, posting an image of herself in a lingerie set by plus-size brand Addition Elle and a Photoshopped set of angel wings on the same day VS taped its show. The caption: “Got my wings! … #thickthighssavelives.”
Graham’s post racked up nearly 775,000 likes, putting it on par with some of the most popular images from the show itself, according to an analysis by Instagram marketing firm Dash Hudson.
If Victoria’s Secret was still the seemingly unstoppable juggernaut that it was throughout most of the 2000s and 2010s, then the old argument that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” might apply. But since early 2016, parent company L Brands has reported quarter after quarter of declining sales and shrinking profits. And CBS, which had aired the annual fashion show, said that ratings in 2017 were down 30 percent from the year prior among viewers aged 18-49, with just under 5 million people tuning in to the broadcast. (In 2018, the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show has a new network home: ABC.)
There could be many factors at play here—new competitors in the lingerie space, changing viewership habits and shopping behavior… But the consumers Victoria’s Secret needs to connect with in order to sustain itself in the future—younger millennials and generation Z—tend to respond to brands they perceive as authentic and values-driven, and shun the hyper-sexualized imagery that appealed to previous generations, according to research firm PSFK. Gen Z, roughly defined as teens and young adults born between 1997 and 2010, will account for 40 percent of all consumers by 2020, ad agency Barkley predicts, together holding up to $143 billion in direct spending power; younger millennials, meanwhile, are now exiting their college years and generating income of their own, making them an increasingly enticing demographic for brands.
Victoria’s Secret has done an exceptionally good job at meeting these shoppers where they spend a significant portion of their time: Instagram. It has cast celebrity models like Kendall Jenner and Gigi Hadid, who boast 97 million and 44 million followers respectively, in its annual fashion show. The brand’s Angels, the select group of models on long-term contract, make frequent appearances on its social media channels. But while this online reach helps ensure the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show is seen by hundreds of millions around the world, that doesn’t necessarily translate into sales.
“There’s a difference between buzz and buyers,” explains Jeetendr Sehdev, New York Times bestselling author of The Kim Kardashian Principle and celebrity branding authority. “And while Victoria’s Secret continues its buzz, it’s suffering on the buyers front.”
Body positivity, meanwhile, is “one of the key movements within the lingerie industry,” says Jo Lynch, lingerie editor at trend forecaster WGSN. Take the acclaim of Savage x Fenty, which closed New York Fashion Week with a runway show-performance art hybrid starring an exceptionally diverse cast of models and dancers, as “a good example of a sexier brand sending out a clear message about who the lingerie is for, and who should enjoy it: the women who wear it.”
Can Victoria’s Secret thrive with the same old formula? The brand doesn’t normally comment publicly on the lack of body diversity among its models. But decisions about its annual runway extravaganza can’t be taken lightly: The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show takes a full year of planning and can cost upwards of $20 million to produce, L Brands’ Chief Marketing Officer Ed Razek told the New York Times in 2016.
In a statement provided to Glamour, Monica Mitro, EVP of Public Relations at Victoria’s Secret, said: “The women in this year’s show are from all over the world. They represent many stages of a modeling career and each has her own story to tell. Scrutinizing women’s bodies of any size related to the Victoria’s Secret brand is unfortunate because it puts judgement on women of any body type. Victoria’s Secret believes the body positivity dialogue should be positive. It should not be done by putting other women down, including the 60 women that are excited to be in our Fashion Show. These women represent so many important aspects of diversity that should be celebrated beyond solely focusing on their bodies.”
Razek and Mitro also sat down with Vogue this year, and, in a story published the day of the show’s taping, responded to some of the criticisms it has faced. “I think we address the way the market is shifting on a constant basis,” he said. “If you’re asking if we’ve considered putting a transgender model in the show or looked at putting a plus-size model in the show, we have. We invented the plus-size model show in what was our sister division, Lane Bryant. Lane Bryant still sells plus-size lingerie, but it sells a specific range, just like every specialty retailer in the world sells a range of clothing. As do we. We market to who we sell to, and we don’t market to the whole world.”
In terms of its fashion show casting, Victoria’s Secret puts heavy emphasis on physical fitness, messaging it’s ramped up in the past few years with its “Train Like an Angel” campaigns, which push the brand’s activewear offerings and might serve to silence critics who contend that Victoria’s Secret’s idea of “what’s sexy” is all about being thin. Models frequently talk about the intensive training regimes they embark on months before the show.
But the brand would hardly have to give up its fitness-first narrative in order to add a few curvy models to its lineup. Graham, for one, trains at New York’s Dogpound gym, where many of the Angels are regulars. Candice Huffine is a runner with her own line of size-inclusive activewear. Marquita Pring can swing a set of kettlebells with the best of them. If the show is the modeling world’s Super Bowl, as it’s often called, then a size 8 or 14 can train just as hard for it as a size 0.
And while any change is sure to bring out some haters, the praise will almost certainly drown them out, if the runways of New York Fashion Week are any indication. In recent seasons, brands like Christian Siriano that have made diversity a priority have not only been celebrated in the press, but have ultimately boosted their bottom lines.
Casting director Hollie Schliftman, who helps bring Siriano’s vision to life every season, declined to comment on Victoria’s Secret directly, but she says she understands why some brands are still holding out when it comes to their casting. “I see how people just love to do what they’re used to,” she says. “It’s hard—this industry is a really hard [one] and people are very critical and very judgmental. So it is taking a risk going out of the norm of what people are used to, but it’s so nice to see that people… that there are some designers that really just believe in what they believe in and they take the risk and they do it.”
Any change, though, has to come from the top, according to casting director Gilleon Smith, whose work with New York brand Chromat has also earned widespread accolades for its radical inclusivity.
“I’ve always said this a lot, but fashion is not a progressive industry,” Smith says. “It’s very traditional, which people don’t really get, but people kind of stick with who they know—what photographer, what stylist—and nobody really goes outside of that in terms of working with different creative teams unless something bad happens. So I think that Victoria’s Secret has had this formula that they use, and they have the same people continuing on the legacy and the tradition of what they’ve always done, and that is their barometer or metric for success.”
And the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show has made significant strides in terms of racial diversity in recent years, with models of color making up close to 50 percent of the cast of 2017’s Shanghai program—that’s a vastly higher number than the 32 percent average of the Fall 2018 shows. Natural hair has also become a normal sight on the runway, after years of uniform beachy waves, to much fanfare.
Size, however, seems to be a more challenging frontier. One hurdle may be the fact that Victoria’s Secret simply doesn’t carry sizes larger than a 40DDD in bras and an XL (equivalent to a size 16) in panties and apparel, meaning many, if not most plus-size models are already sized out of the line. That could create another problem: If the brand were to cast someone like Graham, who wears a size 16, it could come off as disingenuous if Victoria’s Secret didn’t also commit to expanding its size range—more a ploy for press than a genuine desire to reach an untapped market.
Perhaps it’s a commitment to the promise of “fantasy”—an adjective it uses in its marketing materials, and to describe the multimillion-dollar bra one lucky model wears every year—over reality. This fantasy, to hear the brand’s executives tell it, is the idea that every girl can aspire to be like a Victoria’s Secret model: “It’s a celebration of powerful women by powerful women who work very hard at what they do, live a healthy life and inspire legions of admirers,” Razek told the Times in 2016.
Chromat’s Smith, however, has a somewhat different take: “It’s kind of like a Christmas special. It’s this whimsical fashion cartoon that everybody’s watching.” The show, in this sense, is more like pageantry than a reflection of the real world (though even Miss America dropped its swimsuit competition this year).
But does fantasy still resonate with today’s shopper? According to YouGov, a market research and data analytics firm, 70 percent of U.S. consumers between the ages of 18 and 34—Victoria’s Secret’s prime demographic—say they like seeing “real looking people” in ads.
“Consumers more than ever connect to the product through those people presenting them, so if the models are not engaging the customer or they feel like they can’t somehow relate then the casting has failed,” say Drew Dasent and Daniel Peddle, casting directors and co-founders of The Secret Gallery, who declined to comment on Victoria’s Secret’s casting choices.
“If you’re looking at Victoria’s Secret and the people who shop there, it’s people completely across the U.S. and beyond,” says Smith. “And I don’t understand why you wouldn’t want to have representation of all kinds.”
Sehdev, the brand marketing expert, says Victoria’s Secret will need to act fast and decisively if it wants to hold onto its place at the top. “It’s a highly competitive market, so it’s great that they have made some movement [in terms of racial diversity], but they have truly got to make some radical changes moving forward,” he says. “They have to really reinvent and reimagine the brand in a way that is fresh, provocative, bold, and brazen for a new generation of consumers that think, act, and feel very differently.”
Despite its recent challenges, Victoria’s Secret is still a multi-million brand with the power to make supermodels’ careers and broadcast its image of what sexy looks like to countless women around the world. It’s a mall staple, and, with its teen-geared Pink brand, the first lingerie store that many American girls shop at. With a broader range of sizes, it might be fair to say that its clientele would be nearly as diverse as the country itself.
“The brand has a specific image, has a point of view,” Razek told Vogue. “It has a history. It’s hard to build a brand. It’s hard to build Vogue, Ralph Lauren, Apple, Starbucks. You have a brand position and you have a brand point of view. The girls who have earned their way into the show have worked for it… And all of these things that [other brands] ‘invented,’ we have done and continue to do.”
The question now is what will the lingerie giant do with the influence it still wields?