Victoria’s Secret as of late has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. In what felt like a development that was a long time coming, Ed Razek, the marketing director for L Brands, Victoria’s Secret parent company, had what amounted to a meltdown in an interview with Vogue that published the day of the brand’s annual runway presentation, which took place this year in New York on November 8, 2018.
Razek pushed back on complaints that the “aggressively fit” look of the models had become dated and also stated the brand had considered, but ultimately chose not to cast either plus-sized or transgender models.
Multiple publications commented on the exchange and blamed the company for not keeping up with current casting trends. Vanessa Friedman of the NY Times wrote, “But [Victoria’s Secret’s] essential vocabulary–its approach to the world–is still dedicated to an idea of sexy rooted in the pinup era, when women and their bodies were defined by the eye and imagination of a male beholder,” while Jezebel’s writer stated, “Neither their image nor [Victoria’s Secret’s] clothing reflects the bodies or desires of their customers, but relied instead on base fantasy and the spending power of the male gaze.”
If one views the runway as a form of marketing designed to speak to its target audience, then yes, the show feels dated in that it appears to be speaking to the exact same customer as it did when the show was first launched in 1995. That in and of itself is a problem because it means the brand isn’t reaching a younger customer, a woman who still wants to be attractive to her sexual partner, but at the same time doesn’t want to look like her mother.
Clearly, Victoria’s Secret needs to update its marketing message (perhaps scuttle the show altogether for a year or two?), but it has much, much bigger issues than who it casts in its runway.
With the brand’s stock on a slow roll downhill for close to two years, below are the five biggest hurdles facing Victoria’s Secret in its attempts to get back on a growth track.
- While Victoria’s Secret is still the No. 1 lingerie company in the United States (with a 28.7% share as of 2017), it’s sales clearly have been undermined by American Eagle’s Aerie, which jumped on the bralette trend and has consistently emphasized using Photoshop-free models in a wider range of sizes than Victoria’s Secret. When American Eagle reported its second quarter earnings in August 2018, Aerie’s comps were up 27%, an astonishing number which was still viewed as disappointing by Wall Street. And while Victoria’s Secret now makes lots and lots of bralettes, it established its name with more expensive padded and push-up bras and because it dragged its feet on embracing the trend it enabled Aerie to establish itself as the owner of the lighter and lacier silhouette.
- The sport-rooted streetwear trend favors unisex sporty looks over sexy looks. All the major athletic brands have placed a big emphasis on growing women’s sales and a big part of the effort to grow apparel sales includes a bigger push behind sports bras. In a March 2017 Time article, sports bras were described as the new t-shirt. The same article described sports bras as a trend that’s benefited Lululemon and hurt Victoria’s Secret. The article cited numbers via Statista, which predicts sports intimate wear, which includes sports bras, leggings and socks, will generate $41 billion by 2019, up from $23 billion in 2014. Again, Victoria’s Secret makes sports bras, but it’s not known for the category and during a period when authentic athletic brands are highly favored it’s not likely to be many women’s first or even second choice.
- Flying in the face of the old credo that sex sells is the modest fashion trend. The pushed-up cleavage Victoria’s Secrets bras are famous for creating now seems overly sexual, as out of style as sky-high, killer stiletto heels. Women are either choosing to go braless and at most are baring their waists or are wearing bras that allow for a more natural sitting breast and when cleavage does exist, it’s hidden from sight. According to the Guardian: “The pushed-up cleavage, as seen on the Victoria’s Secret catwalk worn with excess blusher, knee-high socks and cheesy grins, conjures up a cheerleader-dates-quarterback meet-cute, and that feels like last century’s fairy tale.”
- Victoria’s Secret with over 1,000 doors is overexposed to the brick-and-mortar channel. While the chain was able to buck declining mall traffic trends for a period, the customers’ migration to competing retail and online formats began to take its toll in 2017. Victoria’s Secret’s PINK (which accounts for 40 percent of Victoria’s Secret’s sales) brand held up until 2018 when it, too, began posting declining same-store sales. In an October 2018 story, WSJ reported mall vacancies are at a seven-year high of 9.1 percent, the highest level in seven years. Victoria’s Secret announced plans to close 20 doors this year, but it seems like a drop in the bucket given the multiple challenges its currently facing. One might argue that Aerie is succeeding despite its brick and mortar exposure, but it only has 148 doors and is much less exposed to failing class B and C malls.
- Not unlike the Republican party, Victoria’s Secret’s executives and board of directors are almost entirely white and male, which no doubt has contributed to the brand’s cautious response to adopting new trends as well as its myopia when it come to casting-related choices. L Brands founder and CEO Leslie Wexler is 81-years old, which is fine (he founded the damn company!) but when PINK CEO, Denise Landman, steps down at the end of the year, only one of the top 14 executive positions will be filled by a woman. Out of 11 board members ranging in age from 56-85, only three are women, one of whom is the only black person on the board. Commenting on the company’s leadership, Glass Lewis & Co. in April 2017 wrote, “We find lack of female representation at the highest levels of the company’s leadership to be somewhat surprising given its business focus on women’s apparel and products.” Not unlike lawmakers creating laws that directly impact women’s agency, it would make sense for Victoria’s Secret’s decision makers to be more diverse given who they’re making garments for.
During Victoria’s Secret CEO Jan Singer’s two years leading the brand, L Brand’s stock price dropped from $71 to $35. She announced her resignation last week and today (March 19, 2018) the company announced that John Mehas (who currently is president at Tory Burch) will take her place.
In a comment on the new hire, Wexler commented, “Our number one priority is improving performance at Victoria’s Secret Lingerie and PINK. In doing so, our new leaders are coming in with a fresh perspective and looking at everything: our marketing, brand positioning, internal talent, real estate portfolio and cost structure. Most importantly, we are focused on our merchandise assortment, it all starts with the customer saying ‘I’ll take it.'”
The fact that Wexler didn’t mention casting might be because he didn’t want to further fan flames, but probably more so because it might be the least of Victoria’s Secret’s current list of issues.