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Fallen Angels? Investigating Victoria’s Secret’s redemption arc

Simultaneously iconic for its glorious displays and notorious for the impossible beauty standards it perpetuates, the Victoria Secret Fashion show was a cultural staple of the fashion world. From The Weeknd and Bella Hadid’s tense mid-runway reconciliation in 2016 to Gisele Bundchen in a $15 million jewel encrusted bra, it seemed the phantasmic allure and sex appeal of Victoria’s Secret held no limits. The first live streaming of the show in 2001 garnered over 1.5 million viewers and crashed the website. And at the centre of it all were the brands’ “Angels”, a heavenly set of models – all, of course, tall, tanned and toned – flaunting the latest designs and topped off with a set of wings.

However, facing a global closure of 250 stores and a 33% decrease in sales in
recent years, the lingerie house has since been forced to undergo a major rebrand,
cancelling their runway show and shifting their marketing to focus on promoting inclusivity and diversity. The crumbling of a once megalithic pillar of both fashion and pop culture begs the question: why did the Angels suddenly fall from grace?

Originally founded in 1977, Victoria’s Secret began as an outlet for men to purchase
lingerie in a more ‘comfortably masculine’ environment. From the 1990s onwards,
however, the pivoted from its boudoir-esque roots toward captivating an audience of
young women with its annual fashion show. The hook of Victoria’s Secret lay not in
their affordable, trendy lingerie, but in the myth building around these products. The
glitz, glamour and association with A-list faces that encircled the brand’s models
continued to draw in a younger audience. And even though it was no longer men
doing the fantasising, the heavenly image had not changed. The illusion that by
buying into the brand would somehow magically transform a customer into an Angel
propelled the brand to stardom. To millions, the Victoria’s Secret Angel epitomised
an impossible level of sensual, feminine beauty. And even as other lingerie brands
seemingly left behind Y2k’s body standards to reflect their audience’s growing desire
for inclusivity – Fenty x Savage, for example, saw queer, trans, and non-binary
models grace its first catwalk – Victoria’s Secret still seemed reluctant to expand its
tightly curated image. In a 2018 Vogue interview, Chief Marketing Officer Ed Razek
justified his aversion to body diversity by describing the show – which was cancelled
that same year – as ‘a fantasy…a 42-minute entertainment special”.

After a 5-year hiatus, the Victoria’s Secret fashion show has returned to our screens in a manner of speaking. Self-described as ‘part documentary, part fashion fantasy’, the new show premiered on Prime video earlier this month under the name “The Tour
23”. In the process of carving out a sleeker, more Gen-Z adjacent brand, elements
needed to be shaken off; there is a clear feeling that the essence of the original show
has been receded into a hazy, hyperfeminine dream. Instead of sporting the newest
designs, Gigi Hadid hosts a spotlight focusing on global independent designers
creating looks about what it means to be a woman in an ‘imperfect’ body.

Not only was the traditional format dropped, but the title “Angels” has been swapped
out for “VS Collective”. Self-consciously bridging the gap between old and new,
original Angel Naomi Campbell walked alongside Winnie Harlow, drag superstar
Honey Dijon and all-American soccer icon Megan Rapinoe. And while the
supermodels might not have graced the runway in wings, the show retained some of
its previous luxe allure with A-List faces on the carpet and a performance from
Rapper Doechii. This balancing act between retention and evolution makes it clear
Victoria’s Secret is being built anew- at least at surface level. Clearly, marketing has
realised the need to keep up with the “unbridled inclusivity” that Business Insider
described as Savage x Fenty’s USP. But it’s difficult to shake off a controversial past,
particularly when any success remains in part indebted to the lingering shadow of its
high-kitsch beginnings. And, during this rebranding saga, another- more problematic question:

if the brand’s original allure was premised on an unattainable vision, what
marks it out from the competition now? If the show now offers us a reality over
fantasy, will the audience be willing to buy in? Only time will tell if their revamping
successfully walks the tightrope between maintaining its allure whilst also moving
towards inclusivity.

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