The return of a divisive lingerie brand

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Model in lngerie and wings

Victoria’s Secret: The Tour ’23 is a new film on Prime Video that aims to re-cast the famous lingerie brand’s problematic image. Can it succeed, asks Faran Krentcil.


Five minutes into the new Amazon Prime film, Victoria’s Secret: The Tour ’23, the 28-year-old supermodel Gigi Hadid laughs sweetly into the camera. Then she says the f-word. It’s a surprising move from the mass-market brand, which turned lingerie from a French luxury into an all-American staple when it became a popular mall store in the 1980s. With its shiny pink shopping bags and velvet-lined dressing rooms, Victoria’s Secret was a staple for bras and underwear that lured millions of US women by making sexy lingerie as accessible as a pair of blue jeans. 

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As Victoria’s Secret became a rite of passage for teen shoppers buying their first “grown-up” bras, its models – era-defining bombshells like Tyra Banks, Heidi Klum, Gisele Bündchen – became household names, too. In 1998, the label capitalised on their friendly-but-glamorous appeal with the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, a televised catwalk event that turned mere models into “Angels” with push-up bras, stilettos, and massive feathered wings. At its peak in the mid-2000s, the annual show was so popular that it earned its own Hollywood Walk of Fame. 

For years, Victoria's Secret catwalk shows presented an idealised image of feminine beauty (Credit: Getty Images)

For years, Victoria’s Secret catwalk shows presented an idealised image of feminine beauty (Credit: Getty Images)

But it’s been five years since the last Victoria’s Secret show, and things have changed. The brand’s former vibe (thin, tanned models, thrilled to wink and wave at the audience of men cheering nearby) is no longer welcome to shoppers demanding inclusion and autonomy. And so the palace of pink dreams has changed, reshaping itself as a vehicle for inclusive, invincible self-love.

You can still buy the bras, though – in fact, Victoria’s Secret is counting on it.

Just debuted on Amazon Prime, Victoria’s Secret: The Tour ’23 is part documentary, part music video, and part luscious commercial for corset tops and underwear. The movie stars Hadid along with new Victoria’s Secret models like Adut Akech and Winnie Harlow, plus a female collective of artists dubbed “the VS 20”.

The film embraces “the best of our past… and also a very ‘now’ moment in our culture,” Raùl Martinez, Victoria’s Secret executive vice president and creative director, tells BBC Culture. “Of course we have the wings, still – but how do we introduce them in a contemporary space? That’s what Victoria’s Secret: The Tour is about.”

The wings. The very thin women. It never felt like it was speaking to me. So how can it start now? – Jasmine Wallis

By giving its past life a knowing wink – albeit one still coated in fabulous mascara – Victoria’s Secret aims to maintain its force as a cultural phenomenon. In that way, it has strong parallels with Barbie, the summer’s cinema hit that reshaped Mattel’s dated image by turning its once-plastic glamour into glittery, subversive strength. “I have heard some comparisons,” agrees Martinez.

The film Victoria's Secret: The Tour '23 is 'part documentary, part fashion fantasy' (Credit: Victoria's Secret)

The film Victoria’s Secret: The Tour ’23 is ‘part documentary, part fashion fantasy’ (Credit: Victoria’s Secret)

Martinez joined Victoria’s Secret from Vogue in 2020, when the brand was reeling from associations with the #MeToo movement, and implied links to Jeffrey Epstein. Former catwalk models Bridget Malcolm and Dorothea Barth Jorgensen spoke out on the brand’s punishing size standards. Then-president Ed Razek insulted transgender women in a Vogue interview. And a 2022 documentary by Matt Tyrnauer called Victoria’s Secret: Angels and Demons connected all the dots, making the brand ripe for online cancellation.

Indeed, sales have fallen since their 2016 peak, when the brand earned more than $7.7bn in revenue. Brands like Aerie, Skims and Parade, along with in-house offerings at Target and Walmart, have challenged their market share. At their worst year in 2020, the brand barely pulled in $5bn – an especially shocking fall, given how much of their merchandise was the same type of athleisure and underwear most women spent the pandemic wearing. But even with the erosion of mall culture, Victoria’s Secret earnings fell just 6% to $6.34 bn in 2022. In March of this year, they projected an annual net sales increase in the “mid-single digit range.” Not huge by their standards – but also a gain of tens of millions.

“The thing that people don’t really realise is [that] the supply chain for underwear – for bras, in particular – is really dominated by them,” Lauren Sherman, a Puck fashion analyst who is co-writing an upcoming book on the brand, tells BBC Culture. “They generate the most sales; they sell more bras than pretty much any other single brand retailer.”

“They have the retail footprint and the brand footprint to stay afloat even in tough times,” adds Elka Gruenberg, a lingerie expert who’s worked with everyone from discount chain Steve & Barry’s to luxury department store Bergdorf Goodman. “Now they need to connect with every shopper across the spectrum. Of course,” she adds, “Gen Z is important.”

Slow to adapt

For years, part of Victoria’s Secret’s appeal was its Pink label, which blended cartoon puppies and push-up bras for teens and college students. But the brand was slow to adapt to inclusive sizing and gender fluidity, and for women now in their 20s, the label can still symbolise feelings of inadequacy. “Victoria’s Secret has been embedded in my brain for quite some time as an aspiration,” explains Jasmine Wallis, 27, a content strategist and podcaster who hosts the Gen Z podcast Culture Club. “I came of age when the frenzy was at its peak. The wings. The very thin women. It never felt like I belonged there. It never felt like it was speaking to me. So how can it start now?”

Brands can’t treat people of colour and people of different sizes like a branding exercise and expect to be rewarded for it. There’s got to be so much more – Maggie Zhou

On her podcast, Wallis and her co-host Maggie Zhou, 24, have spoken about Victoria’s Secret and its current crop of models – Gigi and Bella Hadid, Emily Ratajkowski – with the jaded wariness of young women who are always told their voice matters, but are often shown a pop-culture facade that reflects otherwise. As Zhou puts it, seeing larger models like Tess McMillan and Paloma Elsesser in the iconic Victoria’s Secret wings is nice, but not entirely new. “In my opinion, brands – and this is true of so many brands – they can’t treat people of colour and people of different sizes like a branding exercise and expect to be rewarded for it. There’s got to be so much more.”

The new version of the VS 'Angel' is a departure from the brand's established aesthetic (Credit: Victoria's Secret)

The new version of the VS ‘Angel’ is a departure from the brand’s established aesthetic (Credit: Victoria’s Secret)

For Victoria’s Secret, that “more” started last year in an Ohio warehouse, where 28-year-old corset engineer Michaela Stark was let loose in the brand’s fashion show archives. The self-proclaimed “body morphing bitch” was there “to dismantle this whole idea of a Victoria’s Secret Angel” by recreating their most iconic outfits with rounder shapes and more rebellious – even downright weird – creative imagery. What’s more, the mega-brand was paying her to do it. 

Stark is one of the new “VS 20” collective of artists, activists and designers chosen to revamp the brand – and document the process for the upcoming Prime Video film. “The whole thing was pretty wild,” says Margot Bowman, the emerging director hired to capture her London peers – including Stark, plus artist Phoebe Collings-James and designer Supriya Lele – aiming to destroy old Victoria’s Secret tropes and build new ones.

Female perfection

Like Wallis, Bowman came of age at the height of Victoria’s Secret’s take on female perfection. “I have an image of Gisele in the wings just burned in my brain,” she tells BBC Culture. She often felt excluded from the world that the brand fought so hard to create, and, she says, that’s exactly why she wanted to partner with the lingerie mainstay: “The fact that I can remember Victoria’s Secret Angels from 20 years ago, when I wasn’t even watching the show, that says a lot about the power of their brand platform,” she says. “So I was really excited to be in a position to create a new set of images – a new historical record that would be more inclusive… It was actually quite cathartic for me, finding a sense of peace in my body through the process… and I have to say, during the entire thing, the aspiration to be thin literally did not exist.”

The same sentiment was true even for Adriana Lima, an original Victoria’s Secret Angel who was once a literal poster-woman for the brand’s tanned-and-taut perfection. When the 42-year-old received a call from the brand to return to their fold, it was mere weeks after giving birth to her third child.

“I thought that wasn’t ever going to happen!” Lima says from her home in Los Angeles. “We did the shoot and it was a few months after I had my baby boy. You can see clearly in the pictures that I still had the baby weight on… I mean, let me tell you, I gained a lot of weight!… which is totally fine! But not usual [in a lingerie campaign], you know? I didn’t think at that stage it would be possible for me to model [lingerie]. But they embraced me no matter what.”

The film aims to present a more inclusive image of the previously problematic brand (Credit: Victoria's Secret)

The film aims to present a more inclusive image of the previously problematic brand (Credit: Victoria’s Secret)

Lima says her tween daughters have wanted to be Victoria’s Secret Angels “since they were six” and after some consideration, she’s giving them the green light after they finish school. “I will be totally supportive [because] I see the work the brand is doing.”

Should Lima’s daughters join the VS fold, they’ll be in interesting company. Five years after its former CEO declared only thin, cis women were worthy of wings, Victoria’s Secret has welcomed trans models Valentina Sampaio and Colin Jones, indigenous activist Quannah Chasinghorse, plus-size siren Candice Huffine, director Jade O’Belle, and comedian and author Ziwe into its satiny flock. The women are featured alongside Hollywood heirs like Hailey Baldwin Bieber and Amelia Gray Hamlin, plus Lila Moss, daughter of Kate.

“It’s definitely a step in the right direction to put money back into female-led communities and back into creative projects run by women,” says Zhou. “That’s less performative than other brands we’ve seen… Now they need to do the same with their supply chain. Tell us about your garment workers. How are you valuing them?”

In 2022, Victoria’s Secret paid $8.3m in back severance pay to Thai factory workers. According to the Worker Rights Consortium, “it is the most any brand has ever contributed to help resolve a wage theft case.” To Gen-Z shoppers like Zhou? “I’m extremely cynical… but it’s a start.”

American dream?

Outside the Victoria’s Secret flagship boutique on Fifth Avenue in New York City, shoppers like 16-year-old Taylor and her mother, Nicole, are taking the last moments of their holiday to explore the brand. New Hampshire native Taylor especially is excited “because this store is where all the supermodels shop”. Where did she hear that? “TikTok, I think. And on Hailey [Bieber]’s Instagram.” 

The lingerie firm has hired a new team of creatives to overhaul its brand identity (Credit: Victoria's Secret)

The lingerie firm has hired a new team of creatives to overhaul its brand identity (Credit: Victoria’s Secret)

The brand had just gone through another stumble – a New York fashion week party that, The Cut declared, “could’ve been an email” because of its lack of a catwalk show. This was followed by a series of (swiftly deleted) social media posts from Doja Cat insulting her VS slip dress and thong

Unfortunate? Absolutely. But for shoppers like Lizzy, 39, the outburst didn’t really matter. She still buys her bras at Victoria’s Secret because of their reliable fit. “I know they’re going to hold me in,” she says. “It takes forever to find a new brand that fits you. Why would I change when I have two kids, a job, and I know what works?”

Lingerie specialist Gruenberg agrees. “A bra is the most technical garment that you’ll ever wear,” she says. “Of course marketing helps. But beyond marketing, lingerie is an emotional price point. People buy it because of how they feel about their bodies. And once something works, it works.

Which might be why Victoria’s Secret: The Tour ’23 opens with a proven face – US sweetheart Hadid, arguably the fashion-world equivalent of Margot Robbie, or even Barbie herself. In the first few minutes of the film, Hadid sports a pink leotard and a reassuringly dazzling smile – the same one she flashed on her first-ever Victoria’s Secret catwalk in 2015.

The brand has been revamped by the 'VS 20' collective of artists, activists and designers (Credit: Victoria's Secret)

The brand has been revamped by the ‘VS 20’ collective of artists, activists and designers (Credit: Victoria’s Secret)

But soon Hadid struts aside, making way for Nigerian multi-disciplinary artist Eloghosa Osunde. Then 47-year-old Guinevere Van Seenus steps into traffic wearing nothing but underwear and a steely gaze. Rock singer Karen O bellows “off with her head!” over hidden speakers, as supermodel Candice Swanepoel stomps a rocky catwalk. Naomi Campbell stands in the rain as Bree Runway’s rap anthem That Girl pumps through the sound system. And Victoria’s Secret once again offers women their version of the beautiful American dream – this time, on Prime Video as well as in stores.

“Never in a million years did I think we’d be doing this,” says Martinez from his office at Victoria’s Secret’s New York headquarters. “I think it will create a different narrative for the brand that is very important… and it was a relief to reposition ourselves and to get to where we want to be.”

Sherman adds: “Their challenge now is to turn mindshare into market share… [Victoria’s Secret: The Tour ’23] is their chance to prove to everyone that they should be paying attention, especially for a brand that’s sort of ‘on the outs’. It’s what they have to do: Put it all out there for us and take big risks. And then we’ll see if it works.”

Victoria’s Secret: The Tour ’23 is out now on Prime Video.

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