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Pssst. Two Words. Victoria’s Secret

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Victoria’s Secret runway show held Tuesday evening at the Plaza hotel here was anything but a secret.

It was a brilliantly orchestrated marketing blitz that will ultimately reach an estimated audience of 200 million worldwide. With Naomi Campbell, Claudia Schiffer, Tyra Banks, Yasmeen Ghauri, Stephanie Seymour, Laetitia Casta and Helena Christensen in the company’s sexy wear on a makeshift runway in the grand ballroom, it was also the who’s who of supermodels.

The lingerie was fun and playful, ranging from seductress vamp numbers to delicate frilly pieces. In the end, however, it was the “girls,” not the collection, who truly mattered. As one female audience member put it, “The girls could be wearing potato sacks and no one would care.”

To set the stage, the hotel facade was bathed in pink movie-premiere lights for the closely guarded event. Inside, a Plaza security guard boasted, “This [the hotel ballroom], my man, is the safest place in the hotel--if not the whole city.”

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As expected, would-be crashers made frequent, often admirable, attempts to gain entry. “This one guy was dropping all these names, saying that so-and-so at [Victoria’s Secret public relations firm] Rogers & Cowan cleared them. Well, I’m the office manager at Rogers & Cowan, and there is no so-and-so in my firm,” a burly staffer said with a smile.

Those who did make it inside were journalists, celebutantes, musicians, actors and the very well connected. Sightings included music executive Russell Simmons, Jon Bon Jovi, Regis Philbin, director Ed Burns, photographer Herb Ritts, hockey star Mark Messier, MTV veejays Idalis and Bill Belamy. An L.A. music executive, with no ties to the fashion trade whatsoever, bragged, “I had to pull a few strings. I got tickets through a friend of a friend.” But, he added with a devilish smirk, “I got tickets.”

“I’m just here to relax,” Messier explained.

Sure beats a good book and a cup of chamomile tea.

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Victoria’s Secret’s roots lay in its now famous catalog, of course--a beautifully produced collection of the world’s top supermodels (un)dressed in sexy lingerie. Women, men and pubescent boys across the globe anxiously await the more than 300 million copies distributed annually. In 1982, Ohio-based the Limited Inc. purchased Victoria’s Secret, which had sales of $4 million from the catalog and four retail outlets. Today, the lingerie company has 750 stores in the United States, and the catalog has achieved international success. In ’96, total sales hit $2 billion.

The Victoria’s Secret show, in its third year, strays from the norm. Fashion shows have traditionally served as coming-out parties for new collections. Here, the goal has been to create a media magnet. Typically, buyers, the press and fashionistas are the lifeblood of a fashion show, generating dollars in the form of purchase orders or highly publicized critiques. In contrast, the Victoria’s Secret audience is a handpicked group of men and more than 300 members of the press--television crews and print journalists charged with relaying images of 6-foot, outrageously curved, half-naked beauties.

Indeed, MTV, VH-1, CNN, Entertainment Tonight, Extra and the E! Entertainment Network were on hand Tuesday night. Once their coverage winds down, the show video will be screened throughout the retail chain, bringing the estimated number of viewers to more than 200 million. As Victoria’s Secret Public Relations Director Monica Mitro put it, “It’s the Super Bowl of fashion.”

The show’s windfall in terms of sales is difficult to project, she added, but this living, breathing, sashaying catalog obviously helps a lot. “It’s done tremendously well.”

Production costs are a big secret, but, according to a booker for a New York agency who spoke on the condition of anonymity, “The girls get 50% more for the Victoria’s Secret show than for other fashion shows. They’re in lingerie, and they’re in front of dozens of television cameras.”

Another insider put the figure at “somewhere between $30,000 and $50,000 per girl.”

Not to be ignored is the perfect timing of the show. It was held the week before Valentine’s Day, when lingerie sales jump, and on the first evening of New York’s men’s fashion week, when the fashion press is in town.

“They [Victoria’s Secret] want to get all the press they can,” said analyst Allan Millstein of the Fashion Network newsletter. “There are so many cable programs out there that are hungry for lascivious footage that they go absolutely gaga. They love it. It’s a program director’s dream, and Victoria’s Secret gets a huge amount of advertising that no ready-to-wear company could ever expect to get. Men are hungry for acceptable titillation. It’s the same theory behind Sports Illustrated putting beautiful half-naked models on the cover in February, post-Super Bowl and pre-baseball.”

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