Victoria’s Secret is struggling for relevance.
This week it pulled the plug on its annual fashion show, formalizing a big step back from its legacy of catering to people who enjoy looking at women wearing its lingerie, rather than the women themselves.
For decades, the retailer relied on its holiday spectacle to amplify its brand by creating an angel-winged fantasy featuring supermodels and pop stars instead of focusing on its customers’ practical needs.
The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show launched in 1995 and helped turbocharge the careers of some of the world’s top models, including Tyra Banks, Heidi Klum, Adriana Lima and Gigi Hadid.
But what was once a successful strategy has alienated shoppers and damaged the company’s finances. The rise of the #MeToo movement sharpened cultural resistance to putting women’s bodies on display.
And smaller competitors are winning business from women whom Victoria’s Secret did not make much of an effort to serve. Rivals such as American Eagle Outfitters Inc.'s Aerie brand and ThirdLove Inc., which cater to and celebrate a wider range of body types, are gaining traction. Brands including Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty are offering undergarments in multiple “nude” colors to match a variety of skin tones.
“Being a huge company with great opportunity, I think they had completely 100% missed the mark on where everyone in the world is now,” said Lisa Hayes, program director of Drexel University’s fashion department and associate professor in Westphal College of Media Arts & Design. Hayes credits competitor Aerie’s 2014 campaign that featured models of all sizes in unretouched photos as Victoria’s Secret’s “beginning of the end.”
“Somebody for Aerie realized, ‘Hey, everyone is kinda changed. Everyone is in a different place. What do we need to do where women and men are in the world right now?’ I think Victoria’s Secret never made a move,” Hayes said.
In 2018, Ed Razek — who as chief marketing officer of Victoria’s Secret’s parent company, L Brands Inc., had a key role in the fashion show — came under fire when he told Vogue that transgender models shouldn’t be included and referred to them as “transsexuals.” He also said “no one had any interest” in a show featuring plus-sized models.
Razek later apologized for his comments. This summer he stepped down from L Brands as Victoria’s Secret reversed course by hiring Valentina Sampaio, its first openly transgender model.
In September, Victoria’s Secret executives — nearly all of them men — announced a plan to refocus the brand on women’s needs.
But the efforts haven’t been enough.
“If it’s out there, it’s not front and center,” Hayes said. ThirdLove does “a great job with marketing but I can’t see any visual memory of Victoria’s Secret doing much of anything unless I missed it. You do see larger sizes when you do go in the store but they don’t stick in my mind as someone who has done that.”
Same-store sales, a key metric in retail, have been negative for more than three years.
“It’s clear that the Victoria’s Secret turnaround plan is not working,” said Jaime Katz, an analyst at Morningstar. “It seems like they are attempting to pivot to get closer to their customer, which is what they’ve been saying, but the numbers aren’t showing to support that.”
The plan announced in September calls for a more inclusive marketing strategy and upgraded in-store experience, while making sure core customers don’t feel alienated. That day, some analysts brought up the possibility of the parent company’s brands being separated.
Katz said she believed that a separation of the brands was still top of mind for management, and said she would also like to hear about succession plans.
L Brands has about three months left to placate an activist investor who’s called for a breakup and a board overhaul.
The company made some strides Wednesday, reporting better-than-expected sales growth at its Bath & Body Works unit. Its shares rallied, closing at $18.01 a share Friday, but they’re still down since the company announced an agreement to stave off the activist campaign by Barington Capital Group — a pact that’s up for renewal in late February, about the same time new board members can be nominated.
The activist hedge fund run by James Mitarotonda in March called for sweeping changes at the company, including a spinoff of Victoria’s Secret or an initial public offering of Bath & Body Works. Although the company has implemented some of the changes, the pace and the extent of the overhaul has fallen short of Barington’s demands.
Many of Barington’s demands for change, including splitting up the company, and others regarding the independence, experience and diversity of the board remain largely unmet since the truce was reached in March. Other changes have been slow.
Representatives for L Brands and Barington declined to comment.
Barington’s stake in the company is less than 1%. Les Wexner, the billionaire founder of L Brands, remains its largest shareholder with a 16% stake. Nevertheless, the standstill agreement shows that L Brands saw Barington’s demands as worth considering.
L Brands bought some time in April by granting Barington a role as special advisor to the company in exchange for the activist withdrawing its nominees for the board. Barington is subject to the standard standstill agreement, which includes a non-disparagement clause barring it from publicly criticizing the company.
Either side can opt out of the agreement in February. The nomination window for new directors opens around the same time and both are likely to precede the company’s fourth-quarter results. The terms of four directors are up at this year’s annual general meeting, including that of Raymond Zimmerman, 86, who has been on the board since 1984.
The other three are all members of the business community in Columbus, Ohio, where the company is based, and have ties to Wexner and his wife, Abigail, who also sits on the board.
Vega is a Times staff writer. Deveau and Holman write for Bloomberg.