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The stubborn irrelevance of the Victoria’s Secret fashion show

People were protesting this year’s show. But controversy is nothing new for the annual event.

Adriana Lima and Alessandra Ambrosio lead models at the 2014 Victoria’s Secret fashion show in London.
Samir Hussein/Getty Images
Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

Victoria’s Secret is one of the most well-known lingerie brands in America, and by now, the talking points on its imminent doom are just as familiar: Its once dominant market share is slipping, and sales are falling. The reasons run the gamut from an increase in competition from startups to the rise of bralettes to the fact that malls are dying. Or maybe the prices are just too damn high.

But despite changing attitudes around the sexualization of women and evidence that its traditional hyper-sexy brand image may not resonate with consumers anymore, Victoria’s Secret has for the most part declined to make meaningful changes. And nowhere is that more evident than in its marquee annual fashion show, which since 1995 has existed as a stagnant display of uber-thin and mostly white models clad in millions of dollars of rhinestones.

This year’s event was filmed on Thursday, November 8, in New York City and aired at 10 pm on December 2 on ABC, with musical guests Bebe Rexha, the Chainsmokers, Halsey, Rita Ora, Shawn Mendes, Kelsea Ballerini, and the Struts. Judging from the location, the performances, and the models, by all accounts it looked pretty much like those in years past. And this year, ratings sank lower than ever: In 2017, the show had its lowest ratings at just under 5 million viewers, down 32 percent from the previous year. This time around, that number diminished to just 3.3 million.

It’s also incredibly expensive to put on. The New York Times reported that the 2016 show in Paris cost $20 million, which the chief marketing officer of Victoria’s Secret’s parent company L Brands, Ed Razek, claimed was the “most expensive fashion show ever.” This, apparently, “pays for itself five times over,” according to Victoria’s Secret president and CEO Sharen Turney in 2015, via licensing deals with broadcasting networks, advertisements, corporate sponsorships, and holiday sales.

Razek also caused a controversy before the show aired this year when he scoffed at the idea of having larger models or trans models walk the show and then was forced to apologize.

But with declining viewership and a growing distaste for the narrow definition of sexiness that Victoria’s Secret represents — and, uh, the fact that if you would like to watch hot women in varying states of undress, there are more straightforward ways to do that — what relevance do we owe the Victoria’s Secret show in 2018?

The Victoria’s Secret fashion show has rarely been scandal-free

The Victoria’s Secret fashion show, like all fashion shows, began as an exercise in marketing. In 1995 its parent company the Limited was two months from filing an IPO of a 16 percent stake when Victoria’s Secret held its first runway show at the Plaza Hotel in New York. Only two cameras were present, but despite it not being broadcast, the next day Razek recalled the event becoming “worldwide news” and “the lingerie event of the century.”

The now-traditional million-dollar Fantasy Bra and the enormous angel wings debuted in 1996 and 1998, respectively, but it wasn’t until 1999 when the whole world could tune in. The event was teased during a Super Bowl commercial and broadcast online for 2 million people, though poor connection made the experience frustrating to watch.

A New York Times review by Edward Rothstein used the following metaphor: “Ah, the glories of Internet broadcasts! So sexual in their teasing incompleteness, their unpredictable tumescences, their latex-garbed sound!” At the same time, he described the event as having “eclipsed all events that have ever been broadcast exclusively on the Internet.”

Though in all previous years, the show aired in the weeks prior to Valentine’s Day, in 2001 the brand moved it to early December to get ahead of the holiday season. It was also aired on television for the first time and attracted more than 12 million viewers, the highest in the event’s history.

The broadcast would help make mainstream stars of models like Adriana Lima and Gisele Bundchen, and later household names like Alessandra Ambrosio, Miranda Kerr, and Marisa Miller. On the first televised show, Lima told Elle, “We knew what a big deal it was for the brand and for our careers. I had been working for a few years at that point and I was becoming more recognizable in the fashion world, but this helped me become more recognizable with people outside of it and with mainstream media.”

The year after the Victoria’s Secret fashion show became a nationally televised event, it had its first brush with controversy. In 2002, protesters with PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) rushed the catwalk with signs that read: “Gisele: Fur Scum” after she became one of the most prominent models to wear fur at the time, while the Federal Communications Commission received hundreds of complaints from individuals who said the broadcast was “inappropriate for television.”

The National Organization for Women and the Parents Television Council also both protested the show, calling it “soft porn.” In 2004, the fashion show didn’t even air at all, reportedly over fears of a possible wardrobe malfunction like the recent Janet Jackson/Justin Timberlake snafu at the Super Bowl.

PETA protesters rush the stage as Gisele Bundchen poses during the Victoria’s Secret fashion show in 2002.
Timothy Clary/AFP/Getty Images

Like many fashion brands’ runway shows, Victoria’s Secret has also has a rocky record on inclusion, though in recent years, it has appeared to change that — last year, nearly half the cast were women of color. Yet the show didn’t cast its first model of Asian descent until nearly a decade and a half into its existence, with the hiring of Liu Wen in 2009. And in 2012, both Victoria’s Secret and Karlie Kloss were forced to apologize when Kloss walked down the runway in “Native American-inspired” attire involving a feathered headdress; the ensemble was eventually edited out of the broadcast.

In 2017, perhaps recognizing its strategies were becoming less effective, Victoria’s Secret planned to hold the show in China for the first time (previous shows had been held in London, New York, Miami, LA, Cannes, and Paris) in an attempt to corner the Chinese lingerie market, which Euromonitor estimated would be worth $33 billion by 2020.

It also tapped Balmain to collaborate on a punk-inspired collection, the first time it partnered with an outside designer for the show, which could suggest it saw a need to lean on outside creative direction to garner excitement about the increasingly stale brand image.

But even these attempts were plagued with logistical issues. Many models, including star Gigi Hadid, were denied visas into the country; scheduled performer Katy Perry was also barred from entering the country, reportedly for appearing to support Taiwan. (Harry Styles eventually stepped in to take her place.) Chinese government officials were also allegedly monitoring company emails, and local police shut down the after-party before midnight. The event did not appear to boost sales — in the first half of 2018, Victoria’s Secret sales continued to fall.

Bella Hadid and artist Miguel on the runway at the 2017 Victoria’s Secret fashion show.
Timur Emek/FilmMagic

This year has also brought up a familiar mini-scandal within the Victoria’s Secret fashion show: the diets of the models in the weeks leading up to the show. After Bella Hadid posted photos of herself in a bra and underwear this week ahead of the fashion show, Instagram commenters criticized them as “disturbing” and “unhealthy” because of how thin she looked. She then altered the caption to read, “All body types are different and react differently to a great workout routine and a healthy diet.”

A “healthy diet,” however, is not the regimen that many models have described undergoing. In 2011, Adriana Lima described having to lose 50 pounds of postpartum weight by drinking exclusively protein shakes for nine days and working out twice a day, then fasting for 12 hours before the show. Rosie Huntington-Whiteley called her regimen of nixing sugar, dairy, gluten, and alcohol “brutal,” and in 2013, Erin Heatherton stopped working with the brand due to the pressure to lose weight for the shows. It’s just one more example of Victoria’s Secret seeming to fall behind the times, as even the concept of “dieting” has become passé.

Victoria’s Secret’s idea of sexiness is becoming increasingly irrelevant

The real threat to the Victoria’s Secret fashion show, however, may not be the Chinese government, or even the brand’s declining sales. It’s the fact that Victoria’s Secret may no longer be seen as the arbiter of sexiness it once was.

It could be because what women want from their lingerie has changed, or because they’re tired of the ultra-narrow standards of beauty and sexiness the brand enforces. Competitors are challenging Victoria’s Secret on both fronts: Aerie, the lingerie and loungewear offshoot of American Eagle, has seen success with its cheaper bralettes with less padding and less confusing sizes, and most notably by refusing to Photoshop models in its ad campaigns.

Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty puts inclusivity front and center at its shows. And startups like ThirdLove and True & Co offer easy online fitting quizzes that shoppers can take online rather than dealing with an awkward fitting from a store associate.

Models at the September 2018 runway show for Rihanna’s lingerie line, Savage x Fenty.
JP Yim/Getty Images

Perhaps the most explicit backlash to Victoria’s Secret in recent years was Lane Bryant’s #ImNoAngel campaign in 2015, which starred curve models like Ashley Graham and was launched as a “tongue-in-cheek” jab at the lack of size diversity in VS advertisements.

Even Chrissy Teigen, who has been considered a straight-sized model throughout her career, made a lighthearted joke last year about the fact that she wasn’t asked to walk in the fashion show despite the fact that she is a very famous model. As W magazine asked at the time, “What does it say about the standards we hold models — and therefore young women — to if the idea of two professional, popular models that aren’t sample size to walk the show is so outlandish that the idea of even suggesting it has to be done in jest?”

The discourse around Victoria’s Secret hasn’t changed much since then, and competitors are capitalizing on it. Bra brand ThirdLove alongside model Robyn Lawley recently launched a petition to boycott the Victoria’s Secret fashion show this year in an attempt to force the brand to “be more diverse and inclusive of body shapes and sizes on their runways.”

Model Ashley Graham walks past Lane Bryant’s #ImNoAngel advertisements.
Cindy Ord/Getty Images

Meanwhile, brands that have embraced inclusion in their marketing materials are seeing success. Lingerie brands like Chromat and Lara Intimates have built reputations on size inclusivity, while makeup brands like Fenty have completely upped the standard for what counts as an acceptable shade range for foundation in the beauty industry.

But the Victoria’s Secret fashion show has so far shown little interest in changing. While the show may still be a moneymaker for the brand in the short term, it’s hard to envision what importance it could possibly have even five or 10 years from now. And ultimately, the only one that will suffer from Victoria’s Secret’s insistence on the status quo is Victoria’s Secret.

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