Victoria’s Secret is still pretty hot and steamy, but these days it’s at least as much about sweat as it is about sex. The brand, defined for decades by the male gaze, is now all alone as a separate and significantly reformed enterprise.
The company was separated from brother L Brands Bath & Body Works, next accusations of activist investors that he was hiding the value of the personal care brand, and after a sale to private equity firm Sycamore Partners fell through Last year. To the surprise of some analysts, given its stubbornness for several years, the brand seems prepared for its new situation.
It didn’t always seem likely. The company clung to its sexualized marketing long after it fell out of favor and, perhaps as a result, missed style trends like bralettes despite their popularity. Such ignorance seemed even worse in light of L Brands founder (and then CEO) Les Wexner’s relationship with convicted sex criminal Jeffrey Epstein, and intractable after offensive comments from longtime marketing chief Ed Razek even in the middle of #MeToo.
But an about-face is underway, started even before the official separation which puts an end to the name “L Brands”. Wexner, whose merchandising genius took Victoria’s Secret from a San Francisco boutique to a global powerhouse, left last year as managing director and stepped down from the board this year. New CEO Martin Waters is a man who has not shied away from acknowledging the long-term ignorance of Victoria’s Secret, though he has also vowed to bring back his fashion show, as soon as the company finds out how the make it “culturally relevant.”
“We were wrong”, Waters told investors last month.
The brand is now drawing attention to the fact that most women, including its president, now sit on its board of directors. Most striking is the replacement of its infamous “angels” by the “VS Collective”. This group of brand ambassadors includes powerful and activist women like soccer star Megan Rapinoe, freestyle ski champion Eileen Gu and actress Priyanka Chopra Jonas, among others.
Even though the company’s missteps in recent years have cost it market share and sales, it (with its Pink brand aimed at teenagers) remains the leader in the lingerie market and runs a thriving fragrance business. This means that upstart DTC companies and their rivals like American Eagle’s Aerie, who may have predicted that Victoria’s Secret would soon be defeated or at least hampered by its separation from L Brands, could instead be grappling with a waking giant.
“Yes, some competitors have filled a gap they missed,” said Lee Peterson, executive vice president of thought leadership and marketing at WD Partners, via email. “But for me, they’re still the dominant player. You have to beat the champion to be the champion, and I don’t see that happening.”
Nonetheless, such a big change carries some risk for a brand as powerful as Victoria’s Secret, which, as Peterson points out, has stayed ahead despite its mistakes, growing competition and exaggerated store footprint. The company had no choice, given the importance of issues such as inclusiveness to consumers around the world, according to Jane Hali, CEO of investment research firm Jane Hali & Associates.
Hali has long criticized the company’s failure to scale. But she and Peterson, who previously worked with Wexner as a merchant for The Limited, agree the change in Victoria’s Secret seems to have both style and substance.
“VS has definitely changed to be more inclusive,” Hali said via email. “How long it took for the company to see the changes in consumption. The collective looks very inclusive and their thoughts inspiring. I looked at the site and the changes. It’s real. They really have a mission. – you can see in the merchandise. “