Before the glitz, glamour, and ‘iconic’ Angels, the Victoria’s Secret (VS) Fashion Show, which started in 1995, was just like any other fashion showcase. It wasn’t until three years later when the Wings appeared as part of the act. It shifted from being a lingerie show to a much-awaited spectacle when it was first televised in 2001. Becoming a Victoria’s Secret Angel became a huge deal — almost like a status symbol — for models. For spectators, tuning in to the show, as well as finding out which celebrities and artists were performing, felt imperative.
Falling from grace and trying to rise again
In 2018, however, the show got its lowest ratings yet, following the size-inclusivity movement brought about by competitor brands such as Savage x Fenty, Bare Necessities, and more.
The show was cancelled indefinitely in 2019. Amidst the rise of the pandemic in 2020, the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show’s future became bleak. Fast forward to the present, it looks like VS is finally swapping their Angels for a more inclusive and diverse community to be called the VS Collective. This new chapter involves personalities like Priyanka Chopra, Paloma Elsesser, Adut Akech, and more who will collaborate with the brand to “create revolutionary product collections, compelling and inspiring content, new internal associate programs, and rally support for causes vital to women”.
Hearing the news, the first thought that came to my mind was “Finally!” I expected a brand such as Victoria’s Secret to quickly bounce back or adapt to the situation when conversations on diversity started to become ‘more mainstream’. I looked forward to the Fashion Show’s transformation because I believed that at the very core, it was simply fun and exciting, and had the potential to grow. Sadly, that time never came — until now. And given that the traction for the event has become stale, I can’t help but wonder: is late really better than never?
Looking into the appeal of the Angels
If we backtrack a bit, the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show didn’t get all negative press. In 2014, it was able to raise USD2.5 million for various charities. In 2018, the show put up tickets for auction again in support of LIFEBeat, an non-profit organisation focused on “promoting sexual health and safety”. It’s worth noting that there’s not enough information if VS pursued other charitable activities between 2014 to 2018 though. Even so, discounting some of the show's contributions to good causes also feels wrong to some extent.
On a more personal level, I felt like Victoria’s Secret Fashion Shows — at least especially in its later runs — weren’t exactly meant to sexualise female bodies but rather celebrate them (despite the glaring issue of diversity and inclusivity, of course). Others may say otherwise, but who decided that women wearing lingerie for a lingerie brand were doing it for the male gaze? Is it men in the industry? Fellow women?
Of course, the issue of representation among Victoria’s Secret Angels is one thing. But there is also the glaring fact that as quickly as the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show was supported, it was also just as easily abandoned and antagonised because the move felt convenient. Not that the brand helped in anyway to sustain themselves, considering they also reacted to their critics poorly.
It is worth highlighting, however, that once upon a time, the costumes worn on the VS runway were considered artworks in their own right. There’s also a certain wave of empowerment seeing these women feel nervous yet happy to be able to walk these shows. It humanises these goddess-like Victoria’s Secret Angels we only see in mainstream media as ‘conventional beauties’ and view them as people who also get giddy or feel insecure behind the scenes. Do these profiles of women need any more representation than they already need? Not really. But to dismiss this side of the equation completely is also way off-mark.
Not knowing any better
I remember back in college when a couple of female friends enjoyed seeing the shows just for what they are — a fun and entertaining watch. Maybe it was the lack of awareness or discourse surrounding representation around that time that made things feel simpler. I’m not saying it’s better that it was like that because it obviously wasn’t. But it is worth recognising that, at one point in time, VS Fashion Shows and the Victoria’s Secret Angels were anticipated and that they probably meant something to some people.
The show offered a celebration of ‘womanhood’ and ‘being sexy for yourself and not anyone else’. And sure, it wasn’t the best situation, nor is settling for it the best choice, but there was a time when what it stood for mattered. Thankfully, we know better now.
The last straw
We’re so used to today’s cancel culture that it’s so easy to say, “Whatever — next!” to anything that doesn’t fit what we believe in. And I get it. Why compromise your values for something — especially a brand — that took so long to listen or make a move even when change is already knocking at its door?
I strongly believe that it's where the friction to accept Victoria’s Secret’s new strategy comes from. The call for diversity and inclusivity has always been there and they could’ve pioneered for change. But they failed — big time.
In the past, Ed Razek, former Chief Marketing Officer of VS’ mother company L Brands, was called out for saying that changing VS’s branding, as well as the show’s format, to include curvy and transsexual models, was out of the question. This assertion comes from the idea that since they have a sister brand, Lane Bryant, catering to plus-size women, Victoria’s Secret can remain as it is. The brand went under fire after these statements were released. Ed Razek has left his post since.
Allegations of sexual assault, bullying, and misogyny also started to rise over the years. And yes, updates on how these cases are being handled are still not available.
But that wasn’t the last straw. When things started getting rocky, their move hailing Hungarian model Barbara Palvin as their first ‘plus-size’ Angel in 2019 (not that it’s Barbara’s fault at all!) caused more people to lose faith in the brand. With more and more brands rising to cater to ‘what’s realistic and needed’ versus ‘what’s aspirational and stereotypical’, who could blame people for choosing the former over the latter?
Is Victoria’s Secret’s effort enough?
In 2019, the brand casted Valentina Sampiao, their first-ever transgender model. Next, they quietly and slowly started posting campaigns featuring more diverse and body-inclusive models on their social media feed. And now, they’ve launched the VS Collective. Is it enough?
I’m a firm believer in second or third or fourth chances as long as efforts are not delivered half-baked. So even if it is late, I commend the effort of Victoria’s Secret finally stepping up again and finally addressing that they’ve made a mistake and are willing to change.
I am, however, concerned that they haven’t even fully launched the VS Collective yet, but there are already controversies surrounding one of the brand’s new faces, Megan Rapinoe. Netizens brought up an ‘anti-Asian’ tweet made by the American soccer player from 2011 upon the news of her joining the VS Collective.
@tasha_kai00 u look asian with those closed eyes!— Megan Rapinoe (@mPinoe) May 19, 2011
This has been a current trend on Twitter lately. People dig up old posts to dictate that a person is still the same as they are from one point in time to another, usually leading to someone being ‘cancelled’ on the internet. And while it is valid to some extent considering that a person’s past does influence who they are today, assuming that people don’t grow or learn from previous perceptions, especially negative ones, is also problematic, to say the least. This needs a different conversation, of course, but talk about a rocky start.
Sure, there’s the underlying idea that at the end of the day, it’s all for sales anyway. Still, it would be hypocritical to just base it on that. Isn’t that how the entire world works? Almost everything in our lives is laced with motive and intent to get profit in a supposed mutually beneficial manner. There’s no absolute altruism. This move shares, at the very core, a similar intent as any other brand that started or jumped into the ‘representation for all’ train.
That said, I’m all for any brand making a huge turn at any given moment. It shows growth, adaptability, and the willingness to finally use its resources to actually make a statement. The same applies to Victoria’s Secret. I honestly hope they play their cards right this time.
But if there’s one thing to learn from all this, it’s our role and responsibility as consumers. VS thrived for as long as it did because of a culture of tolerance. It proved that while we saw what was wrong in this system, we didn’t cause enough clamor against it. When we finally did, that’s when the results started coming. And yes, this shift is one of those effects.
Only time will tell if we, as a collective, will deem Victoria’s Secret — as well as other brands — worthy of more chances. It is a power that we alone wield.