Too little, too late for Victoria's Secret?
Last year, Ed Razek - then-CMO of L Brands, the parent company of Victoria's Secret - sat down with Vogue before the taping of the 2018 Victoria's Secret Fashion Show and said he wasn't open to hiring plus-size or transgender models for the runway because they don't have a place in the "fantasy" the brand is trying to sell.
It didn't go down well. Poor Ed - must be awkward when you make your brand famous by excluding everyone, only to fall asleep at the wheel and wake up to find that everyone is sick of being excluded.
The lingerie brand has largely failed to keep up with changing consumer sentiment towards diversity, sexuality and body positivity, and it shows.
Comparable sales are in continual decline, over 50 stores are closing, and this year's annual fashion show has been cancelled following consistently poor ratings.
Nine months after his comments, Razek is out and 22-year-old transgender model Valentina Sampaio is in. The model broke the news on Instagram, posting a photo of herself backstage at a shoot for the brand's Pink line. Razek quit days later.
Responses to the casting have been mixed. Some have praised Victoria's Secret for finally beginning to pivot away from its exclusionary representation of women's bodies. To cynics, the news reeks of a desperate and disingenuous attempt to save face.
But the question is whether the brand is taking the right steps to turn its fortunes around, or if it's too little, too late.
Eve Lee, founder of boutique youth communications agency The Digital Fairy, says in order to "truly rehabilitate the brand", Sampaio's appointment has to be more than just a marketing ploy. "Thus far [Victoria's Secret] has failed to suggest otherwise".
While Sampaio's casting has been confirmed by her agent as true, the brand has yet to officially comment.
“Given the likelihood that Victoria's Secret will face transphobic abuse in the wake of the hire, it's critical that the brand moves quickly to reinforce its decision and support Sampaio unreservedly,” Lee says. “Models of diverse backgrounds should not be treated as characters to be hired and fired at whim.”
Plus, she adds, if the brand fails to get this right it's likely to alienate consumers even further - particularly "Gen Z", who have "little time for inauthenticity" and "woke-washing".
"If Victoria's Secret wants to survive, it must make clear that is not the case."
The brand's problems go far beyond its lack of diverse representation, however, extending into its very understanding of what women want from a modern lingerie company.
Clare Kane, project director at culture insight agency Sign Salad, says women today no longer want to be told what is sexy. "They want to establish the boundaries of that themselves. Victoria's Secret's failure to adapt to this shift has left the brand fighting to survive."
Although hiring Sampaio at least signals a readiness to listen and adapt to cultural changes, "Valentina still fits the historical, exclusionary image of feminine beauty promoted by the brand, [so] the move might come across as somewhat superficial".
Women today want more than "tokenistic gestures and hollow ideals", which Victoria's Secret has so far failed to understand, Kane adds. Innovative underwear brands such as Thinx and Knickey are increasingly stealing market share because they prioritise function and comfort over a distant ideal of "sexiness".
"Valentina alone cannot act as the focal point of change for the brand – it must change around her too.”
Michaela Jefferson is Mediatel News' reporter covering all aspects of the media industry.
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