Victoria’s Secret’s losses can be boiled down to White Man hubris and lack of preparation and foresight when it comes to catering to the changing market.
Last week, Victoria’s Secret announced that they would be canceling their world-famous fashion show, causing mixed reactions from the social media masses. Some argued that the stark change was due to the rise of Rihanna Thee Business Mogul and her billions of dollars-worth Savage x Fenty lingerie and makeup brands. Others argued that people had gotten too “sensitive” in the last decade and that Victoria’s Secret could no longer thrive in such a “PC” atmosphere.
There’s a little bit of truth and ridiculousness to both answers. But here’s the real answer that people are failing to acknowledge:
Victoria’s Secret is dying because it abandoned its roots of catering to under-served markets.
I know, I know. Not being readily able to blame such an obvious case of a self-inflicted L on two marginalized groups will be a disappointment to fatphobes and transphobes everywhere, but trust me when I say that Victoria’s Secret forced its growing irrelevance on itself.
VS was founded in June 1977 by Roy Raymond because the then-current lines of underwear and lingerie for cishet women were “pragmatic” and “dowdy” (read: ugly) and were being pushed by brands that historically catered to men, like Hanes or Fruit of the Loom. Raymond nearly missed this market by positioning VS as “a store in which [cis] men could feel comfortable buying lingerie.” But after about a decade, it finally clicked in 1983 that targeting [cis] men was losing him money, so then he finally circled back to the niche market where all the money was: working [cis] women who appreciated affordable and pretty underwear.
There’s a lot more history there, of course, but what you really need to know is that VS’s rapid expansion and success took a few hits in the early 90s, prompting them to jump into cosmetics, fragrances (which was a huge success), and some would argue, their fashion show—founded in August 1995 before eventually broadcasting on national television (via ABC) in 2001. The fashion show served the dual purpose of taking VS’s shtick of using “unabashedly sexy high-fashion photography to sell middle-priced underwear” to the next level and featuring rising models and musical talent (think Tyra Banks, Heidi Klum, Gisele Bündchen, and Miranda Kerr; as well as Rihanna, Kanye West, Katy Perry, and the like) that could boost their status.
All of this pointed to VS firmly being in their bag… until they weren’t. And what is the reason for that, dear reader? Well, it’s quite simple:
The fashion trend known as “heroin chic” died, evolved, and then died again.
“Heroin chic” as a fashion trend has its own complex history, but it came to prominence in the mid-90s as a result of Calvin Klein’s ad campaign for his Obsession fragrance—which heavily featured an emaciated Kate Moss. The trend died around 1999 after the drug-related death of Davide Sorrenti and the emergence of Gisele Bündchen as a return to business as usual for models. Which is sexy and skinny, but not that skinny.
But did it really die?
I expect a lot of people to give a lot of different answers, but I’d argue… no. Sure, it was now in poor taste to be scarily skinny like Moss or even Jaimie King, but skinny was still the goal. You just couldn’t be too skinny if you were to have the breasts needed to sport a Victoria’s Secret bra. Which is to say, “heroin chic” may not have died-died, and that perhaps we just slapped tiddies on it to make it look… not as bad.
This is not to say that models like Bündchen should get the blame for the restrictive and exclusive ways that fashion brands like VS advertised and positioned themselves going into the new millennium. That problem is indicative of the fashion industry. It existed before her and it will continue to exist long after. But it is extremely fascinating to me that brands like VS didn’t see the rejection of trends like “heroin chic” as a rebuke from their own base and as a demand to promote more realistic and “healthy” everyday bodies (healthy is subjective, of course, but for the sake of this piece, we’ll say that it is definitely the opposite of glorifying clearly emaciated bodies). And that they instead just doubled down on the previous status quo.
In hindsight, doubling down like this is obviously asinine, but it does reveal something interesting:
Companies like Victoria’s Secret are dying because of White Man Hubris, not because of fat people or trans people.
When I say “White Man Hubris”, I’m specifically invoking a mixture of pride and presumption which assumes that you, a white man, and your white man company will always be at the top of the market and that you need not make any moves to adjust your model with the times because, somehow, the [capitalistic] market is supposed to bend and adjust to you, the white man. This is a laughable attitude to have, of course, but it’s something that’s on full display with Victoria’s Secret. And when I think of VS’s refusal to adjust, my mind tends to think of another company that refused to adapt to survive the new millennium: Blockbuster.
If you’re a longtime reader of my work, you know that I’ve always been obsessed with the decline of former home video sales giant Blockbuster, mainly because it dominated the rental industry for a long-ass time. However, like Kodak before them, the powers that be erroneously assumed that technology would not progress to the point of surpassing cassette videotapes. And they also assumed that brick and mortar stores would always be en vogue. Of course, both RedBox and Netflix dispelled this right away. Between 2000 – 2009, RedBox tapped into middle-class shopper populations by plopping their kiosks right outside every Walmart, Walgreens, Kroger, CVS, and McDonalds they could think of; and Netflix cashed in by renting DVDs by mail—which was especially appealing to those who lived in rural areas or were disabled and couldn’t make it into a Blockbuster store or RedBox machine. And of course, as we know, the former changed the game entirely by transitioning into their video-on-demand model in 2007 (and largely, in part, due to the emergence of YouTube).
And what was Blockbuster doing during this you ask? Well, it spat in Netflix’s face with a shitty acquisition offer, bought into the hype of Blu-Rays over DVDs, and also gave Warner Bros the finger by rejecting an exclusive deal that would have made them the leading seller of DVDs at the turn of 2000. Walmart jumped on the offer, surpassing Blockbuster as WB’s go-to rental distributor, with the final nail in the coffin being delivered by the tech-friendly companies like RedBox and Netflix. In fact, one of Blockbuster’s final and perhaps most pitiful attempts at maintaining relevance included copying RedBox’s model and finally buying into kiosks in 2009—about a decade too late.
You may be asking what the point is of regaling you with tales of the rise and fall of Blockbuster. And to that, I would say that Blockbuster’s harrowing example should serve as such for Victoria Secret and it’s middling descent into irrelevance. But if we know anything about White Man Hubris, it’s not going to and VS is sure to face similar consequences to that of Blockbuster. Of course, fans of the exclusive brand—most of whom would not even fit the largest of VS sizes, by the way, but I digress—will commit to blaming such consequences on fat and trans populations—not unlike the rural and disabled consumers that took center stage in the DVD rental wars—finally being paid attention to by other brands like Savage X Fenty. And while fatphobia and transphobia are most certainly some of the leading reasons VS is gradually being paid dust, make no mistake. Any incoming consequences would stem directly from VS executives’ clear hubris and lack of preparation and foresight when it comes to, you guessed it, understanding and catering to the changing market. Which will always be a smidgen ironic, since VS was founded for the explicit purpose of selling to a much-ignored part of the market.
There’s still time for them to course-correct, naturally, but will their White Man Hubris let them?
Mayhaps. And mayhaps not.