Bella Hadid says working with Victoria’s Secret is a power move, but how can it be?
Supermodel Bella Hadid has defended her decision to collab with Victoria’s Secret again, but is she part of the problem or the solution?
Victoria’s Secret announced that Bella Hadid would be one of the latest celebrity personalities to be joining their new VS Collective initiative over the weekend. Confirming that they are “thrilled” to welcome her to the team, Hadid forms part of an “ever-growing group of trailblazing partners”, whose goal is to “drive positive change”.
At the risk of sounding too Carrie Bradshaw, I can’t help but wonder whether she’s part of the solution or the problem though. She maintains that her decision to collaborate with the brand again is not one she has made hastily or without thought, but it’s surprising nonetheless. Not least because she’s one of many models to have previously spoken out about the harassment she suffered at the hands of Ed Razek, a former big wig at L Brands, Victoria’s Secret parent company.
Despite telling Vogue in 2018 that it had always been a dream for her to walk for Victoria’s Secret, the reality was quite different. Publicly separating herself from the infamous lingerie retailer last year after years as a catwalk regular alongside her sister, Hadid joined a slew of others in denouncing the toxic culture that VS seemed to stand for. Bella admitted that the first time she really felt powerful walking the runway in her underwear was when she worked for Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty extravaganza during New York Fashion Week. “Rihanna’s amazing. For me, that was the first time on a runway that I felt really sexy. Because when I first did Fenty, I was doing other lingerie shows and I never felt powerful on a runway, like, in my underwear.”
Bella’s experience with Victoria’s Secret went beyond just feeling uncomfortable walking in front of a crowd in her knickers though. Bullying, misogyny, and harassment were words oft thrown about with regards to her time there. Ed Razek made several inappropriate comments to Hadid with three people present to hear them – further proof that he really didn’t care how he behaved or who knew about it, in his head, the models were there for his enjoyment and little else.
A damning report that appeared in The New York Times states that Razek once advised Hadid to “forget the panties” while watching her at a fitting for an upcoming show. He followed that lewd comment up with a second about how she had “perfect” breasts. Three other people said that he then touched another model’s crotch through her underwear at that same fitting. Things came to a head for the company last year which ultimately prompted the brand to announce a huge image overhaul this summer. Naturally, Ed Razek was one of the first to be booted out the door, along with his many cronies.
The New VS
The culture doc was rewritten, a nearly all-women board of directors was chosen (headed up by Donna James) and Angels have since been replaced with Activists (all of whom form part of the VS Collective). Diversity, representation, and size inclusivity will be prioritised. Victoria’s Secret is no longer for the few, but the many. It all sounds very good on paper, doesn’t it?
Working with the reimagined brand appeals to Hadid, who says that she really believes in the brand’s new mission. “It has been a few years since I’ve done anything with Victoria’s Secret,” she pointed out to Marie Claire. “What magnetised me to coming back was them coming to me and really proving to me that, behind the scenes, Victoria’s Secret has changed so drastically… There was a type of way that, I think, a lot of us women who used to work with Victoria’s Secret felt. And now, six of the seven board members are all female. And there [are] new photoshoot protocols that we have. So, a lot has changed,” she continued.
Why does she feel like the situation would be different now, that she’d feel powerful, Marie Claire questioned? “[Joining the VS Collective] was really about taking my power back and having the power over my body be released to myself again,” Hadid replied. “I think the beauty of what Victoria’s Secret is as a collective is about the conversation. All of us together, Paloma [Elsesser], Adut [Akech], when we sit on set, we’re just grateful for how we feel supported now, instead of how we used to feel, when it was a lingerie company that used to be run by men for men… I just look around [on set] and I feel empowered again.”
Speaking out about the brand “was not an opportunity to take a company down” for Hadid, it was “an opportunity to uplift and change the way women are being seen”, as she puts it. VS models (or changemakers) now have actual contracts – something they’re not usually privy to anywhere else. They basically don’t have to do anything they don’t want to, Hadid says. “We don’t need to show parts of our body that we don’t want to show. That’s really important for us as women, because sometimes, going into these sets, we do lose our boundaries. And our boundaries are not accepted. So, for them to tell us that we do have that power over our bodies and ourselves – and if we don’t feel comfortable with something we can speak out – that’s super important.”
Too little too late?
Like many others, I’m still sceptical of the whole thing. This could just be yet another case of a big-money brand telling consumers (and models) what they want to hear. Sure, they have women on the board now and other brilliant changes have been made… but is it too little too late? From the outside, it appears to be a completely different company with a completely different ethos and morals. So, why didn’t they just change the name while they were at it too? The team is clearly willing to completely overhaul the brand, but the VS name is already in such disrepute that it hardly seems worth keeping it. Contrary to popular belief, not all press is good press and they’ll have their work cut out for them trying to convert former fans back.
Bella gives a somewhat political answer as a response to the above wondering. “People are going to have things to say regardless. But I know firsthand how Victoria’s Secret used to make me feel, and now, going onto set every day, there is just an energy that’s switched. I would never work for a company that not only made me feel a type of way, but made the world feel a type of way, until I knew for a fact that real change was going to be made.” A valiant statement… but Hadid did work for a brand that made her feel terrible and for many years too. She unwittingly helped to perpetuate a culture that is responsible for essentially an entire generation feeling bad about themselves (myself included).
Yes, she was also exploited, but why would she ever return?! Even if big changes have been made (which it seems that they have), the Victoria’s Secret name is enough to leave a bad taste in your mouth and I can’t really fathom why it’s still knocking around.