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The Victoria’s Secret fashion show will return this year, but is there any need?


By Sarah Finnan
06th Mar 2023

@victoriassecret

The Victoria’s Secret fashion show will return this year, but is there any need?

After an almost five year hiatus, the Victoria’s Secret fashion show is coming back – with a few changes… but is it all just lipservice or has genuine progress actually been made?

Fresh off a complete image rehaul and with a new team of Activists (replacing the old VS Angels), Victoria’s Secret has just announced that their infamous fashion show will soon return too – and like most people, I’m sceptical. Very, very sceptical. 

“We’re going to continue to lean into the marketing spend to invest in the business, both at top-of-funnel and also to support the new version of our fashion show, which is to come later this year,” CFO Timothy Johnson confirmed at the company’s 2022 earnings call last week. “This will lead us into new spaces like reclaiming one of our best marketing and entertainment properties to date and turning it on its head to reflect who we are today. We’re excited to share more later this year.” In a statement to The Hollywood Reporter, a spokesperson also emphasised that the show will “reinforce [Victoria’s Secret’s] commitment to championing women’s voices and their unique perspectives.”

First impressions? That’s all a little cryptic. If you had made genuine changes, wouldn’t you be shouting them from the rooftops? Maybe the secrecy is in a bid to build hype, but I’m not quite convinced. 

Once one of the most-watched events on the annual fashion calender, in its prime, the show featured all of the world’s most sought-after models including the likes of Adriana Lima, Elsa Hosk, Gisele Bündchen and Heidi Klum amongst others. However, bad press and declining sales coupled with rumours that CEO, Les Wexner had close ties to Jeffrey Epstein, ultimately brought things to a screeching halt in 2019. 

Conversations questioning the brand’s ethos and messaging were already happening separately to that though and while Ed Razek (a former big wig at L Brands (Victoria’s Secret parent company) famously rejected the suggestion that the show would ever feature a more diverse cast (or accept anyone other than size 0), Rihanna’s Fenty – who has been committed to casting models of all shapes, sizes, races, genders and sexual orientations since its very first show – proved that not only could it be done, but it could be done well. And so, public favour for Victoria’s Secret dissipated and the Angels disbanded.

Prompted by the turning tides, many of the models who used to work with the brand began speaking out about their experiences, and nothing they had to say was good. Lifting the lid on the seedy underbelly of the highly glamourised lingerie brand, model Bridget Malcolm described their “performative allyship” as “a joke”. 

Already having walked the VS runway on two separate occasions – she featured in both their 2015 and 2016 shows – the Australian native said that Razek once cut her from the lineup because she had gone up a bra size, rejecting her on the basis that her body “didn’t look good enough”. 

@bridgetmalcolm

too little too late Victoria’s Secret #victoriassecret #victoriasecretshows #CompleteMyLook #MyColoredHair

? original sound – Bridget Malcolm

Going from a size 30A to a 30B, Razek not only deemed her unworthy of participating in the 2017 show, but he made no secret of it either. In a TikTok video that has since gone viral, Malcolm tried on an old bra she previously modeled for the brand to demonstrate just how slight she was at the time. Also including several photos of herself from her VS days, she captioned the video, “Look how big it was on me. The sadness behind my eyes from the 2016 show breaks my heart.” 

Developing PTSD as a result of the huge amount of pressure she was under, she went on to speak about how former agents had advised her to use cocaine and “just have lots of sex to lose weight”… this while she was still a minor. 

“I was struggling with my gender identity and I developed anorexia and orthorexia and anxiety and depression. I couldn’t socialise without drinking and was developing quite the reliance on Xanax and Ambien to get me through the night – and that was before I turned 18.” On her 26th birthday, Malcolm had a nervous breakdown and couldn’t leave her house for an entire year without suffering severe panic attacks and anxiety. 

Fellow model Bella Hadid also spoke out about her time working for Victoria’s Secret, denouncing the toxic culture and admitting that the only time she felt powerful walking the runway in her underwear was when she worked for Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty 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 the brand went beyond just feeling uncomfortable walking around in her knickers though. Bullying, misogyny, and harassment were allegedly regular occurences on set and Razek wasn’t subtle about it either. On one occasion, he made several inappropriate comments to Hadid with three other people present to hear them – definitive 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 in 2021 which ultimately prompted the brand to announce a huge image overhaul last summer. Naturally, Ed Razek was one of the first to be booted out the door, along with his many cronies. 

Needless to say, it came as a bit of a surprise when, last year, Hadid announced she would be collaborating with the brand once more. Defending her decision to work with the company again, Hadid claimed it was a “power move” to help her – and women everywhere – reclaim control of the narrative. 

The culture doc was rewritten, a nearly all-women board of directors was chosen (headed up by Donna James) and Angels were replaced with Activists (all of whom form part of the VS Collective). Diversity, representation, and size inclusivity are a priority. Victoria’s Secret is no longer for the few, but the many. It all sounds very good on paper, doesn’t it?

Helping to usher in a more positive Victoria’s Secret era appealed to Hadid, who assured naysayers 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. 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,” Hadid told Marie Claire when asked why she went back to them. 

“[Joining the VS Collective] was really about taking my power back and having the power over my body be released to myself again,” she continued. “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 put it. Many changes have been brought in, including legitimate contracts for models – something that’s sadly not the expected standard – which state that they don’t have to do (or show) anything they’re not comfortable with. 

“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,” Hadid explained. 

Back to their upcoming fashion show though. So far, public reaction has been mixed – while some are cautiously optimistic, others are decidedly less so. “This is a win for inclusivity for inclusivity’s sake,” Lizzo wrote on Twitter in response to the announcement. “But if brands start doing this only because they’ve received backlash, then what happens when the ‘trends’ change again? Do the CEOs of these companies value true inclusivity? Or do they just value money?” 

It’s a valid question. Yes, discussions around body image have evolved greatly since Victoria’s Secret was in its heyday but with celebrities like Kim Kardashian proudly touting their weight loss, the recent surge in popularity of Ozempic (a diabetes drug TikTokers are using to induce weight loss) and tabloid proclamations that “heroin chic is back”, it’s clear that we still have a long, long way to go. 

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 very necessary changes have been made… but is it all too little too late? 

From the outside, it appears to be a completely different company with a completely different ethos and moral code… 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 gave a somewhat political answer as a response to the above. “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, the Victoria’s Secret name is enough to leave a bad taste in your mouth and I can’t really fathom why it, or its infamous fashion show, is still knocking around. All to sell us an overpriced lacy bra?

Feature image via @victoriassecret