What is sexy? It isn’t a rhetorical question. The ultimate viability of Victoria’s Secret’s as a business depends on the company knowing the answer, even as it might shift and change among various consumer. Victoria’s Secret was founded in 1977. Its “Jessica Rabbit” aesthetic—almost cartoonishly curvaceous, sultry, and sexualized—formed in the early 1980s, and then never really changed

And for a while, it worked very well. Entering the 1990s, Victoria’s Secret’s both reflected and established the epitome of sensual beauty. It underpants, bras, and nightgowns were among the most popular brand in the United States, such that the lingerie company earned $1 billion in sales—even before it introduced its blockbuster padded Miracle bra. Then it expanded into other sectors, such as producing an internationally popular fashion show that attracted record-breaking Internet traffic. Its models, dubbed “Angels,” became celebrities on their own, and Gisele Bündchen earned press for wearing a $15 million diamond- and ruby-encrusted bra.

But jewel-encrusted bras are not particularly comfortable, and creating an appearance of substantial cleavage is not a primary consideration for many women. As consumers have expressed their own tastes and preferences more vocally, new styles like bralettes gained market share. Women also demanded more inclusive sizing, and then started to recognize the need for more inclusive marketing—two broad-based appeals that many other companies were profitably happy to provide. Victoria’s Secret failed to adapt quickly enough, and sales sagged dramatically in the late 2010s.

Determined to shift that trend, Victoria’s Secret is embracing the present reality for its consumers, hoping to establish itself once again as the main source for undergarments, with new offerings and revised branding. It has added nursing and mastectomy bras to its product lines, two widely necessary styles that the company previously eschewed as “not sexy” enough.

Beyond its product line extensions, it has teamed with a wider range of advisors, spokespeople, models, and endorsers who represent everyday heroes, rather than “angels.” The recently announced partnerships include U.S. soccer star Megan Rapinoe, the social justice advocate Paloma Elsesser (who describes herself as “a 29-year-old mixed Black fem in a size 14 body”), and the Brazilian trans model Valentina Sampaio. Referring to the diverse group of women joining the campaign, Rapinoe noted, “I don’t know if Victoria has a secret anymore.”

Will the rebranding work? Some commentators, both for and against notions of inclusivity, have complained. That is, while some people are complaining about missing out on getting to see sexy models in bras, others are suspicious that the move is only skin deep. When it comes to ensuring inclusivity and appealing to all types of women, the question then becomes not “What is sexy?” but rather “What is appealing and valuable?”

Discussion Questions:

  1. Is the move away from the image of highly sexualized models and “Angels” likely to be a successful branding move for Victoria’s Secret?
  2. What else can Victoria’s Secret to do regain customers’ interest and trust?
  3. What do today’s women want from an underwear company?

Source: Sapna Maheshwari and Vanessa Friedman, “Victoria’s Secret Swaps Angels for ‘What Women Want.’ Will They Buy It?” The New York Times, June 16, 2021; Mary Hanbury, “The Rise, Fall, and Comeback of Victoria’s Secret, America’s Biggest Lingerie Retailer,” Insider, June 17, 2021