Victoria’s Secret seems to be having a change of heart. The lingerie brand’s Instagram, typically a stream of pink underwear and mainly white waifish models, looks different: the models are racially diverse and smiling, the colours are calming and autumnal, the lingerie is styled in a noticeably looser way. There’s a visual subtext of female solidarity, and the captions speak to a beauty ideal that is open rather than prescriptive.
It’s in keeping with an apparent volte-face that began in 2019. After years of promoting uniform beauty standards, spurning trans women and being accused of failing to protect models from sexual misconduct, the brand cancelled its runway show – broadcast annually since 1995 – and launched a campaign in partnership with the lingerie label Bluebella, which pledged to “encourage self-love, self-respect and self-worth. Because everybody is worth celebrating”.
The recent news that Leslie Wexner – founder of L Brands, Victoria’s Secret’s parent company – will be stepping down and selling his controlling stake in the lingerie empire felt like the end of an era. Wexner’s reputation had been tarnished by his relationship with the disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein, and he seemed to have lost touch with what women wanted (the company’s stock fell by 41% in 2018). The brand has been sold to a private equity firm in a deal reportedly worth $525 m.
Yet Victoria’s Secret’s attempts to pivot towards a more diverse idea of beauty still don’t sit right with its recent history. Part of the issue is structural; Wexner was in charge of a company that catered to women, but which is still largely run by men.
The brand’s glacial pace of change has felt less like a generational blindspot and more like a stubborn refusal to roll with the times. The catwalks of 2020 are less white, young and “thin” than the body ideals that Victoria’s Secret has long promoted, and the edgiest contemporary fashion brands embrace inclusivity and diversity. The antithesis of Victoria’s Secret is perhaps Rihanna’s lingerie brand, Savage X Fenty. At the same time that Victoria’s Secret was promoting narrowly male ideas of sexuality, Rihanna was telling Vogue that “women should be wearing lingerie for their damn selves”, and hoping to “encourage confidence and strength by showing lingerie in another light”. Notably, Fenty has used trans, disabled and plus-sized women in its shows.
Following Fenty’s multidisciplinary show at New York fashion week in September 2019, the website Fashionista bluntly declared that “Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty show was everything Victoria’s Secret wishes it could be”. As lingerie labels embrace diversity and body positivity, Victoria’s Secret’s outmoded Telfar – the label from Liberian-American designer Telfar Clemmens who designs genderless beauty standards – and ongoing controversies cast the brand in a darker light.
There has also been a cultural shift in what consumers want from lifestyle companies. Social-media savvy shoppers no longer want to be sold “aspiration” and push-up bras, but rather see themselves reflected in the brand they’re buying. American GQ and Playboy have also attempted to become more woke and inclusive. Even Abercrombie & Fitch, long known for its highly sexualised marketing, has changed. Its latest ad campaign, Face Your Fierce, featured American football player Megan Rapinoe, paralympian athlete Scout Bassett, and transgender model Leyna Bloom. The campaign was as boldly diverse as the brand’s 1990s adverts were chiseled and objectifying.
We expect more from fashion companies and the people at their helm. One of the reasons that Fenty works where Victoria’s Secret doesn’t is because its brand values are reflected at the top; Rihanna is a spokesperson for the diverse vision that her brand promotes. In 2020, it will take far more than a cosmetic U-turn for Victoria’s Secret to truly be “woke”.
• Priya Elan is the Guardian’s deputy fashion editor