Goodbye Victoria’s Secret Angels, hello VS Collective

Victoria’s Secret first black model, Tyra Banks.
Victoria’s Secret first black model, Tyra Banks.
Image: Michael Tran/FilmMagic

The secret is out: Victoria has a bold new look. Out go the supermodel Angels, in comes the VS Collective, a group of women recognised for their accomplishments and opinions. The hope is they will help Victoria’s Secret reconnect with female shoppers who’ve grown tired of the brand’s narrow standards of beauty.

It’s a brave move, but will it sell bras? With America’s biggest lingerie retailer preparing for life as Victoria’s Secret & Co, a stand-alone company spun off from parent L Brands, that is the $5bn question.

The most high-profile member of the seven-strong Collective is professional soccer player Megan Rapinoe. Alongside her are plus-sized model Paloma Elsesser and transgender model and actress Valentina Sampaio — both of whom have already worked with the brand.

There’s also actress Priyanka Chopra Jonas, 17-year-old world champion skier Eileen Gu and model and former child refugee Adut Akech. The group will take part in a podcast hosted by the oldest member, 49-year-old Amanda de Cadenet, as well as advise the company and feature in its advertising.

With their multifaceted identities and activist campaigns, the VS Collective shatters the one-dimensional view of beauty offered by the Angels. The about-turn sends a powerful message that the old Victoria’s Secret is no more.

A break from the past was desperately needed. Amid the MeToo era, the company looked increasingly male-dominated and out of touch. The scandal sparked by the association of former L Brands’ chair and CEO Leslie Wexner with the late financier Jeffrey Epstein only hurt the brand further.

Meanwhile, the company has been running up against fashion trends. Underwired bras are being replaced by less structured bralettes, and the rise of athleisure is making sports bras less about the gym and more about the everyday. New competitors such as ThirdLove and CUUP have sprung up to meet shifting consumer needs.

But such a sweeping makeover for Victoria’s Secret risks looking like a cynical marketing ploy. It won’t be easy getting rid of the sexpot image that the retailer peddled for so long.

Other brands, such as Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty lingerie line, still feel more authentically inclusive. The pop star transformed the beauty industry with 40 — now 50 — different shades of foundation; she did the same for undergarments with a bold colour palette to flatter every skin tone and size. And American Eagle Outfitters’ Aerie is already seen as a younger-focused, more approachable retailer. Its AerieReal campaign did away with airbrushing photos back in 2014.

Victoria’s Secret must overcome a credibility gap if it’s going to win women over. Fortunately, there’s a good sign that female empowerment runs in the boardroom too: six nonexecutive directors, including the chair, are women.

Stores and products also need to be in line with the new Victoria. The company already offers bras up to a G cup and sizing up to an XXL, but it must go much further to accommodate consumers. The product range needs to be broadened too. Nursing, maternity and mastectomy bras will be added this year. (Unveiling the Collective overshadowed a parallel announcement that the company would fund research into women’s cancers.)

It’s worth remembering that lingerie is one of the most technically complex areas of fashion — with some bras having up to 30 component parts, so the overhaul won’t be instantaneous. The retailer will launch collections with its fresh faces which should help bridge the divide between its new image and what’s on the shelves.

So far, investors are giving the makeover the benefit of the doubt, but the real risk is that shoppers won’t be as enthusiastic. The approach is a huge gamble. Even after its struggles,
Victoria’s Secret generated sales of more than $5bn in 2020.

The retailer is reinventing itself because customers have told it they want a different version of what’s beautiful and sexy. But what consumers say, and what they buy, can be two different things.

Not everyone is looking for progressive and inclusive content. Take Love Island, the British reality TV show popular in the US, where a group of young people vies to hook up in a luxury villa. Despite contestants conforming to a traditional view of what’s "attractive," sponsoring the cultural phenomenon can boost sales. Consequently, companies such as Walgreens Boots Alliance’s British arm Boots and online retailer I Saw it First are coupling up with the show.

Like the Love Islanders, Victoria’s Secret Angels were glamorous, escapist and aspirational. The company must be mindful of this, as it prepares to feature the Collective in its campaigns. It describes its ambassadors as an "ever-growing group," so new faces are likely to be added over time. And the retailer will continue to work with women who aren’t part of the cadre.

Ultimately, the Angels had to fall to earth. But for Victoria’s Secret to truly let go of the past, its new Collective must find its wings. Bloomberg