Victoria’s Secret’s CEO exits in the latest blow to the once-dominant lingerie brand

Just in time for the holidays.
Just in time for the holidays.
Image: AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato
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The CEO of the lingerie giant Victoria’s Secret, Jan Singer, will leave her role at the company, owned by L Brands, after only two years, Bloomberg reports—the latest blow to a brand that has fallen far from the days when it held a near-monopoly on the bra market (pdf).

Singer, the former head of Spanx, was responsible for VS’s $4 billion lingerie business, which has taken a massive downturn in the past several years. And her departure—just a week after VS’s annual extravaganza of a fashion show got withering reviews—is only the latest sign of the company’s decline.

Most recently, a tone-deaf interview with the architects of the annual ogle-fest in Vogue last week served to showcase just how out of touch the brand has become. Edward Razek, chief marketing officer of L Brands, was roundly criticized on social media for his comments, many of which were defensive explanations for the show’s lack of diversity. Razek’s remarks about casting transgender models (referring to them as “transsexuals,” an antiquated phrase regarded as a slur) was especially crude:

“Shouldn’t you have transsexuals in the show? No. No, I don’t think we should,” Razek is quoted as saying. “Well, why not? Because the show is a fantasy. It’s a 42-minute entertainment special. That’s what it is.”

Razek later issued a meek apology via Victoria’s Secret Twitter account. But his message was clear: Transgender models—alongside any woman who doesn’t fit the brand’s narrow definition of bombshell beauty—does not belong in the “fantasy” that he and the show’s co-curator, VS executive Monica Mitro, want the brand to represent.

In his suggestion that the brand’s sex-kittenish aesthetic is working, the marketing chief seems to be indulging in his own fantasy, and missing a crucial fact: Victoria’s Secret is failing. As new, body-positive women’s underwear brands eat its lunch, investors have continued to abandon its parent company, L Brands, causing its stock to swan-dive—72% over three years and 43% in 2018 alone.

This is what the last three years have looked like for L Brands:

Victoria’s Secret has scrambled to stem the losses. It cut apparel and swimwear in 2016, and this year said it would shutter 20 stores due to poor sales. L Brands will also shut down its luxury retailer Henri Bendel in 2019, including all 23 of its retail locations.

Discounting VS’s bras and panties doesn’t seem to have solved the problem, either. In a desperate grab for customers, the price of basic undies at VS has hit a record low. Randal Konik, a longtime bear on the brand, has been following this with his “panty price tracker” for over a decade, and calls the brand’s latest offer—a “buy 2 get 1 free” deal on bras, and $3 panties for members—a “scary” development.

Meanwhile, the hyper-sexualized aesthetic of the brand’s ads and feather-and-gemstone-encrusted fashion show (which airs on ABC Dec. 2) feels regressive to many, as marketing trends for women have shifted to empowerment (paywall) and body positivity.

“VS’ fashion show illustrates how out of touch the brand still is,” Konik said in a note to clients last week. “With TV ratings that have been in free fall for years and a consumer that no longer resonates with ‘supermodels’ we question why the company continues to hold the show. We expect ratings to continue their decline this year and the VS brand to lose mindshare.”

Indeed, data from the brand insights firm YouGov suggest that women’s goodwill for Victoria’s Secret has been waning since 2013. Ratings for the show fell to a record low last year.

Undoubtedly aware of these challenges, this year’s show featured a pre-recorded video in which its most famous models were trotted out to tell audience members how empowered being a Victoria’s Secret “Angel” made them feel. Vanessa Friedman in the New York Times (paywall) was among those in the fashion press who weren’t buying it:

“Show me the viewer who sees Gigi Hadid strutting down a runway in floral boot leggings and floral push-up bra toting a giant floral—what? parachute? because why?—and thinks: ‘Empowerment!'” Friedman wrote. “Show me the viewer who sees Shanina Shaik in shell pink lace bra and panties with a silver brocade corset and silver ankle cuffs with her neck tied up in a big bow and thinks: ‘Damn, that woman is dressing to please herself.'”