Victoria's Secret and the Slow Death of Retail's Male Gaze

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Last week, Victoria’s Secret CMO Ed Razek casually told Vogue that the chain lingerie store doesn’t market to plus-size women, opting instead to “market who they sell to.” “I don’t think we can be all things to all customers,” Razek said. “It is a specialty business; it isn’t a department store.”

This wasn’t surprising given Victoria’s Secret’s history—the store’s size-range has long been limiting to plus-size women, customers have complained about bras being poorly constructed, and the brand’s obsession with sexy supermodels has made the indulgent merchandise realistic for only a select few. But even if you do have the same body as Adriana Lima, Victoria’s Secret was still never meant for you. Because while Victoria’s Secret may be a brand worn by women, it’s always been designed for men.

The conception of Victoria’s Secret came after its founder Roy Raymond wandered into a department store in the late 1970s, looking for lingerie for his wife. But the selection was reportedly underwhelming and deeply unsexy. “I was faced with racks of terry-cloth robes and ugly floral-print nylon nightgowns,” Raymond told Newsweek in 1981. “I always had the feeling the department-store saleswomen thought I was an unwelcome intruder.”

He decided then to make a lingerie store for women, stocked with lingerie that appealed to him, and designed with men in mind. “Part of the game was to make it more comfortable to men,” he told Susan Faludi in her book Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. “I aimed it, I guess, at myself.” And he was especially careful to frame Victoria’s Secret’s wares, frilly, lacy, decidedly uncomfortable pieces of underwear for the average woman, as a means of empowerment for women. “The effect it had on the men was secondary,” he said. “It allowed us to sell these garments without seeming sexist.”

When Leslie Wexner, yet another man, picked up the brand in 1982 for L Brands, it was nearing bankruptcy. But he had a solution: he really thought more women in his life should be wearing more lingerie. “Most of the women that I knew wore underwear most of the time, and most of the women that I knew I thought would rather wear lingerie most of the time, but there were no lingerie stores,” he told Newsweek. The store expanded, but a large part of that expansion was designed to reach men nearly as much as it was to reach more women.

Wexner redesigned and glamorized Victoria’s Secret catalog, casting supermodels, remaking it as an almost softcore magazine with a cult audience of its own. In 1999 the brand placed an ad for the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show pointedly during the Super Bowl. “The Broncos won’t be there, the Falcons won’t be there, you won’t care,” the commercial teased, before highlighting the breasts of models walking down the catwalk. It couldn’t have been clearer that Victoria’s Secret was catering to the gaze of straight men.

It couldn’t have been clearer that Victoria’s Secret was catering to the gaze of straight men

But not even the brand’s blatant embrace of men could save Victoria’s Secret from the declining interest in brick-and-mortar retail stores. Like so many retail brands in 2018, the brand has shuttered stores and reported falling sales over the past few years. But beyond the shoddily produced merchandise, Victoria’s Secret feels dated, with its inherent and unavoidable male gaze; the retro sense that their products are not really made for women.

It’s this gaze that primarily defined many other crumbling mall brands that once soared in the 1990s and 2000s. While a male-centric approach to fashion once made some brands cool and aspirational for customers, in 2018 it’s exclusionary to a fault.

Looking at the steady downfall of Victoria’s Secret, it’s hard not to be reminded of Abercrombie & Fitch (A&F), the store that sold preppy, skin-tight separates and denim to teenagers. The dimly lit, heavily cologne-scented stores that more closely resembled clubs than teen clothing outlets were famously decorated with huge, black and white Bruce Weber photographs of skin-baring male and female models. The brand distributed an equally pornographic catalog and hired shirtless male models to work in the store, a practice that brought the brand’s discrimination into view when A&F was accused of favoring white people for floor jobs in the early ’00s.

Just like Victoria’s Secret, the brand sold an exclusive fantasy of being hot and popular, albeit one that really only applied to a high school cafeteria. “Candidly, we go after the cool kids,” Mike Jeffries, the then-61-year-old former CEO of A&F, told Salon in 2006. “We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”

But A&F has struggled in recent years to sell their in-your-face sexuality to younger audiences. Teenagers no longer want to buy expensive clothing for the logo alone, especially when they can get more fashion-forward styles at H&M, and they don’t want to wear a sexy, preppy uniform just because a hot person is wearing it in a catalog. In 2015, the store announced they would no longer be using shirtless models for events and pledged to tone down on “sexualized imagery.” In 2017, A&F redesigned their stores to be “warm, inviting, inclusive and open.” So much for pinning all your hopes on the everlasting appeal of “all-American” boy toys.

While A&F was selling college students a version of sex appeal ripped from episodes of The O.C., American Apparel was selling the vintage version to horny hipsters

While A&F was selling college students a version of sex appeal ripped from episodes of The O.C., American Apparel (AA) was selling the vintage version to horny hipsters. The Los Angeles-based brand hit its stride in the 2000s, churning out flashy, retro basics that were notably made in the United States. The store’s made in America business model and dedication to logo-less clothing was prophetic in terms of what young customers would want well into the 2010s. What was less progressive was founder Dov Charney’s image of the AA customer.

Charney was instrumental in defining AA’s ad aesthetic of non-models lounging around topless in tights or underwear, all shot with a seedy, slightly pornographic lens that conjured up Calvin Klein’s creepy 1995 “kiddie porn” ads. Charney was noted for including so-called “regular” girls women in ads, perceived to be a rebuke to traditional bodies advertised in fashion (even though Charney had particular tastes; short hair, for example, is “unnatural” on women.)

American Apparel’s brand of sexy (skinny, white, blemished) may have been the inverse of what Victoria’s Secret was selling, yet both were selling an aspirational and distinctly VIP sexual image to a mass market. But it was Charney and his company’s provocative reputation that both made the brand covetable for shoppers and was part of its road to bankruptcy. Charney’s predilection for pale flesh, underage-looking models, and retro advertising started to look a lot less radical when he was sued for sexual harassment by numerous women.

Two rounds of bankruptcy later and hundreds of stores shuttered, the company relaunched online with an updated approach. “Being sexy is not bad,” Sabina Weber, director of marketing at the company told Digiday. “The question is: How do you do it the right way, so that it’s empowering?” That’s a far cry from Charney, in 2009, reportedly “tightening the AA ‘aesthetic,’” by firing people he thought were too “ugly” to work there.

Brands like Victoria’s Secret, American Apparel, and Abercrombie & Fitch are remnants of an increasingly bygone era. When it comes to lingerie, women can now look to other women designers rather than settle for styles at Victoria’s Secret. With her Savage x Fenty lingerie line, Rihanna has been several steps ahead of most designers, filling her runway show with black, brown, pregnant, and models of all sizes. And when a fan pointed out that the line stopped at cup size 44DD, Rihanna actually listened to them and expanded the line to go up to 44DDD. Women can also turn to the bra brand ThirdLove, which is estimated to reach $160 million in expected sales this year and recommends bras based on your specific measurements, which was founded by former Google exec Heidi Zak after she grew tired with the limited selection of uncomfortable bras. And Hanky Panky, the affordable underwear line started by two women in 1977, has been steadily successful ever since for simply providing women with well-fitting underwear.

They may be stores that sell to women, but they are built for the pleasure of men

Victoria’s Secret may have sold customers the fantasy that they too could look as sexy as the models, but the men designing these brands knew differently. The men behind Victoria’s Secret vocally built their entire businesses around the idea that only certain people belonged in their stores. It’s no surprise that Victoria’s Secret and similar brands are now flailing; neither their image nor their clothing reflects the bodies or desires of their customers, but relied instead on base fantasy and the spending power of the male gaze; its own limited ideas of what female sexuality could and should look like. They may be stores that sell to women, but they are built for the pleasure of men.

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