After Victoria’s Secret’s stock price plummeted last week and CEO Amy Hauk announced her departure after just eight months at the lingerie brand, conservative critics were quick to diagnose the company’s failures as a classic case of “go woke, go broke.”
It’s an easy, albeit lazy, argument to make considering the brand’s recent shift to “inclusive” models and the cancellation of their iconic “Angels” fashion show, but it ignores broader challenges across the retail industry, especially issues faced by brands with a long-held association with the now nearly extinct shopping malls.
Victoria’s Secret introduced its more “inclusive” rebrand campaign in 2021, announcing a shift from its iconic bombshell models such as Naomi Campbell and Gisele Bundchen to “changemakers” like U.S. women’s soccer star Megan Rapinoe, actress Priyanka Chopra Jonas, model Adut Akech, plus-sized model Paloma Elsesser, and even transgender model Valentina Sampaio. But blaming these “woke” changes that only happened less than a year and a half ago doesn’t add up when you consider the brand faced nearly identical leadership changes in 2018 and slumping sales since 2019, which is also the same year it canceled the once incredibly popular pop culture event, the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show.
A more likely culprit for the brand’s struggles is its inability to recover from its image as a shopping mall destination for bands of teenagers wooed by the striped pink walls and the PINK Puppy logo. It’s safe to assume the brand was certainly happy to fold those giddy teenagers into its marketing base, but when online retailers such as ThirdLove and Adore Me offered cheaper and often higher-quality products available at the click of an Instagram ad, long-time millennial Victoria’s Secret customers abandoned the brand in the same way they abandoned shopping malls and brands like Abercrombie and American Eagle altogether.
The shift was compounded by the rise of athleisure brands such as Lululemon and Athleta, which offered trendier and higher quality versions of the tracksuits, loungewear, and swimwear Victoria’s Secret was once known for as much as its lingerie.
Finally, no amount of “body positivity” marketing or plus-sized models will change the American consumer’s association of the brand with beautiful, even if unattainable, female bodies plastered on 12-foot posters in mall windows. This is best illustrated by the fact that despite the company’s ongoing attempts at rebranding for several years now, one of the top viral TikTok songs of 2022 and a Billboard Top 100 song titled “Victoria’s Secret,” by the singer/songwriter Jax, is constantly played on pop stations as an anthem against “body shaming” and takes direct aim at the company.
“I know Victoria’s secret / And girl, you wouldn’t believe / She’s an old man who lives in Ohio / Making money off of girls like me / Cashing in on body issues / Selling skin and bones with big boobs,” the chorus rings out. Corporate media were quick to adopt the TikTok star’s messaging, writing clicky headlines about how the viral hit, “EXPOSES LINGERIE COMPANY FOR INHERENT SEXISM AND TOXICITY.”
Perhaps more impressive than VS’s ability to stay in business for as long as it has is its ability to maintain a brand image simultaneously known for “inherent sexism” while also employing transgender models and “going woke.” Maybe riding the fine line between both is the secret to staying afloat, for now.