New documentary explores the cultural shift that brought Victoria's Secret to its knees

New documentary explores the cultural shift that brought Victoria’s Secret to its knees

Written by Leah Dolan, CNN

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The cultural phenomenon that was pre-2020 Victoria’s Secret, with its televised lingerie catwalks and salacious TV ads, may be at times hard to fathom in a post-#MeToo world. What was once a multi-million-dollar fantasy of womanhood — exclusively svelte, athletic models in lace-trimmed thongs or diamante push-up bras, each framed by a pair of 12-foot-high angel wings — quickly became a parody so gauche it’s hard to imagine it was ever taken seriously. But “Victoria’s Secret: Angels and Demons,” a new Hulu documentary out today, explores exactly why and how it was.

Directed by Matt Tyrnauer, the three-part series traces the rise and fall of one of the most successful retail companies in the United States and around the world, mapping out the social context that allowed the brand to thrive — and the cultural shift that brought it to its knees.

“Sex as a form of female empowerment was something that was being explored in the most popular narratives at the time,” Tyrnauer said in a phone interview. “Then Victoria’s Secret as we once knew it got caught in this cultural earthquake, and basically drowned in the tsunami. That doesn’t happen too often, which I think made this worth looking at.”

The documentary unearths troubling links between Victoria’s Secret and Jeffrey Epstein. Credit: Hulu

During the late 1990s and early aughts, Victoria’s Secret rode a wave of sexuality-as-empowerment feminism endorsed by a range of media — from “Sex and the City” to Calvin Klein’s seminal 1995 campaign including a scantily clad Mark Wahlberg and Kate Moss.

But the megabrand’s eventual demise — following years of controversy — came to a head in 2019, shortly after Victoria’s Secret chief marketing officer Ed Razek told Vogue he didn’t believe “transsexuals” belonged on the brand’s runways “because the show is a fantasy.” The explosive interview, in which Razek also said there was no public interest in a plus-size Victoria’s Secret catwalk, sparked public outrage and model mutiny. But there is more to the story than a poor internal culture and outmoded leaders.

Cultural earthquake

“Angels and Demons” chronicles a series of blunders that ultimately led to the company’s reckoning, including Victoria’s Secret’s foray into the junior market via its tween-girl brand, Pink. Using the same hypersexual approach that had helped build its women’s brand, Victoria’s Secret began including Pink segments in its main show, featuring 20-something models wearing erotic schoolgirl or candy-themed outfits as they walked catwalks strewn with larger-than-life lollipops and children’s toys.

“It seems so wrong when you see it with hindsight, and yet, it just sort of went right along on its merry way,” Tyrnauer said.

A still from one of the brand's Pink shows appealing to the junior market.

A still from one of the brand’s Pink shows appealing to the junior market. Credit: Hulu

Even teen heartthrob Justin Bieber, who was 18 at the time and had already accrued two platinum selling albums, was hired to perform on the runway — solidifying the appeal for underage viewers. “My sister’s children were so excited,” said former Pink model Dorothea Barth Jörgensen, who walked alongside Bieber in 2012, in the documentary. “And they were 10 and 12 at the time so I think they definitely hit the target.”

The documentary includes interviews with former employees and executives, including two past CEOs, as well as casting directors and former Angels — models who once represented the brand. Many reflected on the company having a proto-Instagram influence on women that propagated unrealistic body standards, as well as a rampant culture of retouching that meant even the exalted Angels struggled to keep up the fantasy.

Tyrnauer paints a picture of company-wide misogyny and sexual misconduct; former executive Sharleen Ernest recalled Victoria’s Secret’s seemingly impenetrable wall of male leaders, including Razek and chairman and former CEO Les Wexner, who she alleged were known to shut down any attempt at developing the brand’s narrow definition of sexy and explicitly forbade expansion into maternity or shapewear.

Chairman and former CEO Les Wexner stepped down from the brand in 2020.

Chairman and former CEO Les Wexner stepped down from the brand in 2020. Credit: Hulu

“We were just following this bombshell, unattainable, single vision of how men see women,” Ernest said in the documentary.

Alongside the examination of Victoria’s Secret as a culture-making brand, “Angels and Demons” also delves into the company’s links to the late Jeffrey Epstein, the disgraced financier charged in 2019 with sex trafficking underage girls. According to the documentary, Epstein had been a close business partner and personal friend of Wexner’s and allegedly used the brand’s cache to meet young women under the false pretense of recruiting for shows and campaigns. The series includes an interview with Alicia Arden, a woman who said she believed she was interviewing for a job as a Victoria’s Secret catalog model in 1997 but was instead assaulted by Epstein at a hotel in California.

Wexner’s attorney issued a statement to the filmmakers saying that Wexner “confronted Epstein and was clear it was a violation of Company policy for him to suggest he was in any way associated with Victoria’s Secret and that Epstein was forbidden from ever doing so again.”

Some former models and employees speak to a culture of misogyny and sexual misconduct.

Some former models and employees speak to a culture of misogyny and sexual misconduct. Credit: Hulu

A ‘collective’ rebirth

It’s a story that is far from over. In 2020, Wexner stepped down, selling also his majority stake in the company. One year later Victoria’s Secret announced its full rebrand — as a new, inclusive “VS Collective” fronted by women like Megan Rapinoe, Eileen Gu and Paloma Elsesser. “Angels and Demons” explores whether these efforts can spark a turnaround.

Tyrnauer was granted access to old internal marketing messaging as well as emails from the new team leading the rebrand. “The new company seems to be running as far the other direction from the old Victoria’s Secret,” he said. “They gave us unprecedented access to their archive.”

“It’s not my place to be optimistic for them,” Tyrnauer said, “but presenting themselves as a newborn is an interesting part of the story as well. The interesting part of it is how late they came to it, because they had been so brilliant at surfing the zeitgeist and exploiting leading cultural trends to make billions of dollars for so many years.”

Add to queue: An unseen side to fashion

Much like Tyranuer’s series, this Netflix documentary dissects a cultural phenomenon of mass-market fashion: Abercrombie & Fitch. A titan of the 1990s and early aughts, the brand’s lewd marketing strategy comes under fire in the film, which also explores the company’s troubled history of sexual misconduct allegations and accusations that it discriminated against Black, Asian American and Hispanic employees.

This documentary released in June — currently only available in the UK via Sky and Now TV — lifts the curtain on one of the world’s most ostensibly glamorous careers: modeling. The three-part series, which builds on a Guardian investigation by journalist Lucy Osborne, details the exploitation young women in the industry often face and features heart-wrenching testimonies from former models who suffered abuse at the hands of powerful agency executives and CEOs.

Listen: Evil by Design (2021-2022)

Hosted by CBC investigative journalist Timothy Sawa, this podcast tells the story of Peter Nygard, the Finnish-Canadian fast-fashion mogul with an international retail empire who is accused of multiple counts of sexual abuse by more than 80 women.

Read: “Fashion Has Abandoned Human Taste” by Amanda Mull (2022)

Writing for The Atlantic, journalist Amanda Mull dives deep into how digital developments are changing not just how we shop, but what we buy. Several fast-fashion giants are catching on to sophisticated trend-measuring algorithms to eliminate the guesswork in what consumers want to purchase. Is the physical designer at risk of becoming extinct?

Odell’s biography of Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour manages to give readers a rare glimpse into the early life of the industry juggernaut. Including intimate letters written by Wintour’s father and accounts from early collaborators and close friends, the book provides a complex and previously unseen record of one of the most powerful and mysterious women in fashion.

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