Recent criticism has pulled back the curtain on Victoria’s Secret’s growing struggle to embrace diversity and inclusion—and sustain its brand identity in the #MeToo era.
Ed Razek, chief marketing officer of L Brands (Victoria’s Secret’s parent company), apologized for comments he made during an interview with Vogue. The interview, published hours before Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, sparked immediate backlash.
Razek, when asked about Victoria’s Secret’s own lack of body diversity among its models—which has drawn criticism—told Vogue, “Everybody keeps talking about Rihanna’s show. If we had done Rihanna’s show, we would be accused of pandering without question.” (After the interview went up, Razek did issue an apology for a separate Vogue remark he made that seemingly implied transgender models have never been cast because they are not “the fantasy.”)
Here are Razek’s comments:
— Tess (@HiThisIsTess) November 9, 2018
Transgender models and activists were quick to criticize Razek’s remarks and mounting backlash forced Razek to issue a mea culpa. On Saturday, Victoria’s Secret tweeted the following statement from the executive:
Please read this important message from Ed Razek, Chief Marketing Officer, L Brands (parent company of Victoria’s Secret). pic.twitter.com/CW8BztmOaM
— Victoria’s Secret (@VictoriasSecret) November 10, 2018
Though the executive issued an apology, the comments—and the show itself—highlight a growing divide between the Victoria’s Secret brand and calls for more diversity and inclusion in organizations across an array of industries, including fashion.
… Internally, Victoria’s Secret believes it has many good reasons to stick with the Angel wings and status quo. Here’s one: Last year the show , which was filmed in Shanghai, China, was seen by some 1 billion people in 190 countries, a 45 percent increase over 2016. Victoria’s Secret’s critics, in contrast, see mounting evidence of a cultural shift that has both influenced and been impacted by changes in fashion; a social media–savvy generation that expects to see themselves reflected in advertising and marketing; and, not least of all, a shift in the lingerie business itself.
In the interview, a PR executive defended Victoria’s Secret moves to be diverse.
Early on in the interview, [executive vice president of PR for Victoria’s Secret, Monica Mitro] says that Victoria’s Secret has “been culturally diverse for a long time.” In some ways, Mitro was right. The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show has featured models of color since its inception in 1995, and has hired more models of color in the years since. It has also been celebrated more recently for featuring models wearing their natural hair.
“That’s one thing we’ve been really proud of about the show; it’s not just women who are hangers carrying clothing,” Mitro told Vogue. “They have personalities, and we care about who they are and what they have to say.”
However, during the interview Razek also said:
By the way, in 1999, 2000, after we’d done the show for a few years, none of the designers who did shows would use any of our girls. They were too “fat” was the prevailing wisdom of fashion at the time. You probably remember that. At the time the conversation was “they’re too big for us, we can’t possibly put them in our show.” Progress gets made, and part of what’s happened in our show is that the girls have just continued to get more physically fit.
… I think we address the way the market is shifting on a constant basis. If you’re asking if we’ve considered putting a transgender model in the show or looked at putting a plus-size model in the show, we have. We invented the plus-size model show in what was our sister division, Lane Bryant. Lane Bryant still sells plus-size lingerie, but it sells a specific range, just like every specialty retailer in the world sells a range of clothing. As do we. We market to who we sell to, and we don’t market to the whole world.
It may be doing its best to try to move with the times, adding more sports bras and dropping some of the excruciating cultural stereotypes that got it in trouble in the past, avoiding the pitfalls of Native American headdresses this time in favor of safer moons and stars. Its models have become more diverse in terms of skin tone, if not in gender definition or size. (There were a few curvier women on the catwalk but none that could qualify as plus size by any objective definition.)
But its essential vocabulary — its approach to the world — is still dedicated to an idea of sexy rooted in the pinup era, when women and their bodies were defined by the eye and imagination of a male beholder; when they were at the mercy of the moguls. When their flesh was strapped in and sucked in and their cleavage was pushed up and their bottoms were cantilevered out by the physics of spike heels, and everything was waxed and moisturized to airbrushed extremes, and it was all covered by a scrim of lacy peekaboo. And that era is on its way to extinction.
Victoria’s Secret has also dealt with outrage for previous fashion show features and moves that many called insensitive.
Since 2010, Victoria’s Secret has been accused of cultural appropriation multiple times.
The 2010 show sparked controversy after it featured a “Wild Things” segment that included models, who were primarily women of color, wearing animal print lingerie and neck rings. As Revelist pointed out, Victoria’s Secret seemingly exoticized its models of color by having them walk almost exclusively during this portion of the show.
Victoria’s Secret argues that diversity is alive and well within the organization—and that viewership proves that.
However, The New York Times pointed to declining sales numbers that say the opposite, and other reporters suggested the fashion company would have to change its messaging and values to keep consumers happy.
Razek’s statement was clear and honest. Victoria’s Secret “absolutely would” cast a trans model if she made the cut. But the unspoken implication based on the company’s brand and past actions dictates that she would never make the cut, because it’s people like Razek deciding what is sexy, what is part of the fantasy. And as Razek stated previously, that doesn’t include trans women.
… But perhaps that attitude sustains the power of Victoria’s Secret, when what we really should be doing is continuing to deflate that authority — shrinking its power alongside its fast-falling sales. Courting Victoria Secret’s acceptance of trans models implies that the company can, does, and should have the power to decide what is sexy. Why do we still allow them to have this power?
We know what Victoria’s Secret stands for; people like Razek, and the dozens of near-identical bodies they put on their runways, make that very clear. That runway no longer gets to be an arbiter of what is sexy.
PR Daily readers, what do you think of Razek’s comments and mea culpa? How would you advise Victoria’s Secret to move forward?