It was December 2018 when the last Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show aired on CBS. A year earlier, the show garnered a billion viewers worldwide, but its size and success had blinkered the company to both the cultural shifts being brought about by a born-online generation that demanded to see itself reflected in advertising and the upstart competitors who were building inclusion into their business plans. Rihanna’s debut Savage Fenty show in the fall of 2018 made Victoria’s Secret’s reliance on an impossibly narrow conception of beauty—all razzle-dazzle push-up bras, highly exercised abs, and angel wings, along with the occasional culturally appropriative headpiece or other accessory—seem out of touch. Then there was its owner’s entanglements with alleged sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. On an earnings call in November 2019, it was official: The Fashion Show was canceled.
In the years since, the company has undertaken a sweeping, ambitious rebrand, removing the architects of the original Fashion Show; swapping the Angels for a VS Collective that includes Megan Rapinoe, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, and Paloma Elsesser; and expanding its size range and developing the kind of products it had long neglected to make—nursing bras and mastectomy bras, for instance—because they didn’t fit its male-driven definition of “sexy.” Leslie H. Wexner, the founder of Victoria’s Secret parent company L Brands, also stepped down as Chairman and CEO, and sold his majority stake. Today, Victoria’s Secret remains the leader in the U.S. for the intimates category and on a rolling 12 month basis the brand experienced slight growth in 2022 compared to 2021.
Now, in its biggest and most visible move yet, the brand is reinventing its annual show, producing a feature-length documentary film set to premiere in September. Though it’s a fairly radical rethink, the company is billing it as every bit as spectacular as the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Shows of old—there might even be wings.
“There’s no need to explain ourselves anymore,” said Raul Martinez, EVP, head creative director of Victoria’s Secret, who is spearheading the project. “We’ve evolved and we’ve moved on, but it’s not that we’re leaving anything behind. We’re touching both the storytelling, which is about our advocacy and celebrating female voices, but also that full-on, fashion entertainment [experience], because that is something that was quite iconic.”
Dubbed “Victoria’s Secret World Tour,” the new show will bring together a cast of international women creators from four cities across the globe. The “VS 20” includes filmmakers, musicians, artists, and other creatives, with a quartet of fashion designers at its center. Using Victoria’s Secret resources, London’s Supriya Lele, Lagos’s Bubu Ogisi, Tokyo’s Jenny Fax, and Bogota’s Melissa Valdes will each produce collections, the behind-the-scenes makings of which will be captured in the doc. All four narratives will come together with a filmed fashion show that will also feature a fifth segment of Victoria’s Secret-designed pieces.
Margot Bowman, the London-based director that’s been trailing Supriya Lele and her team, avoided the Victoria’s Secret Runway Show in her youth. “I didn’t aspire to that experience because I knew I was excluded from it,” she said. “I was an overweight kid. But I still remember the images; for better or worse they were iconic images, powerful images. And for me, I see this as an opportunity to create a new set of images that more people can find themselves in.”
Will the world tune in for a new set of Victoria’s Secret images?
The company was the subject of a Matt Tyrnauer documentary Angels and Demons last year that investigated its former owner’s ties to Jeffrey Epstein. And a book penned by former Business of Fashion journalists, Selling Sexy: Victoria’s Secret and the Unravelling of an American Retail Icon is scheduled for an early 2024 release, and seems poised to keep the brand’s problematic history in the news cycle. Then there’s the fact that as the company has been reimagining itself, new rivals have emerged. Kim Kardashian launched Skims in 2019. It’s now valued at over $3 billion, and thanks to her influence it’s sparked a shapewear craze on the runways. Lizzo launched the rival brand Yitty last year with a tagline about “self-love and radical inner-confidence” that exemplifies how the lingerie industry is changing.
When Victoria’s Secret announced on an earnings in March that it would be investing in a new version of its Fashion Show, the pop star took to Twitter: “This is a win for inclusivity for inclusivity’s sake,” she wrote. “But if brands start doing this only because they’ve received backlash then what happens when the ‘trends’ change again? Do the CEOs of these companies value true inclusivity? Or do they just value money?”
Convincing people of Victoria’s Secret’s new agenda of female empowerment is where the VS20 comes in. Supriya Lele, who brings her Indian heritage to bear on her draped designs, sees synergies between her own brand and Victoria’s Secret. The VS Collective member Paloma Elsesser, whose voice can be heard in the teaser video the company is releasing today, has walked Lele’s London runway. “That was one of the reasons why I felt that I can identify with some aspects of this now—previously maybe less so—but now I feel their language is becoming more and more modern,” she said. “And after meeting with the team, I understood that this was a big decision to really push this female-centered point of view forward and I felt that was a really great opportunity.” (The company won’t be commercializing Lele or the other designers’ collections, rather the World Tour is a showcase of their talents.)
The Victoria’s Secret call took Lagos’s Bubu Ogisi by complete surprise. “To be honest, I kind of ignored it,” said the designer with a laugh. “My pieces are not really that fixated on lingerie, so I was a bit confused. But for this World Tour they’re experimenting, and the core element in my work is experimentation. So I thought, okay, it would be an amazing idea to confront how they normally create, and how we can edit or modify or change that structure.” Ogisi’s work showcases artisanal crafts from across Africa. “With this collection,” she explained, “everything is fixated on the idea of Yoruba and Edo mythology. Each person is going to be a divine being, a supreme higher entity, a quote/unquote goddess.”
Note that Ogisi said goddess, not “sex goddess.” So, will the Victoria’s Secret World Tour be sexy? “Yes, absolutely,” said Martinez, but with a caveat. “We are looking at it through a female lens.”
The main difference between the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Shows of old and the World Tour of 2023 would seem to be that women won’t just be objects for the delectation of viewers, they’ll be subjects too—the makers, each one with a different point of view about what’s sexy. “Obviously, there’s been a huge shift in representation, but I still think it’s rare to see women on screen presented in a recognizable way, especially in the framework of fashion,” observed Bowman, the director of the London portion of the documentary. “I just want people to watch it and be like, wow, there’s so many different ways that you can be a woman.”
This article was originally published on Vogue.