September 17, 2019

Porcelain angels. Sexy fairyland nymphs. Fantasy bras.

You wouldn’t expect to hear these terms on national television, especially in conservative Singapore, but in the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, these terms—which make up the themes of the show—have attracted, at its peak, more than 6.7 million viewers worldwide in 2016.

However, as revealed by Shanina Shaik, one of Victoria’s Secret’s models, this year’s show has been cancelled. This development comes as no surprise, considering that its ratings have been taking a dip. In fact, it’s dropped by more than half since its 2016 peak to a sparse 3.3 million in 2018. The same year also saw the closure of 20 Victoria’s Secret stores. Victoria Secret’s parent company, L Brands, which has made plans to subject another 53 stores worldwide to the same fate, has no doubt been driven to a loss.

Yet, it’s a bit of a head-scratcher. Isn’t sex supposed to sell? Why is the prominent lingerie brand in decline?

Perhaps it’s stagnancy, with Victoria’s Secret sticking to the same tactics to sell their products and run their shows. In spite of the changes in consumer behaviour and expectations, their formula has remained the same—to have tall, stick thin white girls with long beachy waves strut down the runway, basically putting out the message that a slender figure is what a woman needs to be sexy, happy and free, and that aggressive dieting and exercising is something to aspire to (read: #fitspo), not something to be wary of.

After all, it’s easy for a brand like Victoria’s Secret to continue exploiting the insecurities of women worldwide, when these age-old insecurities have been ingrained in the female collective unconscious for generations. But the conversations have been shifting, slowly but surely. And not being in the habit of collecting audience feedback has contributed to the loss of brand relevance.

In Dove’s Global Beauty and Confidence report, 69% of women and 65% of girls disclosed that the media’s perception of beauty affects their self-perception. In some extreme cases, it may even cause what’s known as appearance anxiety, or spiral into conditions such as depression and eating disorders. The report also found that 70% of women were more interested in seeing the media portray a more diverse range of women on screen, breaking stereotypical norms of beauty.

With the veil lifted on the reality of airbrushing in magazine photos and the dark side of living a size 0 life, women are no longer buying the toxic fantasy that Victoria’s Secret propagates. Instead of blindly accepting the beauty ideals dictated by brands and magazines, today’s consumers are taking the wheel and setting the standards themselves. They know exactly what they want, and they’re taking control.

Echoing the sentiments of the masses, Vanessa Friedman, the fashion director and chief fashion critic at The New York Times, voiced out: “Show me the viewer who sees Gigi Hadid strutting down a runway in floral boot leggings and floral push-up bra toting a giant floral—what? Parachute? And thinks: ‘Empowerment!’ Show me the viewer who sees Shanina Shaik in a shell pink lace bra and panties with a silver brocade corset with her neck tied up in a big bow and thinks: ‘Damn, that woman is dressing to please herself!’”

Despite all the criticism, chief marketing officer of L Brands Edward Razek insisted that the show has tried to incorporate diversity onto the runway, having previously featured pregnant women and most recently signed on a transgender model. But is that enough? With alternative runways such as the Savage x Fenty show earlier this year showcasing a truly diverse range of models on stage, Victoria’s Secret’s tokenistic inclusion of minority faces may come off as superficial.

Even the models themselves, once ambassadors of the brand, are now keeping their distance. Karlie Kloss, for instance, who hung up her wings in 2015 (a mere two years after being signed in 2013), finally admitted that the real reason she left Victoria’s Secret was because the brand’s values weren’t in line with her own as a feminist.

As said by ThirdLove co-founder Heidi Zak in her open letter to Victoria’s Secret, “Our reality is that women wear bras in real life as they go to work, breastfeed their children, play sports, care for ailing parents and serve their country.” Bras aren’t worn merely to serve the sexual fantasies of men.

The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show is set to return in 2020 after its year-long hiatus, a considerable break that has been dedicated to brainstorming ways to elevate the show’s presence. Until it decides to be part of the changing discourse of female identity and beauty ideals, it’s hard to imagine Victoria’s Secret regaining their stature as one of the most desirable women’s lingerie brands in the world.

Image Credit: Victoria’s Secret