Victoria’s Secret: Angels and Demons explores the dark struggles of a fashion giant

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Victoria's Secret: Angels and Demons explores the dark struggles of a fashion giant

Written by Leah Dolan, CNN

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The cultural phenomenon that was Victoria’s Secret before 2020, with its televised lingerie catwalks and salacious TV ads, can sometimes be difficult to understand in a post-#MeToo world. What was once a million-dollar fantasy of femininity—all slim, athletic models in lace-trimmed thongs or rhinestone-studded push-up bras, each framed by a pair of 12-foot-tall angel wings—quickly became a parody so tasteless it’s hard to imagine is that it was ever taken seriously. But “Victoria’s Secret: Angels and Demons,” a new Hulu documentary out today, examines 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 retailers in the United States and around the world, and reveals the social context that helped the brand thrive – and the cultural shift it brought the knees.

“Sex as a form of female empowerment was explored in the most popular narratives of 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.

Documentary uncovers disturbing connections between Victoria's Secret and Jeffrey Epstein.

Documentary uncovers disturbing connections between Victoria’s Secret and Jeffrey Epstein. Recognition: Hi

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

But the mega-brand’s eventual demise – after years of controversy – came to a head in 2019, shortly after Victoria’s Secret chief marketing officer Ed Razek told Vogue he didn’t think “transgender people” belong on the brand’s catwalks “because the Show one is fantasy.” The explosive interview, in which Razek also said there was no public interest in a plus-size Victoria’s Secret runway, sparked public outrage and model mutiny. But there’s more to the story than a bad internal Culture and outdated leaders.

cultural earthquake

Angels and Demons chronicles a series of failures that ultimately led to the company’s billing, including Victoria’s Secret foray into the junior market through its tween-girl brand, Pink. Using the same hypersexual approach that had helped build its women’s brand, Victoria’s Secret began adding pink segments to its main show, in which models in their 20s walked the catwalks strewn with larger-than-life lollipops in sexy schoolgirl or candy outfits children’s toys.

“It seems so wrong in hindsight, and yet it just went its happy way,” said Tyrnauer.

A still from one of the brand's pink shows, targeting the up-and-coming market.

A still from one of the brand’s pink shows, targeting the up-and-coming market. Recognition: Hi

Even teenage heartthrob Justin Bieber, who was 18 at the time and had already amassed two platinum-selling albums, was hired to appear on the catwalk – cementing its appeal to underage viewers. “My sister’s kids were so excited,” former Pink model Dorothea Barth Jörgensen, who walked alongside Bieber in 2012, said in the documentary. “And they were 10 and 12 at the time, so I think they definitely hit the target.”

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

Tyrnauer paints a picture of company-wide misogyny and sexual misconduct; Former CEO Sharleen Ernest recalled Victoria’s Secret’s seemingly impenetrable wall of male executives, including Razek and chairman and former CEO Les Wexner, who she claimed were known for challenging any attempt to stretch the brand’s narrow definition of sexy to develop, discourage and expressly prohibit expansion into maternity wear or shapewear.

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

Chairman and former CEO Les Wexner resigned from the brand in 2020. Recognition: Hi

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

In addition to examining Victoria’s Secret as a culture-creating brand, Angels and Demons also delves into the company’s ties to the late Jeffrey Epstein, the disgraced financier accused of sex trafficking underage girls in 2019. According to the documentary, Epstein was a close business partner and personal friend of Wexner and allegedly used the brand’s cache to meet young women under the false pretense of recruiting for shows and campaigns. The series features 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 attacked by Epstein in a California hotel.

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

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

Some former models and employees speak of a culture of misogyny and sexual misconduct. Recognition: Hi

A “collective” rebirth

It is a story that is far from over. In 2020, Wexner resigned and also sold his majority stake in the company. A year later, Victoria’s Secret announced its full rebranding as a new, inclusive “VS Collective” featuring women like Megan Rapinoe, Eileen Gu and Paloma Elsesser. “Angels and Demons” explores whether these efforts can turn the tide.

Tyrnauer gained access to old internal marketing messages as well as emails from the new team leading the rebrand. “The new company seems to be going in the opposite direction to the old Victoria’s Secret,” he said. “They gave us unprecedented access to their archive.”

“It’s not my place to be optimistic for her,” Tyrnauer said, “but presenting yourself as a newborn is also an interesting part of the story. The interesting part is how late they got in because they were brilliant at surfing the zeitgeist and exploiting leading cultural trends to make billions of dollars for so many years.”

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