The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show is returning to New York City Thursday for its annual catwalk-concert mashup. The lingerie brand’s lithe Angels have been teasing images of their demanding workouts and bra fittings as they prep to strut their stuff on the runway, bedecked in sparkly skivvies and gigantic feathered wings that dwarf their fit frames.
The show has been produced for 22 years, and the models who walk have long been considered the pinnacle of beauty. But the sexy stalwart appears to be suffering: Last year’s extravaganza, which was filmed in Shanghai, pulled in less than 5 million viewers, down 32 percent from the year before. And shares in L Brands, the lingerie maker’s parent company, are down more than 40 percent this year. A growing chorus of critics — even an online boycott petition — have pinpointed the reason: Victoria’s Secret is selling a physical ideal that does not appear to represent its customers.
The brand has taken some steps toward showing a diverse group of models on the runway — this year, they’ve cast 19 models of color, including one with visible vitiligo, a condition in which skin loses its pigment in patches. But there’s still one realm of inclusivity they apparently haven’t considered: size.
“There’s a body type and a size type that they believe in. It’s big tits, tiny waist, tall skinny legs,” says a stylist who has worked with the brand. “If they don’t have the body that Ed [Razek, Victoria’s Secret’s senior creative] deems the perfect woman’s body, they will not be in the show.” (Representatives for Victoria’s Secret declined to comment on this article.)
VS models often go to extremes to achieve their physiques. After she gave birth to her second child in 2012, veteran Angel Adriana Lima hit the runway just eight weeks later, after working out four to six hours daily, and consuming a liquid diet. She also ditched water altogether for the last few days to drop even more weight.
“They post Instagrams saying, ‘Train like an Angel,’ ” agent Chelsea Bonner, who has run Bella Management for curvy models for 16 years, tells The Post. “Train like an Angel for what? So you can wear a pair of knickers? These women are training like Olympic athletes. What woman in everyday life trains like an Olympic athlete, except Olympic athletes? It’s ridiculous.”
Critics argue that such messaging can be downright dangerous. “I struggled so much with body dysmorphia and disordered eating during my teenage years . . . because I was personally affected by images of the perfect bodies and those messages,” says Iskra Lawrence, who models for Aerie, American Eagle’s line of intimates.
Becca McCharen-Tran, the designer of indie swim and athletic wear label Chromat, adds, “There are so many negative ripples from the show, especially with cultural appropriation — cultures as costumes — and this very male-gaze-y view of what beauty is for women. If that’s what girls are seeing as the beauty that is celebrated, to not see yourself in that is just so limiting. I think [the show] just shapes so much of our cultural conversation about what beauty is, and who’s deemed worthy of desire, and who’s beautiful and who’s not.”
One of Bonner’s clients, model Robyn Lawley, is similarly fed up. The 6-foot-2, plus-size Sports Illustrated Swimsuit stunner called for a boycott of the show in October. Victoria’s Secret has “dominated the space for almost 30 years by telling women there is only one kind of body [that’s] beautiful,” Lawley, 29, wrote on Instagram, saying she was doing this partially for her 3-year-old daughter, Ripley. “It’s about time Victoria’s Secret celebrated the customers that fuel its bottom line.” Lingerie brand ThirdLove, a VS competitor who offers 74 different bra sizes, collaborated with Lawley (who is not a brand spokesperson) to promote the petition.
Bonner credits the advent of social media for women’s desire to broadcast their dismay with the industry. “It’s really clear now that women are way too smart for this stuff anymore,” she says. “They’re just over it. They’re really sick of being told what they should look like, especially when it’s so hyper-unrealistic.” She says if VS showed a model who’s “a size 10, or at least a full size 8 — [that] would be great.”
At the time of publishing, 8,232 people have signed Lawley’s petition on Change.org, and some have posted the reasons why they agree with Lawley’s message. “I love VS but they never have anything that fits me,” commenter Raelene Ellett wrote. “Curvy or not, representation, please! Look at other lingerie companies, Victoria’s Secret. You need to step it up,” wrote Talia S.
Victoria’s Secret offers panties up to a size XL (about a size 16) and some bras that go up to a size 40DDD. According to a 2018 report on Racked.com, 68 percent of American women wear a size 14 or above. Models who wear such sizes, however, have not walked the runway at the brand’s fashion show.
Other intimates brands are seeing success because they not only make larger sizes, but show more diverse body types on the catwalk and in ads. Aerie, for example, runs only non-retouched ads, which feature models of all sizes. The brand has reported four years of sales growth.
Curvy songstress Rihanna closed out New York Fashion Week in September with a show celebrating her Savage X Fenty lingerie line, which goes up to a 44DD and 3XL and has similar price points to VS — think 5-for-$35 panties and $39 bras. Her catwalk showed models of all shapes and sizes (including a model who went into labor during the show) alongside stars who have walked VS: Bella Hadid, Gigi Hadid and Joan Smalls. It pulled in 1.4 million viewers on YouTube and garnered comments like “VS is canceled.”
McCharen-Tran, whose Chromat runway shows have included trans people, plus-size models and models with limb differences, says being inclusive has “100 percent” bolstered the brand.
“We’ve had plus-size models on the runway for the past five years, but we haven’t had plus-size offerings in a mass retailer like Nordstrom until this year,” she says. “When we launched the plus-size stuff on a big scale with Nordstrom, some of the styles sold out right away. I know that there are a lot of customers who were waiting for us to catch up, and once we did, it really expanded our business.”
Although it is possible Victoria’s Secret can surprise its viewers with a curvy casting at this year’s show, the chances seem slim.
“They run it like these old straight white men that want to tell women what they should look like,” says the former VS stylist. “And they think that men only want see women that look like the girls that walk down the VS runway. They act like it’s aspirational to be an Angel. It’s not anymore . . . VS has made a choice about body types for their brand, and that’s going to be the thing that kills them.”
But not everyone thinks they’re doomed.
“It’s never too late. It’s not an irreversible thing where they can’t suddenly start welcoming more diverse decision-makers backstage as well as on the runway itself,” says McCharen-Tran. “They have an amazing platform that they could leverage for the greater good, to highlight more identities . . . I don’t think it’s a lost cause. I think there’s still room for change.”
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