Victoria’s Secret is still hot, hot, hot, but now it’s at least as sweaty as it is sex-related. The brand that has been watched by men for decades now stands on its own as a separate – and significantly revamped – company. The business has been separated from its L Brands sibling Bath & Body Works after activist investors accused it of overshadowing the value of the personal care brand and after a failed sale to private equity firm Sycamore Partners last year. To the surprise of some analysts, the brand seems ready for the new situation, considering its years of stubbornness.
That didn’t always seem possible. The company stuck with its sexy marketing long after it fell out of favor, perhaps missing out on fashion trends as a result, despite their popularity. Given L Brands founder (and then CEO) Les Wexner’s ties to convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein and after longtime marketing executive Ed Razek made offensive comments, this ignorance seemed worse even during #MeToo.
But the shift began even before the official separation of the “L Brands” name ended. Wexner, whose marketing genius took Victoria’s Secret from a San Francisco boutique to a global giant, left his post as CEO last year and the board this year. New CEO Martin Waters has been unequivocal in acknowledging Victoria’s Secret’s long oblivion, though he has also promised to revive its fashion shows once the company figures out how to make them “culturally relevant. ”
“We got it wrong,” Waters told investors last month.
Today, the brand draws attention to the fact that most women, including its chairs, now sit on its boards. Most vivid is the replacement of its infamous “Angels” with “VS Collective. The group of brand ambassadors includes powerful and radical women such as soccer star Megan Rapinoe, freeskiing champion Eileen Gu and actress Priyanka Chopra Jonas.
Despite the company’s missteps in recent years that have cost it market share and sales, it (with its teen-oriented pink brand) is still the market leader in lingerie and runs a thriving fragrance business. That means the upstart DTC Corp. and rivals like American Eagle’s Aerie may have anticipated that Victoria’s Secret would soon be beaten, or at least stumbled by its separation from L Brands, and could instead compete with an awakened giant.
“Yes, some competitors have filled in the gaps they missed,” Lee Peterson, executive vice president of thought leadership and marketing at WD Partners, said in an email. “But to me, they still rule. You have to beat the champion to be the champion, and I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
Still, such a major shift poses some risks for a brand as powerful as Victoria’s Secret, which, as Peterson points out, has maintained its lead despite mistakes, increased competition and an oversized store footprint. Jane Hali, chief executive of investment research firm Jane Hali & Associates, said the company had no choice, given the importance of issues such as inclusivity to global consumers.
Hali has long been critical of the company’s failure to grow. But she and Peterson, who has worked with Wexner on The Limited merchant, agree that Victoria’s Secret‘s shift seems to have both style and substance.
“VS has certainly become more inclusive,” Harry said via email. “It took a long time for the company to see a shift in consumers. The collective seems very inclusive, and their ideas are inspiring. I’ve been watching the site and the changes. It’s true. They do have a mission – you can see it in the merchandise.”