No, this post isn’t about Playboy, though hopefully when you finish reading you’ll understand why I titled this post with that magazine’s former tagline. This is going to be a rant about a recent controversy a certain fashion retailer got into. That company is Victoria’s Secret, the (in)famous designer of lingerie and women’s wear that are nowhere near the dowdy floral gowns its founder frequently found on sales racks. It’s a safe bet that the mall near you has a Victoria’s Secret selling scantily designed undergarments and/or a PINK store selling sleepwear for the college-age set.
Before I get into the controversy in question, take a gander at this photo. (Gentlemen, don’t drool.)
What do you see in that photo? Obviously, you see a multitude of beautiful women. That photo is from last year’s Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. Every year since 1995, and every holiday season since 2001, Victoria’s Secret sets up a very glitzy show to showcase and promote its lingerie, sleepwear, or whatever else they’re selling. It’s not a sedate affair for sure: The setting is elaborately designed; the music is live and pulsating; the costumes are extravagant; and the star wattage is high, with A-list stars both strutting the catwalk and providing the music.
But what don’t you see in that photo? You don’t see plus-size models, nor do you see trans representation. Not including the former is by design; excluding the latter is for the sake of “fantasy.” Why is that? Well, one only needs to read an interview Vogue conducted with Ed Razek, chief marketing officer of Victoria’s Secret’s parent company, and Monica Mitro, VS’ executive VP of public relations. Let’s just say that neither of them, Razek especially, impressed anyone in that interview.
On the matter of catering to a plus-size audience, not just including plus-size models, Ed Razek basically said, yeah, we tried that and it didn’t work. Here is some of what he said:
“We invented the plus-size model show in what was our sister division, Lane Bryant. Lane Bryant still sells plus-size lingerie, but it sells a specific range, just like every specialty retailer in the world sells a range of clothing. As do we. We market to who we sell to, and we don’t market to the whole world.
“We attempted to do a television special for plus-sizes [in 2000]. No one had any interest in it, still don’t.”
Well, okay, they did something with Lane Bryant way back when. Now, it should be noted that Lane Bryant does admirable work in catering to the clothing needs of what was once termed “stout-figured” women for over a century (i.e. decades before Victoria’s Secret was a glimmer in its founder’s eye). And, yes, Lane Bryant does design and offer plus-size intimates, including lingerie and sleepwear (good for them). But unlike Victoria’s Secret, intimates is not the only hook Lane Bryant hangs their hat on. And, yes, while VS has branched out beyond intimates and lingerie, those are the two things people the world over automatically think of when they hear the words “Victoria’s Secret.” So it wouldn’t hurt VS to expand their target audience to include, say, Chrissy Teigen or Ashley Graham or someone whose clothing size ventures into the double digits.
(Two side notes at this point: One, Victoria’s Secret can’t use that excuse of letting its “sister division” market to plus-size women. VS’ parent spun off Lane Bryant to a separately traded company in 2002. Also, Lane Bryant is doing fine marketing lingerie to the plus-size set, thank you very much. In 2015, they made a bit of a marketing impression with the tagline “I’m no angel,” a direct dig at Victoria’s Secret and the slender models they dub “Angels.”)
So, yeah, it’s nix-nix on plus-size for Victoria’s Secret; it’s not part of the “fantasy” VS is going for when casting their fashion show. Neither, sadly, is having trans representation. In that same Vogue interview, Ed Razek lumped, in one fell swoop, trans women in the same “undesirable for VS” group as plus-size women:
So it’s like, why don’t you do 50? Why don’t you do 60? Why don’t you do 24? It’s like, why doesn’t your show do this? Shouldn’t you have transsexuals in the show? No. No, I don’t think we should. Well, why not? Because the show is a fantasy. It’s a 42-minute entertainment special. That’s what it is.
I’ll delve into the thoughts of “entertainment” in a moment. But let me first note that, yes, Ed Rezek did indeed use the word “transsexual,” which the last time I checked is an antiquated and rather off-putting term. It goes to show you which decade he’s still living in.
Secondly, “fantasy.” Now, the word fantasy will mean different things to different people. But for the purposes of the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, “fantasy” means a well-built, well-fit, well-prettied-up female representation strutting up and down the catwalk in something sexy. Unfortunately, Victoria’s Secret, or at least Ed Razek, thinks that “fantasy” should not involve a female figure who has or used to have *ahem* a little extra plumbing down there.
Needless to say, that comment generated a big backlash at Victoria’s Secret. The fashion advocacy group Model Alliance, for one, voiced great disappointment in Ed Razek’s comments.
View this post on Instagram
We are disappointed by the recent comments about trans and plus-size models made by Ed Razek, CMO of L Brands, Victoria's Secret's parent company. Such comments create a hostile work environment for people who do not conform to Victoria’s Secret’s mold – one that enforces an idea of female beauty that is predominantly white, cisgender, young and thin. In addition to the brand’s issues with lack of diversity and inclusion, Victoria’s Secret photographers have faced allegations of sexual misconduct by models, which have yet to be adequately addressed. If Victoria’s Secret is truly a leader, it will join the RESPECT Program so that models and their colleagues can work in a respectful, accountable and inclusive environment. The RESPECT Code requires that all be treated with dignity and respect on the job, regardless of race, size, or gender identity. This is not the “PC” thing to do – this is best business practice. When any part of our industry is excluded or oppressed, abuse is able to flourish and hurts us all. We can and need to do better. #Time4RESPECT #VictoriasSecret
Trans models, naturally, voiced their disappointment: Gigi Gorgeous took off a VS bra for the last time in this YouTube video, while Carmen Carrera had some pretty good criticisms at VS in this talk with Entertainment Tonight.
What Ed Razek, and Victoria’s Secret in general, should know is that some of the more beautiful women in the world these days just happen to be openly trans women. Love Bailey, in a feature on PaperMag.com, compiled a list of 18 trans models who would bring the fierce to a lingerie maker’s catwalk (Carmen Carrera just happens to be on that list, and deservedly so). No matter what *ahem* plumbing they were born with, they certainly have worked hard to present themselves as catwalk-caliber as possible, and they deserve the kudos, the recognition, and the opportunities.
I can’t help, though, but think about the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show’s gatekeepers, i.e. the ones who develop VS’ marketing strategy and select the models (or “angels” to use VS’ parlance) for the show. Ed Razek is one of those gatekeepers. In that Vogue interview, Razek (and, to a lesser extent, Monica Mitro) was very critical of the “haters” (his term) insisting on diversity in the show. He was also critical of the “wannabees” (my term) that aim to steal some of the spotlight from VS and aren’t above catering to women with a few extra curves. Two such up-and-comers are ThirdLove, whose leadership includes some former VS executives, and the music star Rhianna, whose fashion project has featured a visibly pregnant model in something that’s a little next to nothing, if you know what I mean. Mitro and Rizek seemed to have an attitude of the VS brand being everything, as if they were the best (only?) brand in town (“We’re nobody’s third love. We’re their first love.”). It’s akin to a “macho,” better-than-thou attitude that a certain chief executive (You Know Who) usually takes.
As indicated in this report, Razek is 70 years old, about a year older than another senior citizen whose company Victoria’s Secret had been doing business with the past several years. Until this year,the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show had been airing on CBS, who until recently had been led by Les Moonves. Moonves was considered one of the most powerful titans in not only the TV industry. But as you may have heard back in September, Moonves lost his job after serious and seriously detailed allegations of sexual harassment. It was the same kind of tawdriness that got another powerful Hollywood executive in deep doo-doo last year. And just this week, it was reported that just like that other toppled titan, Moonves tried to move heaven and earth to keep those old allegations under wraps.
Now, why do I bring up Les Moonves here? Well, it’s for something other than those particular sexual assault allegations (which make me want to take a hot cleansing shower just reading about them). During his time as a TV executive, not just at CBS but at Warner Bros. Television before that, Les Moonves had a reputation for being a hands-on leader, and I don’t mean in quite that sense (though who knows what goes on behind a powerful executive’s closed doors). A prime example of that at CBS was Moonves having the final say on who would be cast as contestants on CBS’ reality competitions, including Survivor, The Amazing Race, and Big Brother.
(A side note on that latter show: Moonves tapped the woman who would become his wife to host Big Brother, a show which has had an unfortunate history of appalling and inappropriate behavior by its contestants, behavior that Moonves gave the old “it is what it is” view several years ago. Ugh.)
Knowing that Les Moonves had sway over something seemingly several notches below his pay grade at CBS (reality show casting), did he have any sway over which “Angels” strutted down the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show runway? Well, no one can say for certain (or at least I can’t) how much influence he had on that, if any. Still, VS’ history with CBS has a bit of a stain when you know now they were working with a sordid executive. In other words… what was Moonves thinking inside his gilded corner office when he gave the green light to air the VS show on CBS?
Likewise, one should not construe without proof or inside knowledge that the executives at Victoria’s Secret did anything Les Moonves-like to cast their show; hopefully they treat the models that do strut their runway with utmost respect. But the backward views voiced by Ed Razek in his role at VS exposed a company (or at least the men in the company) that’s behind the times. For decades, they’ve employed only one template for the usual Victoria’s Secret model: Young, vivacious, well-proportioned, well-styled hair, impeccable makeup, little in the way of age lines… and, yes, svelte, willowy, and with a vagina. In other words, the kind of woman that can turn a straight man on.
To borrow a Bob Dylan line, the fashion times are a-changin’, even if it may take a bit of time for fashion marketers to respect the female customer base. Abercrombie & Fitch was notorious for marketing its clothing to younger audiences with an approach that was a hair’s width away from pornography. In recent years, A&F has 86’ed the sexual imagery and revamped its stores to be more inviting. Rhianna’s fashion line, as hinted above, embraces and encourages women of all body types and ethnicities to feel confident about their bodies. ThirdLove treats their customers with general respect when it comes to bra measurements. And Lane Bryant, well, fully embraces the plus-size market with their fashionable and intimate clothing lines.
But while those companies are seeing the true beauty in all women and are respecting them for that, Victoria’s Secret is like that immovable stick in the mud. They still profess to be the only arbiter of what makes a woman attractive. But they risk going the way of American Apparel, whose provocative reputation of making sure its employees and models fit a certain questionable “aesthetic” led to its founding executive being sued for sexual misconduct and the company going bankrupt. (Sure, AA is now a more ethical online-only retailer, but the damage was done.)
Simply put, the “entertainment for men” approach Victoria’s Secret appears to take may have been easy to get away with in the Mad Men era. But that was an era from long ago. This is the 21st century, an era when, for the most part, women who may not be slender or cis-gender have earned more respect. And they’re getting that respect from people, companies, retailers, and marketers who see them as human beings and not an old man’s fantasy.
Will Victoria’s Secret learn the errors of its ways and treat its customers and potential models with respect? For its own sake, it had better hope so. Perhaps Ed Razek is realizing this, as he would apologize for his off-putting remarks in that Vogue interview (that he used the word “transgender” and not “transsexual” in that apology was a little bit of a start). Perhaps VS’ new chief executive officer, whomever that CEO may be, will also realize this; the old CEO didn’t, and couldn’t help steer sales the right way before resigning earlier this month. Perhaps the rest of VS’ leadership will also realize that it doesn’t matter whose name it says on the label so long as it makes women feel better about themselves when wearing it.
Unfortunately, any changes will be too late for the 2018 Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. That event has already been staged and recorded, and it will air this weekend on… wait for it… ABC. There’s something ironic about a fashion show that’s pretty much “entertainment for men” airing on a network that’s known for Grey’s Anatomy, Dancing with the Stars, and other programs that embrace a diverse, female-centric audience… programing that is approved by a female executive, who this month succeeded in that role not only another woman but also the first person of color to head programming for a major TV network. (Can you say “diversity”?)
Unfortunately for Victoria’s Secret, I won’t be watching. And not just because it’s still going to be “entertainment for men.” Yes, my eye may have a fondness for flashy clothing (e.g. leather, silk), my fashion sense doesn’t involve showing a lot of skin. As that song lyric from the 80s states, I get my kicks above the waistline, Sunshine.
But to the women who may be watching the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show this Sunday night and are impressed enough by the lingerie on the models… well, I won’t dissuade you from buying that VS bra or panty or whatever Monday. Know, though, that you can feel just as sexy in an evening gown or nightshirt or even business suit. Just as with beauty, sexiness is in the eye of those who wear the clothing, not in the eyes of some septuagenarian male who professes that there’s only one version of “sexy.”