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

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Written by Lea Dolan, CNN

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The cultural phenomenon that Victoria’s Secret was before 2020, with its televised lingerie shows and salacious TV commercials, can sometimes be hard to comprehend in a post-#MeToo world. What was once a multi-million dollar femininity fantasy – exclusively slender, athletic models wearing lace-embellished thongs or rhinestone push-up bras, each framed by a pair of 12-inch angel wings feet tall – quickly became such an awkward travesty that it’s hard to imagine it was ever taken seriously. But “Victoria’s Secret: Angels and Demons,” a new Hulu documentary released today, explores 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 retail companies in the United States and around the world, describing the social context that allowed the brand to thrive – and the cultural shift that brought it to its knees.

“Sex as a form of female empowerment was something that was explored in the most popular narratives at the time,” Tyrnauer said in a phone interview. “Then Victoria’s Secret, as we once knew it, got caught up in this cultural earthquake and drowned in the tsunami. It doesn’t happen too often, which I think was worth looking into. .”

The documentary uncovers disturbing links between Victoria’s Secret and Jeffrey Epstein. Credit: Hulu

In the late 1990s and early 1990s, Victoria’s Secret rode a wave of feminism of sexuality as empowerment endorsed by a range of media – from ‘Sex and the City’ to Calvin’s flagship campaign Klein in 1995, passing scantily clad Mark Wahlberg and Kate Moss. .

But the megabrand’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 doesn’t believe the ” transsexuals” belonged to the catwalks of the brand “because the show is a fantasy.” The explosive interview, in which Razek also said there was no public interest in a plus-size Victoria’s Secret fashion show, sparked public outrage and models’ mutiny. But there’s more to the story than a bad internal culture and old-fashioned leaders.

cultural earthquake

“Angels and Demons” chronicles a series of mistakes that ultimately led to corporate judgment, including Victoria’s Secret foray into the junior market via its tween brand, Pink. Using the same hypersexual approach that had helped build its women’s brand, Victoria’s Secret began including pink segments on its main show, featuring models in their twenties wearing erotic schoolgirl outfits or on the candy theme as they paraded down catwalks strewn with larger-than-life lollipops and children’s toys.

“It looks so bad when you look back, and yet he kind of just went on his merry way,” Tyrnauer said.

An image from one of the brand's Pink catwalks aimed at the junior market.

An image from one of the brand’s Pink catwalks aimed at the junior market. Credit: Hulu

Even teen idol Justin Bieber, who was 18 at the time and had already racked up two platinum-selling albums, was hired to perform on the track – bolstering the appeal for 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 mark.”

The documentary includes interviews with former employees and executives, including two former CEOs, as well as casting directors and former angels – role models who once represented the brand. Many pondered that the company had a proto-Instagram influence on women that propagated unrealistic body standards, as well as a creeping culture of retouching that meant even elated angels struggled to maintain the fantasy.

Tyrnauer paints a picture of corporate-wide misogyny and sexual misconduct; former executive Sharleen Ernest recalled the seemingly impenetrable wall of male executives at Victoria’s Secret, including Razek and chairman and former CEO Les Wexner, who she said were known to have shut down any attempt to develop the definition narrow the mark of sexy and explicitly prohibits expansion into maternity or shapewear.

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

Chairman and former CEO Les Wexner stepped down from the brand in 2020. Credit: Hulu

“We were just following this explosive, unattainable, unique view of how men see women,” Ernest said in the documentary.

Along with 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 in 2019 of sex trafficking underage girls. According to the documentary, Epstein had been a close business partner and personal friend of Wexner and allegedly used the brand cache to meet young women under the false pretense of recruiting for shows and campaigns. The series includes an interview with Alicia Arden, a woman who said she believed she was interviewing for a Victoria’s Secret catalog modeling job in 1997, but was assaulted by Epstein at a hotel in California.

Wexner’s attorney issued a statement to the filmmakers saying Wexner “confronted Epstein and was clear that it was a violation of company policy for him to suggest he was in any way associated with Victoria’s Secret and that Epstein was forbidden from doing 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. Credit: Hulu

A “collective” renaissance

It is a story that is far from over. In 2020, Wexner stepped down, also selling his majority stake in the company. A year later, Victoria’s Secret announced its full name change – as a new, inclusive “VS Collective” led by women like Megan Rapinoe, Eileen Gu and Paloma Elsesser. “Angels and Demons” explores whether these efforts can trigger a turnaround.

Tyrnauer was given access to old internal marketing email as well as emails from the new rebranding team. “The new company seems to be working as far as the old Victoria’s Secret,” he said. “They gave us unprecedented access to their archives.”

“It’s not for me to be optimistic about them,” Tyrnauer said, “but showing up as a newborn is also an interesting part of the story. The interesting part is how late they came. , because they had been so brilliant at riding the zeitgeist and harnessing major cultural trends to make billions of dollars for so many years.”

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