About a month ago, a friend told me she’d had a terrible experience at a nearby Victoria’s Secret. She’s masculine of center — a lesbian — with a short haircut, and more often than not wears clothing from the men’s section. That day, she needed some bras, so she headed to the store internationally known for its undergarments.
“No one asked me if I needed anything or if I needed any help, so I just went into the section I thought would work out,” my friend, Laura Fiorino, told me. “I went and I grabbed a couple sizes and went into the dressing room or the fitting room and the person just kind of looked at me like ‘Can I help you?'”
Fiorino said the Victoria’s Secret employee looked “shocked and surprised.” Once inside a fitting room, she said that the employee came in several times to check on other clients in rooms around her, offering measurements and other sizing and fit options that she never offered to Fiorino.
“She put my name on the door, but never asked if I needed anything, so I had to go out and get another size,” Fiorino said. “I had to go out, get it myself, come back in.”
Frustrated, Fiorino decided to speak with the manager of the location in Los Angeles’s popular Beverly Center shopping mall.
“I said ‘You really need to be more inclusive. People come here – this is LA, all types of people, diversity of background come in here, and you really need to accommodate everyone and not only worry about your femme clientele,'” Fiorino recalled.
But the manager wasn’t very receptive.
“She was just kind of like, ‘That’s really good feedback. Oh, I really appreciate your feedback,’ not really apologetic to the situation at all,” Fiorino said. “I told her ‘I’m actually never coming back here again.'”
This situation is a symptom of a much larger problem, and happened just a few weeks before Ed Razek, chief marketing officer of L Brands, which owns and operates Victoria’s Secret, made headlines for telling Vogue that trans and plus-size models would never be a part of their annually televised runway show.
“If you’re asking if we’ve considered putting a transgender model in the show or looked at putting a plus-size model in the show, we have,” Razek told Vogue. “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.”
He went on to say that people often ask, “‘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.”
Razek’s comments echoed a sentiment long believed true of Victoria’s Secret, but one that hadn’t faced as much public scrutiny until now. While it’s long been known that the retail chain prizes and promotes uber-thin, feminine, mostly white cisgender models, the brand has been able to ignore detractors and continue to profit without much damage to their bottom line. Their recently released third-quarter earnings statement for this year noted that the retail locations alone brought in $1.529 billion, and their holiday-timed annual fashion show airing on ABC this Sunday night will surely bring in more online and in-person sales this holiday season.
As Vogue published in their piece, the 2017 Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show was seen by 1 billion people in 190 countries. Surely trans and plus-size women, as well as others not represented by their selection of models, were part of that viewership, and part of the spending power that has kept Victoria’s Secret in business for so long. But in its 41 years of existence, Victoria’s Secret has never once participated in any LGBTQ initiative — not even during Pride, when brands often make their first attempt at acknowledging the community — and if the brand is adamant about not marketing to LGBTQs, why should we keep buying what they’re selling?
Rob Smith worked as Victoria’s Secret’s executive vice president of merchandising from 2010 until 2012. He now owns The Phluid Project, an all-gender retail and community space in Manhattan, and says that while L Brands offered an LGBTQ Employee Resource Group and extended same-sex partner benefits that pleased the HRC, there was no interest in marketing to the LGBTQ community.
“There’s the internal organization which … certainly checks off all the boxes in order to get a high ranking like LGBT organizations monitor,” Smith told INTO.
Lesbian, gay, and bisexual employees were a part of the larger company based in Columbus, Ohio, but back then, he says, there were no transgender employees, certainly not in any kind of senior-level executive level representation.
“I would say the brand has had tremendous success, and in many ways, the world continues to move forward and I’m not sure that the executives in power embrace the change in the evolution,” Smith said. “And that maybe there’s people talking within the organization but they’re not hearing it.”
There have been attempts at change, though, from the outside. In 2013, GLAAD supported trans model Carmen Carrera’s petition to become their first trans model.
“I want to do this for the 50,000 people who signed the petition on Change.org,” Carrera told Time. “I want to do this for, of course, me and my career. I’m a showgirl at heart. If I’m going to do fashion shows, this is the one to do. And I want to do it for my family. I want them to be proud of me. I want them to be like, that’s our kid, we raised that girl right there. And my community, for sure.”
But after Razek tweeted that Victoria’s Secret “absolutely would cast a transgender model for the show” and that they’ve had “transgender models come to castings,” Carrera wrote an Instagram post saying she doesn’t know “if this is exactly true.”
“In 2016, contact was made and an audition was set up for me and another girl but then I received a call from my agent that my audition was cancelled,” she wrote. “The morning of the audition.”
According to GLAAD’s Chief Communications Officer Rich Ferraro, 2018 was the first time any actual conversation was happening between GLAAD and Victoria’s Secret. But the point of contact was then-CEO Jan Singer, who resigned two weeks ago after two years with the company.
“Earlier this year, GLAAD was in conversation with Victoria’s Secret around a potential series of LGBTQ presentations that would equip corporate and retail staff with ways to be more inclusive of LGBTQ consumers,” Ferraro told INTO. “Those conversations fell apart following the gross comments from CMO Ed Razek and after the CEO Jan Singer – who GLAAD understands to be a supporter of diversity and transgender inclusion – departed. GLAAD was among the voices that slammed Razek’s original comments.”
After Singer’s departure, Ferraro said, Victoria’s Secret stopped responding.
“We reached out after Razek’s comments, but VS did not engage,” Ferraro said. “He then issued the apology that was not well received. We spoke out publicly after it, as did many.”
GLAAD’s work with the brand would have been extensive in its training, Ferraro said. Retail workers and management would be trained on working with LGBTQ employees and customers. Ferraro said it “certainly have included a push to include LGBTQ models in the televised show and to be inclusive across their channels.”
“We tailor presentations based on brands and companies,” he said, noting that GLAAD tweeted in support of trans models after Razek’s Vogue interview.
Interestingly, some of the models who will appear in this year’s Victoria’s Secret Show have been advocates for the community in the past, but seem to be tightlipped about their support now.
Kendall Jenner, whose parent is Caitlyn Jenner, has not made any statements condemning the brand, who also outfitted Kendall and her sisters as Victoria’s Secret angels in elaborate Halloween sponsored content. The day of the Vogue piece, Jenner posted an Instagram story with the image of a button reading “Celebrate trans women.” Stella Maxwell, who doesn’t speak publicly about her sexual identity but is in a high-profile relationship with out actress Kristen Stewart, did not respond to requests for comment and has not made any statements to the press. Josephine Skriver, who refers to herself as a “proud rainbow kid” and often advocates for LGBTQs as the product of a gay father and lesbian mother, was also unavailable, and while she didn’t post anything related to Razek’s Vogue interview, she did thank him by name in two Instagram posts.
Bisexual pop stars Halsey and Rita Ora both perform on this year’s show, as does Shawn Mendes, whose producer, Teddy Geiger, came out as trans last year. None of them have reacted to Razek’s comments, but continue to publicize the show.
One trans woman who has been a longtime VS fan is Laverne Cox. Cox, who tweeted about watching the show in 2011, will likely appear in audience shots, as she attended this year’s taping, sharing Instagram photos and video from the carpet and inside. Cox’s reps also said she was unavailable for comment, and while she hasn’t spoken out directly against Victoria’s Secret, she did share some Instagram posts supporting trans models more generally.
“I think they could empower their models to speak,” Smith said. “The thing is, you can’t monitor the things they say and don’t say but I’m sure if you let these women speak out, they’re going to have a much more progressive posture than Victoria’s Secret as a brand does. They are Gen Z, you know? They are reflective of the shifting worldviews. I’m sure their own personal views are, I would guess, possibly more progressive than Victoria’s Secret’s, and they can leverage that.”
That said, Smith thinks they are encouraged not to say anything that would take away from the spectacle of the show.
“If their conversation and their points of view become bigger than the show then I think they feel like they’ve lost the show, which is, in their mind, aspirational fantasy,” he said.
But whose fantasy, and based on whose ideals?
“Many people think it’s cisgender straight guys watching the shows,” Smith said. “It’s women who are watching it, and it’s their idea of beauty, so I think society’s got to step back and say ‘What are we doing by supporting this?’ This idea of beauty that looks almost like it’s aspirational, but it’s unrealistic and I think you know what I love about Instagram and the new faces of beauty, and even I don’t like the word beauty but the new faces are so reflective of the spectrum of who we are, in gender, race, size, and socioeconomic status.”
In the last year, despite making more than one billion dollars in one single quarter, Victoria’s Secret has been in a decline. Sales are slumping and select locations are closing, which some perceive to be based on the more inclusive lines from competitors like Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty and Third Love.
Perhaps it’s time for something new — a new aspirational fantasy. What would Victoria’s Secret stand to lose by becoming a brand less about unrealistic ideas of fantasy and instead, a brand that provides more room at the proverbial bedside table?
“There’s a certain point where you see just at the table with traditional straight older white guys, you’re not going to move very far,” Smith said. “You’re not going to move the company as far as it should be moved or it could be moved.”
With Razek at the helm and Singer’s exit as CEO, however, it doesn’t appear the company is moving toward a more inclusive future. Instead, it seems to be continuing down an outdated path of perceived fantastical perfection based on highly-specific body parts fitting into extremely limited sizing. And should customers not reflect who Razek believes the brand is marketing to, then their customer service will continue to turn people off and away to other brands looking to offer alternatives.
“I think it’s such a great opportunity to take something that is so ingrained in our society; it’s something that we celebrate, and it seems completely dated so it’s not just a reflection of Victoria’s Secret, it’s a reflection of us as a society and how we see beauty and how we see women,” Smith said. “If we step back and look at ourselves and say what are we doing to young women by saying ‘this is beauty’ and not being inclusive with non-binary, trans, queer women?”
Smith thinks it could be ultimately helpful for Victoria’s Secret to use this opportunity to shake things up, and to be more progressive, if even for their own benefit.
“I think that’s what companies have to face now. They have to face the risk versus relevance and I think the best example is Nike, who stuck their neck out with Colin Kaepernick. And there’s a lot of people who thought they would suffer, their stock would suffer, their sale would suffer, and the opposite happened, you know? Completely opposite,” Smith said. “They were celebrated and awarded both within their stock value and their sales and customer loyalty. So I would say sure, they’re going to lose some people, possibly, but in order to stay relevant with this younger generation, it’s expected. You know, if they don’t do it, somebody else will, and they’ll lose market share.”
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