Certainly the lingerie goliath’s foothold on its intended demographic is slipping. According to YouGov’s BrandIndex, which measures public perception of corporations, Victoria’s Secret’s “buzziness” with women aged between 18 to 49 has toppled from a score of 31 in early 2016 to 23 this past April. Fewer of those same women also reported buying from Victoria’s Secret now than they did five years ago.
Neither of those revelations should come as a surprise. In its latest financial results, L Brands, which operates Victoria’s Secret, Bath & Body Works and Henri Bendel, recorded a first-quarter profit of $47.5 million, or a little over half of the $94.1 million it earned in the same period a year ago.
The ailing performance led Loop Capital analyst Laura Champine to write in a note to investors last month that Victoria’s Secret “is turning into the Sears of brassieres.”
Victoria’s Secret did not respond to requests for comment.
It’s easy to draw a line between Victoria’s Secret’s floundering fortunes and the rise of the #MeToo movement. What began as a vehicle for women to commiserate about sexual misconduct has brought powerful alleged serial abusers to their knees. #MeToo has become a rallying cry, a call for greater accountability and a repudiation of the culture of secrecy and shame that has allowed gender inequality to flourish in the workplace.
It was probably no coincidence that when Victoria’s Secret aired its annual fashion show at the height of the Harvey Weinstein scandal in November, ratings sank by 30 percent, “hitting a new low for the broadcast,” as YouGov’s Paul Hiebert put it.
Victoria’s Secret, with its aggressively airbrushed bombshells (look, Ma, no armpits!) and their lusty come-hither looks, seems almost retrograde at best, anti-feminist at worst. Just who are these soft-focus, soft-core fantasies targeting? Not the average woman, surely.
“The #MeToo movement has profoundly impacted the culture with the result that the tide has turned against such flagrantly sexist, oversexualized brands like Victoria’s Secret,” said Pamela Danziger, principal at Unity Marketing. “Bras—breasts—are the ultimate symbol of a woman’s femininity, and Victoria’s Secret bras are the idolized, even fetishized, male version of that.”
But while the public reckoning may have sealed the underwear purveyor’s demise, Victoria’s Secret was already losing market share because of shifting social trends, such as the waning popularity of its stock in trade: the push-up bra.
An increase in active lifestyles, in particular, has seen consumers move away from the “bust-emphasizing bra styles so popular in the ‘90s, primarily the push-up,” according to Katie Smith, director of analysis and insights at the retail-technology firm Edited.
By late 2016, the push-up more or less “flatlined,” replaced by sports bras and triangle bralettes. “Comfort and functionality [are] winning out right now,” Smith wrote in a report in March.
There have been other missteps on Victoria’s Secret’s part, critics say—its reluctance to stock plus sizes, for instance, as well as its policy of charging more for larger cup sizes. For the 67 percent of American women who wear a size 14 or higher, the overall vibe can be chilly. It might even feel like a “fat tax” or a form of discrimination.
“This is the message. You’re less welcome here, you’re kind of a hassle, so we’ll take more money from you if you want to attempt to look as smoldering as our standard sizes,” Ashley Hoffman at Stylelite once wrote. “They’re a bunch of self-esteem pickpockets.”
Empowerment is the new sexy
Victoria’s Secret may have been one of a handful of options for women in the past, but a new spate of lingerie startups have emerged on the scene with a dramatically different narrative. Rather than gratify the male gaze, up-and-comers like Everlane, ThirdLove, Lively, Aerie by American Eagle, True & Co. and Adore Me are turning comfort, empowerment and body inclusivity into the new sexy.
“I can’t think of anything more ‘empowering’ for a woman than to be comfortable by having a bra that fits,” Danziger said.
ThirdLove, the direct-to-consumer brand known for its half-cup sizes, recently expanded its offerings to 70 sizes—more than double the industry standard of 30. Its campaign imagery features women of diverse ethnicities and body types, posed in stances that read as cooly confident rather than femme fatale.
“Without expansive sizes you really can’t serve the vast majority of women,” said Heidi Zak, co-founder and co-CEO at ThirdLove.
Zak recounted a story of an 80-year-old customer who delighted in having a bra that “finally fit” after wrestling with the wrong size for more than 60 years. ThirdLove’s underpinnings, the woman said, were a revelation.
“I think a lot of women really feel that way,” Zak said, echoing some of the sentiments from #MeToo. “What we’ve done and what we’ve been trained to do is sort of settle. I think every woman has a bra story, every woman has fit issues and we’ve all sort of said, ‘OK, well, that’s just how it is. I’ll just settle for whatever is the best I can do.’”
A size is a size
Even though larger cup sizes can cost as much as 45 percent more to make, Zak is adamant about charging one flat price for every size in a style. Neither does ThirdLove label these sizes “plus.”
“A size is a size,” she said. “It’s really about having as many sizes as we can for all women, so inherently it didn’t feel like the right decision to charge a different amount of money for a different size.”
Like women’s wear designer Christian Siriano, who said he tripled his business by including plus sizes, ThirdLove has found that catering to all women can indeed be profitable. Although Zak declined to share specific numbers, she allowed that ThirdLove has more than doubled its size this past year, “so [we’re] growing incredibly quickly.”
Adore Me, based in New York, has found similar success simply by paying attention to its clientele’s desires. Besides offering a wider range of sizes, from 30A to 46H, the retailer has also delved into swimwear, a category it was at first wary of after Victoria’s Secret dropped it in 2016.
“[Victoria’s Secret] couldn’t serve the customers in that space but it’s one of our most successful categories right now,” said Iris Voltaire, Adore Me’s business and brand development analyst, before noting that the brand made $100 million in sales in 2017. “It’s interesting how you can do it differently.”
Adore Me is even expanding into the brick-and-mortar space—because its customers demanded it. It opened its first physical store in Staten Island this month, complete with a bar where you can pick up a drink or deposit a partner.
“What we’re looking for now is more international expansion, so taking our product and opening Adore Me to more parts of the world,” Voltaire said. “We should be growing a lot within the next five years.”
If #MeToo has taught us anything, it’s that women want to be heard. And it’s about time that brands listened.