The Victoria's Secret fashion show is coming back. Does Gen Z care?
Swarovski crystal-covered angel wings, sky-high stilettos and million-dollar fantasy bras: The Victoria's Secret fashion show is making a return to the runway for the first time since 2018.
During its 2022 earnings call on March 3, Victoria's Secret CFO Timothy Johnson said the brand plans "to support the new version of our fashion show, which is to come later this year."
In a statement sent to Yahoo Life, Victoria's Secret said it plans to explore "new spaces like reclaiming one of our best marketing and entertainment properties to date and turning it on its head to reflect who we are today."
The show, which was once a fashion industry darling, exited stage left in 2019 amid record-low viewership, growing demands for size and casting inclusivity from consumers and accusations of sexual assault within Victoria's Secret and its parent company, L Brands, during the height of the #MeToo movement.
Following the cancellation of the show, the brand introduced a series of initiatives aimed at promoting inclusion, including getting rid of their "Angels" in favor of more diverse representatives.
But with its return, many Gen Z consumers who grew up idolizing famed Angels such as Gisele Bündchen, Tyra Banks and Adriana Lima, aren't sure the show's revival will be able to recreate the sexy ethos that launched it into popularity.
In a 2018 interview with Vogue, L Brands' then-chief marketing officer Edward Razek, who developed the show, said the brand "attempted to do a television special for plus-sizes [in 2000]. No one had any interest in it, still don't." He also told the publication that the brand didn't find it necessary to include transgender models because the show "is a fantasy."
The show was scrapped the following year. L Brands CFO Stuart Burgdoerfer explained that the cancellation was part of efforts to "evolve the marketing" of the brand in a Q3 earnings call in 2019.
While the show was on hiatus, the brand embarked on several endeavors to appear more inclusive. In June 2021, Victoria's Secret launched the VS Collective, a move designed to "shape the future" of the brand and demonstrate its commitment to inclusivity. The cohort included models Adut Akech, Paloma Elsesser and Valentina Sampaio, as well as athletes like skier Eileen Gu and soccer star Megan Rapinoe.
Inclusion…but make it sexy
But for some consumers under 30, Victoria's Secret's attempts at an overhaul have come with the erasure of the sexiness that made the brand so popular.
"They lost the core of what made Victoria's Secret Victoria's Secret. It was like they missed the point," Justina Sharp, a 25-year-old Gen Z content creator, tells Yahoo Life. "We still wanted the sexy fun. We just wanted it to fit and accommodate everyone."
Where Victoria's Secret went wrong, Sharp explained, was its rebrand that conflated inclusion with blandness.
"If I wanted a beige bra and underwear set, I would just buy it at Target for like $15," she said.
As the brand incorporated more diverse bodies in its campaigns, some shoppers noticed a more subdued aesthetic of its lingerie as well, a far cry from the glitz and glamour consumers long associated with the company.
For many young women now entering their late teens and early twenties, the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show was a household tradition. "My mom and I would watch it together with popcorn like it was something I could not miss on television," says Sharp. "I always thought that it was just such a beautiful spectacle. I remember when they put the fantasy bra on Candace [Swanepoel], and it was like dripping in jewels. I can still conjure up that image now, even ten years later."
With this came a fantasy that many were eager to buy into.
"The [models] are why I wanted to shop at Victoria's Secret for my bra instead of Lane Bryant with my grandmother," says Paige Scavella, a 19-year-old sophomore at Hampton University. "It was huge. Like just seeing those models up there walking. I don't think there's one girl I can remember in high school that wasn't talking about it later."
Whlie the brand's lack of size diversity on the catwalk didn't fully register until years later, the show's effects on body image were omnipresent.
"[My friends would say] 'Oh, I wish I could walk up there.' 'Oh, I wish I was 5'10", or this many pounds, or just as skinny as them.' Like it was huge for the beauty standard that it set for me, especially in my middle school years," Scavella says.
As to be expected, young girls idealizing women who have admitted to going to extreme lengths to get their bodies runway ready spurred a host of problematic tropes that have only been revealed with time.
"I loved the show, but I was also 14. And now I'm an adult, who understands not just what that show represented, but the things that those models were put through in order to make it there. I understand the damage that the show and the brand did to other women in my generation. I understand that people felt excluded. All those things that you don't know when you're 14," explains Sharp.
Sharp also says that as a thin woman, she may have been even more naive to some of the ways in which the show was exclusionary. On the other hand, Scavella says she felt the impact from a young age.
"Being more of a plus-size girl throughout all my years of middle school and early on in high school, I looked at these Victoria's Secret models, like they were 'Angels.' They looked beautiful, they were tall, the way that their body was proportioned it really did have an effect on my mindset and how I saw my body when I was younger," says Scavella.
She wasn't alone. And in fact, this lack of representation led some to stop shopping at Victoria's Secret.
"I don't want to watch a brand that's not including what I like. I would rather watch and support brands that cater to what I like," Sandra Damian, a millennial content creator who grew up watching the fashion show, tells Yahoo Life.
Damian, who, as a millennial, says the show served as the epitome of fantasy as a 10-year-old, once felt a special attachment to the brand that has seemed to wane among a younger generation. And now, at 29, she is not as enthralled by a runway that strategically excluded people who look like her.
Seeing yourself as sexy
The brand's hesitancy towards casting a more diverse lineup for its runway show alone is not the only reason some young people say Victoria's Secret has a lost its footing as a legacy brand. Competitor brands that nailed the intersections of inclusion, comfort and sex appeal put Victoria's Secret in a tight spot that many never saw coming.
"I always thought [Victoria's Secret] would be something that would be a pivotal part of my life because they had the first bras that weren't from Target or Walmart that I was ever introduced to. So I thought that it would be around forever but it just slowly faded away. I forgot about them," says Scavella.
Other Gen Z-ers are growing up with options that make diversity part of its appeal, such as Rihanna's Savage X Fenty, which found a way to mesh an inclusive ethos with the sexiness people look for in a lingerie brand.
"When you have a brand like Rihanna's that's also having a fashion show, where there's such a big and obvious difference in how certain women with certain body types are represented and treated I feel like the heat is definitely on," says Aaryn Paschal, a 19-year-old English marketing major at Hampton University.
Since its first show in 2019, the Savage X Fenty runway has filled a void that Victoria's Secret left, casting famous faces that include Lizzo and former Victoria's Secret Angel Adriana Lima.
"With brands that promoted size inclusivity, like Savage X Fenty ... I saw more of me. And I just kind of wasn't thinking about the Angels that I used to aspire to be, since I'm seeing girls that look like me but still have that sex appeal," says Scavella.
However, size and racial inclusivity are not the only areas of diversity Victoria's Secret fell behind in, explains 26-year-old model Lyric Heard, who grew up dreaming of one day walking the Victoria's Secret runway.
"I used to say this thing like, 'Oh, I'd be the exception,'" says Heard, who has a limb difference. "I do not say that anymore. That was like a young brain thing. Because for me to be the exception means that it's still not accepted."
Heard has modeled for both Savage X Fenty and Kim Kardashian's SKIMS, two brands that have developed followings with young consumers. Still, she says the modeling industry has a long ways to go toward equitable inclusion.
"With limb difference, I cannot name a single company who really has it down on representation for us. I think we always somehow get left out," says Heard.
While she agrees there should be more diversity on set, she is weary of tokenism and disingenuous attempts at diversity.
"I want to see multiple women who deserve to be there because of their skill and their talent. And not just because, you know, you want them for a big show," Heard says.
So will Gen Z be tuning in?
With so many alternatives, many Gen Z-ers are simply indifferent about the brand's return.
"I'm pretty neutral about it. My friends are pretty neutral about it. I think we'll definitely tune in to what people have to say and maybe watch some clips," says Paschal.
Others believe the show will be a make-or-break moment for Victoria's Secret to show it is moving with intention and not just hopping on a trend.
"I think it has a chance to come back and it all depends on the brand. Like I remember during this Black Friday, I still went into Victoria's Secret. It's not like they're completely irrelevant. Everybody still loves the seven for $27 deal for the underwear. So I think they do have a chance depending on how they play their cards this go round," says Scavella.
For others, the nostalgia of that iconic runway will likely never wane, but now they'll be watching with an informed perspective and critical eye.
"The 14-year-old in me is excited to see another fantasy bra go down the runway. 25-year-old me is curious to see who they'll put it on," says Sharp.
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