The big broadcast bacchanal that was the annual Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show may be no more, at least as we’ve known it for about 20 years now. On the heels of controversy, intense criticism, troubled sales, and sinking ratings, Les Wexner, CEO of the brand’s parent company, L Brands, has informed employees that it’s totally “rethinking” the event in a memo obtained by CNBC.
“Fashion is a business of change. We must evolve and change to grow,” wrote Wexner. “With that in mind, we have decided to rethink the traditional Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. Going forward we don’t believe network television is the right fit. In 2019 and beyond, we’re focusing on developing exciting and dynamic content and a new kind of event—delivered to our customers on platforms that she’s glued to … and in ways that will push the boundaries of fashion in the global digital age. I’ve never been more excited about the power of this brand and where it’s going … John and team are re-birthing the brand.”
The 2018 rendition of the event was rankled by controversy after L Brands’ CEO, Ed Razek, gave a clumsy interview to Vogue in which he explained why the company hadn’t employed plus-size or transgender models. “Because the show is a fantasy,” he said about the exclusionary casting. “It’s a 42-minute entertainment special. That’s what it is. It is the only one of its kind in the world, and any other fashion brand in the world would take it in a minute, including the competitors that are carping at us. And they carp at us because we’re the leader.”
As it turns out, now not even VS itself wants to continue the tradition, let alone other brands, and Razek ended up apologizing.
The latest show, filmed in New York and featuring musical performances by Shawn Mendes (who, incidentally, is getting more attention for some underwear modeling of his own for a competing brand), Rita Ora, and others, was only watched by 3.27 million people, down a whopping a 1.5 million from the previous year, and marking a historic low.
The event actually started out back in 1995 as a relatively humble fashion show (by fashion show standards, anyway) held at the Plaza Hotel during New York Fashion Week, and wasn’t broadcast anywhere. In 1999 the brand broadcast the event online for two years before turning it into a more lavish televised event in 2001 (it was watched then by 12.4 million people). Since then, the brand took the event around the globe, holding the VS fashion show in Paris, London, Miami, Los Angeles, and Shanghai, and adding more and more musical performances.
Despite the added pizzazz, in recent years the brand has not only faced lower ratings for its signature event, but slumping business overall. Shares for L Brands are down 24 percent over the past 12 months.
At the same time, brands that put more of an emphasis on either inclusivity, practicality, or both have increased in popularity. That includes Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty, American Eagle’s Aerie, and ThirdLove. But Victoria’s Secret’s dominance isn’t being threatened just yet. It’s still the market leader, just less so than it may have been a few years ago.
The news also comes as VS has made notable leadership changes over the past year, including naming John Mehas as the brand’s new CEO in November.
Today’s announcement may be more about a changing media landscape than it is about changing VS’s image. After all, new Angels have been named since the last show, and none of those models represents a dramatic new direction for the brand.
Wexner’s line about focusing on “platforms that [our customer is] glued to” likely indicates a shift toward social media and online video. Whether that means some sort of YouTube special or a shift towards Instagram-first media remains to be seen, but after 17 years on broadcast television, the annual fashion show (or whatever turns out to be its successor) looks like it’s returning to its webcast roots.