(CNN) — The cultural phenomenon that was Victoria’s Secret before 2020, with its televised lingerie runways and lewd TV ads, can sometimes be hard to fathom in a post-#MeToo world.
What was once a multimillion-dollar fantasy of womanhood—exclusively made up of slim, athletic models in lace-trimmed thongs or diamond push-up bras, each framed by a pair of 12-foot-tall angel wings— It quickly became such a clumsy spoof that it’s hard to imagine it was ever taken seriously. But “Victoria’s Secret: Angels and Demons“, a new Hulu documentary premiering today, explores exactly why and how it happened.
Directed by Matt Tyrnauer, the three-part series traces the rise and fall of one of the most successful retail companies in America and around the world, mapping the social context that allowed the brand to thrive and the cultural shift that put it on knees.
“Sex as a form of female empowerment was something that was explored in the most popular narratives of the time,” Tyrnauer said in a telephone interview. “Then Victoria’s Secret, as we once knew it, got caught up in this cultural earthquake and basically drowned in the tsunami. That doesn’t happen too often, which I think made it worth watching.”
During the late 1990s and early 1990s, Victoria’s Secret rode a wave of sexuality-as-empowerment feminism endorsed by a variety of media, from “Sex and the City” to Calvin Klein’s seminal campaign. from 1995, featuring Mark Wahlberg and Kate Moss scantily clad.
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 didn’t think “transgender” 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 catwalk, sparked public outrage and a riot from models. But there is more to the story than a bad internal culture and outdated leaders.
“Angels and Demons” recounts a series of blunders that ultimately led the company to do the math, including Victoria’s Secret’s foray into the juniors market through its brand for tween girls, Pink. Using the same hypersexual approach that had helped build its women’s brand, Victoria’s Secret began including Pink segments in its main show, with models in their 20s dressed in erotic schoolgirl or candy attire as they walked runways littered with lollipops larger than life. life and toys for children.
“It seems so bad in hindsight and yet he just went on his merry way,” Tyrnauer said.
Even teen heartthrob Justin Bieber, who was 18 at the time and had already racked up two platinum sales, was booked to perform on the runway, cementing the appeal to underage viewers. “My sister’s kids were very excited,” said former Pink model Dorothea Barth Jörgensen, who walked with Bieber in 2012, in the documentary. “And they were 10 and 12 years old 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, models who once represented the brand. Many reflected on the company having an influence on women that propagated unrealistic body standards, as well as a rampant retouching culture that meant even Angels struggled to keep up the fantasy.
Tyrnauer paints a picture of misogyny and sexual misconduct throughout the company; Former executive Sharleen Ernest recalled Victoria’s Secret’s seemingly impenetrable wall of male leaders, including Razek and chairman and former CEO Les Wexner, who she said were known to shut down any attempts to flesh out the brand’s narrow definition of sexy. and explicitly prohibited expansion into maternity or shapewear.
“We were just following this bombshell, a unique and unattainable view of how men view 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 indicted in 2019 for sex trafficking underage girls. .
According to the documentary, Epstein had been a close business associate and personal friend of Wexner and allegedly used brand cache to meet young women under the false pretense of recruiting them for shows and campaigns. The series includes an interview with Alicia Arden, a woman who said that she believed she was interviewing for a job as a model for the Victoria’s Secret catalog in 1997, but that Epstein attacked her in a hotel in California.
Wexner’s attorney issued a statement to the filmmakers saying Wexner “confronted Epstein and it was clear that it was a violation of company policy for him to suggest that he was in any way associated with Victoria’s Secret and that Epstein was barred from returning.” To do it”.
A “collective” renaissance
It is a story that is far from over. In 2020, Wexner resigned and also sold his majority stake in the company. A year later, Victoria’s Secret announced its complete rebranding, as a new inclusive “VS Collective” led by women like Megan Rapinoe, Eileen Gu and Paloma Elsesser. The documentary explores how these efforts can bring about change.
Tyrnauer was granted access to old internal marketing messages as well as emails from the new team leading the rebranding. “The new company seems to be working in the opposite direction of the old Victoria’s Secret,” he said. “They gave us unprecedented access to their file.”
“It’s not my place to be optimistic for them,” Tyrnauer said, “but coming forward 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 navigating the zeitgeist.” and exploiting major cultural trends to make billions of dollars over so many years.”