Victoria’s Secret History

‘Angels and Demons’ documentary exposes dark underbelly of the once-iconic lingerie brand

On July 14, Hulu premiered Victoria’s Secret: Angels and Demons, a three-part documentary series about the famous lingerie brand and its legendary CEO, Les Wexner. The Victoria’s Secret fashion show used to be a huge prime time television event. Everyone, even kids, had at least heard of the brand, even if they really didn’t get the appeal. Its influence in using sex as a selling point seeped out too, a cultural development Victoria’s Secret very much spearheaded.

That’s getting a bit ahead of the documentary’s mostly chronological order, though. Before Victoria’s Secret was famous, it was just an ’80s-era mail order catalog that targeted men too embarrassed to shop for lingerie in an actual store. Victoria’s Secret changed a lot when Les Wexner took over and marketed more directly to women. Wexner believed, quite reasonably really, that since women have to wear underwear all the time, they would want to wear underwear that’s comfortable. “Victoria” herself became this refined, aspirational character, a married Englishwoman in her 30s who exuded elegance and grace.

Path to success

The transitions in Victoria’s Secret: Angels and Demons are so subtle it’s a bit of a surprise when the ‘90s hit. Victoria’s Secret had moved further away from the mail-order catalog business model and closer to becoming a dominant pillar of American malls. To better attract the attention of mall shoppers, Wexner and his upper management crew, which included quite a few women, came up with newer and better novelties.

The escalations continued to the point that by the time the Internet started to be a thing, Victoria’s Secret openly appealed to American men via its famed Super Bowl ad that (very briefly) crashed its own website in the process. The Victoria’s Secret fashion show introduced Angels, referred to as such because of the wings on their costumes. This had no relevance to the quality of the product. But the move greatly enhanced the prestige of the show in fashion circles. Working as a Victoria’s Secret model went from being a high-paid terminal career choice to a great way for a young model to improve her profile.

The dark side

So what are the Demons? Let’s start with the big one — Jeffrey Epstein. When Wexner hit the big time in New York City, he was just some Jewish guy from Ohio who didn’t know anybody. Epstein, by contrast, was a Jewish guy who knew all the right people. The most charitable possible explanation for why Wexner was willing to tolerate Epstein’s presence for so long, basically acting as his personal attorney, is that Wexner was thinking back to the days when he didn’t know anybody and Epstein really helped him out. So Wexner was in denial about the awful things Epstein did, including getting aspiring models into hotel rooms under the pretext of a job interview for Victoria’s Secret and then molesting them.

That’s the charitable explanation, mind you. Victoria’s Secret: Angels and Demons tries to be objective, but there really just isn’t any reconciling the fact that Wexner was such a brilliant businessman with the idea that he couldn’t possibly know what Epstein was up to. That’s never minding the creepy stuff Wexner did on his own, including making his own weird, WASP-aspirational fantasy gated community in Columbus, Ohio, with Epstein living in a guest house behind Wexner’s own gate.

Selling sex

Weirdly enough, as Wexner’s own personal life takes a turn for the gross, we also get the sense that he’s less involved with Victoria’s Secret. While Victoria’s Secret earned its reputation as a major brand through innovative fast fashion, as the 20th century goes on and the Internet transformed into the entity we better know it as today, Victoria’s Secret doesn’t adjust. Like, at all. Flash forward to 2018, and Ed Razek, the marketing director in charge of Victoria’s Secret and its adjacent brands, gives a uniquely terrible interview to Vogue, basically saying that the company is completely based on nostalgia for the brand’s existing pop-culture image. Models must continue to be skinny, cisgender, and airbrushed to perfection.

It comes as little surprise that Razek himself is also implicated in sex pestery. But it’s hard to argue that Victoria’s Secret was ever really a morally defensible company pre-Epstein, just because it had more women in prominent leadership roles. Victoria’s Secret: Angels and Demons sidesteps the issue of the company’s moral culpability in promoting publicly sexualized images by acting as if it wasn’t until the age of Instagram that anyone complained about just how toxic these images were, promoting body dysphoria among a whole generation.

A sobering finale

This is especially true since Victoria’s Secret: Angels and Demons acknowledges at the end how social media isn’t necessarily free of promoting such pernicious influences. Be that as it may, looking at the sheer breadth of the material assembled in the documentary, there’s no denying that our culture is almost certainly far better off now with the brand’s decreased importance. Yet in a late moment that’s more than a bit unsettling, Wexner somehow seems to have far more power and influence now than he did a few decades ago.

Populists on the left and right alike can find plenty to loathe. Don’t forget that Bill Clinton and Donald Trump were both big Epstein boosters. Victoria’s Secret: Angels and Demons makes a point of mentioning both whenever mentioning one to emphasize the widespread bipartisan acceptance of every single gross aspect of the Victoria’s Secret empire.

Ultimately, Victoria’s Secret: Angels and Demons isn’t on anyone’s side. And Wexner looks even worse because he doesn’t appear onscreen to defend himself, forcing the documentary to rely on canned, unconvincing excuses from his lawyers instead.

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William Schwartz

William Schwartz is a reporter and film critic based in Seoul, South Korea. He writes primarily for HanCinema, the world's largest and most popular English language database for South Korean television dramas and films.

One thought on “Victoria’s Secret History

  • July 19, 2022 at 1:14 pm
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    Bill Clinton was not an Epstein booster. Epstein borrowed Bill his jets after Bill left the WH with enormous debt because of Gingrich. Epstein used his connections with the elite from NYC to later discredit the allegations. Bothsidesism sucks.

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