The decline and subsequent transformation of Victoria’s Secret has been well documented by a range of media outlets in recent years.
Matt Tyrnauer’s highly anticipated docuseries titled Victoria’s Secret: Angels and Demons — which premieres July 14 on Hulu — is no different, chronicling, among other things, the “mysterious relationship” between Leslie H. Wexner, the former’s founder parent company L Brands, on financier and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein; The corporate culture of Victoria’s Secret and the forces that allowed the retailer to carve out (and then lose part of) such a large chunk of the US lingerie market in the wake of a massive cultural shift.
Pink branded marketing materials from Victoria’s Secret as seen in the Hulu documentary. Courtesy of Photo Hulu
What the Hulu series will effectively do is spread the story across the streaming platform, while director Tyrnauer – whose other films include “Valentino: The Last Emperor” and “Studio 54” – explore a number of overarching themes about power examines influence and the role that fashion plays in our everyday lives.
“It’s a very complex story that’s not just about fashion, it’s about the world of power and influence and what I like to call the fashion industrial complex,” Tyrnauer told WWD. “It’s about the design era: the world of design and marketing, fast fashion, but also the people behind it and the power and influence they wielded. So it’s a story about fashion, power, influence and that [company’s] Culture. Since a lot of my films are about power and influence in the way certain people manipulate the different power structures, that got interesting to me.”
Retail veteran Leslie Wexner is the founder of former Victoria’s Secret parent companies Limited Brands and later L Brands. Courtesy of Photo Hulu
The three-part series, through numerous interviews, gives viewers what the director calls “a glimpse into a secret world… and the nature of the fractured culture within the brand.” The list includes ex-Victoria’s Secret models such as ’80s supermodel Frederique van der Wal, aka Frederique, one of the original Angels; Lyndsey Scott and Dorothea Barth-Jorgensen, former runway model of Victoria’s Secret sister brand Pink; as well as old Angels interview and marketing footage, including a much younger Naomi Campbell speaking to the camera.
“I told my modeling agency to call Victoria’s Secret because they’re promoting girls,” Campbell says in the clip.
The documentaries also include Limited Brands internal videos (Limited Brands was owned by Victoria’s Secret before it was spun off into L Brands, and then later Victoria’s Secret & Co.), such as a 2008 video in which Wexner said, “To start a brand is to make a movie,” and goes into the complicated relationship Wexner had with his parents and with Epstein, and how that helped shape the retail mogul that dominated the industry for decades.
Vintage photos of Leslie Wexner as seen in the Hulu docuseries about Victoria’s Secret. Courtesy photo
Wexner declined an interview for the film, but answered written questions through a voice actor, according to Tyrnauer. Also missing from the documentary were the high-profile models Gisele Bundchen, Adriana Lima, Heidi Klum and the Hadid sisters, all of whom became household names in part because of the annual runway show.
However, Tyrnauer and his team have snagged new interviews with former members of the Victoria’s Secret PR team; Mindy Meads and Cindy Fields, former CEOs of Victoria’s Secret Direct; Heidi Zak, co-founder and co-CEO of lingerie competitor ThirdLove, and a number of journalists covering Epstein and Wexner’s relationship, all offering their take on the Victoria’s Secret story.
“They are big characters,” Tyrnauer said, referring to the people behind Victoria’s Secret. “And the brand had an outsized cultural impact for many years and went through a cultural shift that was almost existential for them. And what the series looks at is the changes in culture that have taken place [Victoria’s Secret seem] irrelevant, not viable and finally almost threatening the existence of the brand.
“One thing the show addresses is that in our current conversation about media and big tech, which is basically media now, people are howling about, for example, the influence of Instagram and its impact on young girls and ultimately on all of us a… create [fear-of-missing-out] culture that many people consider really unhealthy for society,” he continued. “It’s a marketing style that Victoria’s Secret helped create because of their outsized influence. It is not so [Victoria’s Secret] was the only one who made it. But their market share was huge and the company had an outsized impact on all of that and really set the tone. And for years – decades – Victoria’s Secret was enormously successful with it.
“And I think there are a lot of questions about that, especially when it comes to questions, in this case, about female body image,” Tyrnauer added. “If you create some kind of FOMO marketing scheme and create images of the female body that may or may not be achievable. This type of FOMO marketing raises a lot of flags.”
Beauty pageants, social media, and fashion in general have long set the standards for female beauty – standards that often change. One such brand was Abercrombie & Fitch, which was also once part of the Limited Brands portfolio. (The Netflix documentary White Hot explores similar issues at Abercrombie during the same period.)
“The Abercrombie & Fitch documentary treats it in its own way; there are similarities,” said Tyrnauer. “It’s interesting that both big brands were owned by the same parent company and both were controlled by the same person at their peaks. Victoria’s Secret and L Brands and Abercrombie & Fitch were an analogue precursor of this type of marketing and social media which is really controversial and seen as a cultural issue that our society has to deal with today. These brands were genuinely sexually stimulating, using sex to sell clothes in the mall, and through their marketing campaigns created a deep sense of what we now know as FOMO, the fear of missing out. They were very ambitious in their marketing and used sex to sell clothes. It really fitted into a moment in 1990s culture, which I think is best exemplified by Sex and the City, where this kind of open female sexuality was equated with empowerment. And I think [Victoria’s Secret] took that and exploited it to the umpteenth degree and obviously found a huge market and did it really well.
“And it seems so [Victoria’s Secret] had so much success with it and then the culture changed that was so accepting of it,” he added. “And as the ground beneath it moved, it began to sway. I think that’s a really interesting cultural story.”
Today, Victoria’s Secret looks very different from its runway days. Whether his overhaul will bring about lasting changes, Tyrnauer said, the world will just have to wait and see.
“[The transformation] is a linchpin,” he said. “It’s a cultural hub; it meets the needs of the market, which is partly the culture. I think everyone would agree that cultural sensitivity is a good move for people who want to sell things. But as someone says in the film, just because you use earth tones and choose a specific line, you’re still selling things at the end of the day.”
Tyrnauer added that before the transformation effort began, Victoria’s Secret “followed the culture, which isn’t what you want to do when you’re doing what they’re doing. And they’ve finally – maybe – caught up. We’ll see if they succeed.”