Sexy used to be so, I don’t know, sexy. It was Candace Bushnell’s racy confessionals in The New York Observer that begat an HBO show; you know the one. It was “I’m too sexy for my shirt, so sexy it hurts.” It was the Sexiest Man Alive (People) and What Is Sexy? (InStyle). When I was the editor of Allure, we slapped the word on so many magazine covers that we eventually had to amp it up to “supersexy!” Sexy was fun, sexy was energetic, sexy was glossy and glowy, high-heeled and curvy. Sexy, good.
Victoria’s Secret just launched a new advertising campaign that is, in effect, a mea culpa for its very bad, very sexy, very sexist past. They have a lot to apologize for, starting with the financial ties between Victoria’s Secret’s former C.E.O. Leslie Wexner and Jeffrey Epstein, the sex offender who, under the guise of being a model scout, was accused of using that connection to abuse young women.
There’s also the reported sexual misconduct of Ed Razek, the company’s former chief marketing officer and the mastermind behind some of its more offensive, misogynistic stunts. (Razek has denied the allegations.)
While they’re at it, Victoria’s Secret needs to apologize for marketing push-up bras and thongs to girls as young as 13 years old. And they might consider apologizing for the overhyped spectacle pawned off as a fashion show, where for 23 years Victoria’s Secret Angels strutted their 6 percent body fat and ample cleavage in diamond-studded bras, jeweled panties, thigh-high boots, and wings so ridiculously gigantic that they threatened to capsize their wearers.
The show became a cultural force when it was broadcast on network television in nearly 200 countries, reaching a peak audience of 9.7 million viewers.
The new campaign doesn’t quite go so far as to say, “Sorry.” Instead, the advertisement offers one of those halfway apologies. It’s not quite as mealy as “I’m sorry you were offended,” but it’s close. It’s culpability-adjacent.
The model Bella Hadid, herself a former Angel, appears in the ad, saying, “I was taught that sexy was about your body, the way that your boobs looked in a push-up bra.” Apparently, she was not taught to avoid the passive voice. But the viewer can certainly fill in the blanks, like a Mad Lib, with the words “by Victoria’s Secret.”
The challenge for a lingerie-and-clothing retailer as pervasive as Victoria’s Secret—even in its diminished state—is whether it can resurrect itself without adopting a strong, singular point of view. If a brand stands for everything and nothing, can it also stand out? No one wants the strictures of the old definitions, but what replaces them?
The new campaign is called “Undefinable.” It begins with the model Paloma Elsesser asking no one in particular, “Can you provide a definition for the word ‘woman’?” If the line sounds both puzzling and familiar, that’s because it is. During Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings, Senator Marsha Blackburn asked the judge this baffling question in what seemed to be an attempt to nail down her views on transgender rights. Judge Jackson hesitated, shook her head for a moment, and replied, “I’m not a biologist.”
In the Victoria’s Secret ad, Bethann Hardison responds to the question with a long and perhaps overwhelmed “Wow.” Ms. Hardison, an activist, model, and co-founder of the Black Girls Coalition, is the grown-up in the room and, perhaps not coincidentally, the only one fully dressed on the set. (“They didn’t pay me enough to take my clothes off,” she tells me.) Brittney Spencer, the country singer-songwriter, adds what sounds like an uncertain “Oooh. O.K.”
The point being, women can’t be defined. Not by a corporation, a Supreme Court nominee, a culture, or the maker of cheap lingerie.
But, boy, in its day, Victoria’s Secret sure did try, with a definition that was about as narrow as a cheetah-print G-string, size 00. It was a concept filtered through the male gaze for their distinct pleasure. And if you doubted that, all you had to do was look at the men in the audience of its fashion show, chuckling and high-fiving each other. Look! There’s Adam Levine, now embroiled in allegations of an affair. Hey, that’s Russell Simmons, who’s been accused of sexual assault and rape. Yeah, all that. (Both Levine and Simmons have denied the accusations.)
“As a girl, as a woman, you’re defined all the time, and it’s unfair,” says Alice Ericsson, a writer and longtime advertising executive who worked on the campaign with Look, Inc., a creative agency. “The previous vision of women was like a corset. It was too constraining and too small.”
As Paloma Elsesser says in the video, “I don’t know about you, but I feel like I’ve been like sucking in my stomach my entire life.” Preach.
The new video is crammed with people, voices, flesh. There’s Valentina Sampaio, a trans model; Femita Ayanbeku, a Paralympian; Rose Namajunas, a mixed martial artist; Eileen Gu, a freestyle skier; and the models Adut Akech and Hailey Bieber. Their words are fragmented and overlapping, bodies in black or white undergarments. “You need to be skinnier,” one says, sounding like something you might hear at a Victoria’s Secret casting session. “Pressure.” “My vulnerability.”
Some of the statements are hard to decipher, and maybe that’s the point. It’s a chorus of the things women have heard for so long that we’ve internalized them and turned them on ourselves. It will take more than a few videos to replace that constant refrain, the static of self-doubt.
Ms. Hardison is conflicted. “I loved the f*cking Angels,” she tells me. “Loved!” She qualifies that a bit. “I loved them as entertainment. For me, who had an agency and helped Black models work, it was a big thrill to get that campaign. It was an accomplishment.” That said, “I see absolutely the need for Victoria’s Secret to drop whatever they were before and get along little doggie.... I did the Victoria’s Secret campaign because I thought I could contribute to that message.”
No wonder that message is murky. The whole notion of what is sexy is now hopelessly—or hopefully—antiquated.
I remember one executive at a cosmetic company telling me with a straight face that women wear lipstick to attract a man. His exact words were “to be f*ckable.” I’d rather be told I’m undefinable than some of the alternatives.
At Victoria’s Secret, the changes are quite definable. Both Wexner and Razek left the company. Women now fill all of the board seats but one. The smarmy fashion show ended in 2018. R.I.P. And while the product assortment hasn’t changed entirely—there are still Very Sexy Push-Up and Dream Angels bras, thongs, and “V-strings”—there are also nursing bras and sports bras, boy shorts and period underwear, all in a wide range of sizes. The Pink line, designed for teenagers, has scrapped its creepy message thongs (embroidered with things like Call Me) and added “gender-free” designs.
The “Undefinable” video attempts to give those changes some cultural resonance. Buried in it is a line that stops me. I replay it several times to hear it clearly. It’s Ms. Hardison saying, “I can change the way people see things.” Wouldn’t it be great if she were right?
To hear Linda Wells reveal more about her story, listen to her on AIR MAIL’s Morning Meeting podcast
Linda Wells spent 25 years as Allure magazine’s founding editor, served as Revlon’s chief creative officer, and currently consults and sits on the boards of several beauty and apparel companies