Kim Kardashian Sticks It to Victoria's Secret
One brand's castoff models are another's profits.
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Kim Kardashian just issued a big eff you to Victoria’s Secret with her latest Skims shapewear ads. She cast former “Angels” Alessandra Ambrosio, Candice Swanepoel, Tyra Banks, and Heidi Klum for an “Icons” campaign for a line of “Fits Everybody” understuff that comes in nine sizes and, according to Kardashian, “stretches to twice its size without ever losing shape.” After the images appeared on Instagram this week, a friend texted me to say, “It’s good to see them again.” Meaning, to be clear, the models, not Kardashian, whom culture for some reason dictates one must behold about as often as one’s own limbs.
Skims is now valued at $3.2 billion. In just April of last year, it was valued at $1.6 billion. Victoria’s Secret’s market capitalization is $4.41 billion — meaning Skims may remain well behind Victoria’s Secret, but is catching up at an impressive rate. Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty lingerie line, which was founded on a diverse and inclusive vision and has also been touted as a formidable VS competitor over the past several years, could go public this year at a $3 billion valuation. These are rather stunning developments in the underwear sector, which Victoria’s Secret has dominated without rival for so long. When I reported on Victoria’s Secret’s disturbing history and slide into irrelevancy for Time magazine in 2018, Aerie was one of the brands experts brought up repeatedly as formidable challengers. Aerie parent company American Eagle’s market cap is $2.7 billion.
Last year, after a spate of scandals including sexual misconduct allegations and models revealing they underwent extreme diet and exercise routines to book high-paying Victoria’s Secret work, the company issued a rebrand. Women including Megan Rapinoe and Hailey Bieber were paid to join something called a “VS Collective,” because a vaguely corporate word is somehow better than one denoting a Halloween costume that comes in a plastic bag. The Collective was meant to be diverse and inclusive — something that was long overdue — and create a safe space for the brand to self-flagellate. Rapinoe even got to call Ye Olde Victoria’s Secret “patriarchal” and “sexist” and say it was “really harmful” to its target young women customers in the New York Times. (The famous fashion show which displayed these unrealistic bodies like so many fashion things before it, but for a primetime network viewing audience, was canceled in 2019 and hasn’t returned.)
Along with its rebrand, Victoria’s Secret brought on a new seven-member board (six of them women), cut back on promotions, brought back its popular swimwear, and reduced inventory. All of this, the Wall Street Journal reported in August, was helping:
For those wondering if these efforts are bringing customers back, the answer is an unequivocal yes. The company sold more in its fiscal first quarter [of 2021] than it did in the same period in pre-pandemic 2019—an impressive reversal of a decline it had been seeing in the years leading up to the pandemic. That was despite permanently closing 241 stores in 2020 and holding back on marketing dollars.
Victoria’s Secret recently reported fourth quarter earnings that beat analysts’ expectations, CNBC reported. The Journal also reported in August:
Much has been made of a proliferating pool of competitors such as ThirdLove, Lively, Negative and Cupp, all of which embraced comfort and inclusivity much earlier than Victoria’s Secret. While such messaging was new and fresh a decade ago, it is now a prerequisite for brands, not a distinguishing feature.
Victoria’s Secret’s rebrand solved some big problems, but felt more like a relief or obligation than an exciting new direction, which is what people felt when Savage X Fenty started, for instance. Part of the reason for this may be that despite distancing from the unrealistic body standards of yore, the company failed to do anything about the pink stripe motif and serif logo font that are the sad, shapeless shawl collar cardigans of graphics packages. Meanwhile, Victoria’s Secret’s former “Angels” — the women who worked hard to serve as its faces during all those pre-#MeToo boom years when mass public outcry over the brand wasn’t a Thing — became castoffs in the fallout of the brand’s whole depressing situation.
Sure, many of those women have money and fame, and can do things like produce television shows (Banks and Klum) or launch swimwear lines (Swanepoel and Ambrosio). But while they were the faces of the deceased “Fantasy Bra,” they were also the faces of a company whose alleged mistreatment of its women employees and out-of-touch view of its customer base they were likely powerless to control.
Enter Kim Kardashian, with the word “Icons” in her head. It’s as vague as the word “Collective” but happily doesn’t conjure images of individual plastic-wrapped blueberry muffins festering on a table against the wall of a Double Tree conference room. She is happy to employ the women who once were paid to serve as faces in some of the most controversial clothing marketing of the last 20 years. And a large segment of the underwear-buying public — women who grew up seeing these women model in the Victoria’s Secret catalogues that were as germane to nineties media diets as monthly print magazines — sees these images and feels nostalgic.
WWD notes that the new campaign builds on what Skims has been doing all along, which is feature a mix of people instead of only those that fit a certain mold:
Skims, which was founded by Kardashian and Los Angeles-based entrepreneur Jens Grede in 2019, has a history of working with a mix of high-profile models, as well as regular people, including Kate Moss; Megan Fox; sister Kourtney Kardashian; Bruce Willis and Demi Moore’s daughter and actress Rumer Willis, and former inmate Alice Marie Johnson.
Among its non-inclusive practices, Victoria’s Secret used to appear to simply replace Angels when they had reached a certain age. Heidi Klum modeled for the brand for 13 years, and then in 2010 when she was 37, announced that she wouldn’t model in the brand’s fashion show. Ed Razek, the chief marketing officer at the time, issued a statement that said, “Heidi will always be an Angel.” (Well, at least there’s that.) Banks, the first Black contract model for Victoria’s Secret, worked for ten years, from 1995 through 2005, leaving the brand behind when she was in her early thirties. Adriana Lima, who was an Angel for nearly 20 years, hinted in a 2017 People interview about her eighteenth Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show that she knew she had an expiration date.
“I plan to be at 20. Two more years. Maybe more, I don’t know,” the 36-year-old model shared with PEOPLE. “It’s nature. I’m working out, I’m being healthy, so let’s see how the body is going to turn out. But I enjoy it. So let’s say 20.”
I realize that mid-thirties is not old, even if by modeling standards — and yes, I mean 2022’s diverse and inclusive ones — it’s ancient. Swanepoel is 33, Ambrosio is 40, Kardashian is 41, and Banks and Klum are both 48. Fashion is still by and large marketed with models in their twenties, just like Victoria’s Secret was for so long. The industry has come a long way in the past five or so years in terms of diversity and inclusion, but women in their mid-thirties or older remain underrepresented. And women of this age who do book great work are often established supermodels.
Victoria’s Secret probably felt like they had to move away from women like Swanepoel when it did away with the Angels gimmick, but it just perpetuated their history of discarding women who had, in the brand’s eyes, run their course. Kardashian’s smart move as a major Victoria’s Secret competitor was to remind us all of that.
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While I am in no way offended by this ad -- I don't feel one way or another about it -- the idea that Heidi Klum and Tyra Banks at 48 represent age inclusivity is laughable. I am 30 and because I have yet to get botox in my forehead and crows feet (I'm sure I will; I'm just not in a rush) my face reads, in some ways, older than these women's. I love Heidi and Tyra and hope they continue booking jobs, but women in their 40s who look 30 simply raises the standard for women in their 40s. I felt the same way about the response to Nicole Kidman's Vanity Fair cover -- the cover is fine; she can do whatever she wants -- but let's not pretend she represents middle aged women. Ads and covers do not to represent a revolution, especially if it's one which uploads (or arguably perpetuates) tyrrancial standards and fetishization of youth.
I am far too aware of my age at 30, and I'm sure I'm not the only one.
The ‘sad, shapeless shawl collar cardigans of graphics packages’ is a frighteningly accurate image. Immediately forwarding this to my graphic design friends.