The iconic brand is struggling as empowered women turn away from a dated definition of sexy.

It’s Valentine’s Day, and Marcy Schaffir is energized. Cacique Intimates, one of three brands she oversees at Columbus-based plus-size retailer Lane Bryant, is preparing for an unusual launch. While the trend in fashion is to expand size ranges upward, Cacique, Lane Bryant’s lingerie line, will announce that it now offers smaller sizes. Seated in her office beneath a poster that proclaims, in block letters, “This body is made to redefine sexy,” Schaffir asserts that the expansion idea came from customers. “The customer said to us, ‘I love your brand so much. I want to share it with my sister. With my friend. With my daughter. Would you consider adding sizes?’” Schaffir says. “And we thought, ‘Wow, yeah, we can consider that.’”

So Cacique, which has enjoyed six years of steady growth, is making a declaration of independence from size segregation. The brand now offers 82 bra sizes, from 32A to 50K. On its new website, women of all shapes pose together in their skivvies, and while the bras and panties will continue to be sold in Lane Bryant stores, in 2020 Cacique will open brick-and-mortar outlets of its own.

It’s a surprising move, but it makes sense. The body-positive movement has persuaded many other lingerie brands to expand their size range upward of late. There’s competition for Cacique where once there was almost none.

“We kind of decided to disrupt ourselves before we were disrupted,” says Schaffir.

Before coming to Cacique, Schaffir worked for 11 years at Columbus’ L Brands, nine of them at the lingerie behemoth Victoria’s Secret—a brand that has steadfastly stuck to its limited sizing and supermodel marketing imagery. But Schaffir doesn’t want to talk about that today. As a Cacique marketing manager noted in an email to Columbus Monthly prior to the interview with Schaffir, “Although we are very aware of Victoria’s Secret’s decline, we don’t want to be noted on building our brand by ‘slamming’ another.”

Others, however, are not so shy.

The Brouhaha

Public criticism of Victoria’s Secret, brewing for years, bubbled over in November when Ed Razek, chief marketing officer of L Brands, made some comments in a Vogue interview that were so contrary to the new, more inclusive fashion zeitgeist that many readers found them offensive.

In the wake of pop star and emerging fashion mogul Rihanna’s buzzworthy Savage X Fenty lingerie show—which featured models of various sizes, colors and gender identities (including a nine-months-pregnant Slick Woods, who gave birth the following day)—Vogue asked Razek why the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show does not cast plus-size and transgender models. Razek, who created the show in 1995 and remains its flamboyant impresario, responded with a petulant tirade. “Why don’t you do 50?” he asked rhetorically, referring to bra sizes. “Why don’t you do 60? … It’s like, why doesn’t your show do this? Shouldn’t you have transsexuals in the show? No. No, I don’t think we should. Well, why not? Because the show is a fantasy.”

The response in the press and on social media was swift and brutal. A day later, Razek apologized on Twitter—sort of. He said the brand would “absolutely” cast a transgender model. As for the comments about plus-size models? Crickets.

It wasn’t enough for Heidi Zak, founder and CEO of ThirdLove, a new direct-to-consumer bra company focused on fit and comfort. Zak, who perhaps recognized an opportunity to dethrone an industry leader, took out a full-page ad in The New York Times, billed as an open letter to Victoria’s Secret. “How in 2018 can the CMO of any public company—let alone one that claims to be for women—make such shocking, derogatory statements?” Zak wrote. “You market to men and sell a male fantasy to women. Haven’t we moved beyond outdated ideas of femininity and gender roles? It’s time to stop telling women what makes them sexy—let us decide.”

In the midst of this turmoil, a top Victoria’s Secret executive went packing—but it wasn’t Razek. CEO Jan Singer stepped down after two years at the helm, and Les Wexner, founder and CEO of L Brands and the man credited with making Victoria’s Secret an international juggernaut, announced the appointment of a new leader for the lingerie company. John Mehas, formerly of Tory Burch and Ralph Lauren, has a stellar reputation in the industry, but nevertheless, heads in the fashion press were shaking at the idea that Wexner had chosen this of all moments to turn Victoria’s Secret, run mostly by women for decades, over to a man. It also hasn’t escaped notice that only three of the 12 L Brands board members are women: Columbus business consultant Donna James, Harvard lecturer Patricia S. Bellinger and Abigail Wexner, Les’ wife.

All this criticism might not matter for a company that is famously impervious to naysayers and media blowback. Victoria’s Secret brings in more than $7 billion in annual sales and rules the lingerie sector—a sector that was, arguably, created by Victoria’s Secret. The brand is so dominant that even successful new competitors are only nibbling at its profits.

But the nibbles are adding up. Last year, Victoria’s Secret sales were down nearly $400 million from the year before, and comparable-store sales, a crucial industry metric, have been declining for nearly two years. While L Brands’ other flagship line, Bath & Body Works, is booming (comparable-store sales in the candles-and-lotion emporium were up 8 percent in the most recent quarter), Victoria’s Secret is dragging down L Brands’ stock, which dropped by 44 percent in the past year and this winter hit its lowest price per share since 2010.

As for the runway show, the public is losing interest. Only 3.3 million viewers tuned in for the December telecast, down from 5 million a year earlier—and just a quarter of the 12.4 million who watched it at its 2001 peak.

In November, L Brands halved its shareholder dividend. In February, an email from the stock-tracking firm Seeking Alpha went out under the subject line “L Brands: An Icon No More.”

The Bra

Don’t be fooled by the glossy smiles that Victoria’s Secret Angels project during their runway catwalks: Wearing a bra is not fun. It’s a garment that constricts and reshapes the body (or, in the case of sports bras, compresses the breasts so they can’t move). It’s got hooks and straps and tight elastic and wire and sometimes boning, and for all but the most agile, it must be put on backwards and then pulled around and wriggled into place. Bras are hot, sweaty and often itchy. The straps can dig, and the more padding there is in the cups—Victoria’s Secret’s trademark feature, for that “pushup” effect—the more uncomfortable they can be. Many women can’t wait to take them off the moment they get home.

Before Les Wexner bought Victoria’s Secret and began mass marketing bras as lingerie, most women bought what were then called “foundation garments” at department stores, from brands with decidedly unsexy names like Maidenform and Playtex. If a woman (or her significant other) wanted something pretty or titillating for a special occasion, they might turn to a specialty store. Think: feather boas and Frederick’s of Hollywood.

It was Wexner’s great insight, well-documented in the Victoria’s Secret iconography, that women might want to wear something that looked sexy every day. He purchased a small, failing chain of six bordellolike San Francisco lingerie stores, upgraded the feel of the shops to a sort of Disneyfied boudoir—his initial goal, according to early interviews, was to make them more comfortable places for men to shop for gifts—and began placing them in malls across the nation. Americans—and shoppers around the world—bought the concept wholesale. Today, Victoria’s Secret has 1,179 stores in the U.S. and Canada (including 147 Pink stores, the brand’s younger sibling, and 14 VS Beauty and Accessories shops), as well as a growing number of stores overseas. Wherever you live in the U.S., there’s likely a Victoria’s Secret store near you, proudly displaying not only everyday T-shirt bras but strappy teddies and lacy panties with heart-shaped cutouts in the bum.

Along the way, Victoria’s Secret brought us many gifts: the “miracle” pushup bra, a mail-order catalog that sometimes seemed like soft porn (discontinued in 2016); the rise of the panty (Wexner reportedly banished the use of the word underpants); the idea of half-naked models with impossibly long legs and giant strapped-on wings as “Angels”; the multimillion-dollar bejeweled “fantasy bra”; the reign of Heidi Klum. In 2010, Newsweek gushed about how Wexner had “made sexy mainstream.”

But to quote Bob Dylan, the star of a baffling 2004 Victoria’s Secret TV commercial, “The times, they are a-changin’.”

The Blowback

Sometime after activist Tarana Burke coined the phrase “Me Too” in 2006 to empower women to speak up about sexual violence, but well before millions of women donned pink “pussy hats” to march for equality in 2017, the cultural tide began to turn against the image Victoria’s Secret promotes. It wasn’t only about size, although statistics show American women are getting further and further from the ideal projected by rail-thin models with punishing diets and exercise regimens. (According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, women’s average weight has gone up 6 pounds in the past decade; 40 percent of American women are obese, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association.) It wasn’t only about ethnic diversity, in response to a brand that still promotes a light beige bra as “nude.” And it wasn’t only about the objectification of women, which the brand clearly promotes and which many feel is linked to sexual violence and harassment.

It was about all of the above, and something else. “On the Victoria’s Secret website right now, you’ll find the phrase ‘the perfect shape,’” says Bridget Bennet, CEO of the Chicago-based Female Factor consulting firm and the author of “Why She Buys” (2009) and “Winning Her Business,” which came out in March. “It’s that word: perfection.”

The concept of an aspirational ideal of beauty no longer resonates with women, Bennet says. Women who just yesterday, it seems, were using filters to perfect their faces on Instagram, now post #NoFilter selfies showing themselves without makeup or just out of bed. “They’re telling it like it is,” she says.

Brand-positioning expert Mike Bills of Columbus’ Venn Growth Collective says today’s younger women are drawn to products and marketing that exude “authenticity” and “realness”—but most mass brands, including Victoria’s Secret, aren’t paying attention. “Consumers who are more concerned about the effect of their carbon footprint, who are busy ‘checking privilege’ and asking what gender pronouns you prefer, tend not to be interested in the traditional, binary messaging that most specialty apparel retailers continue to peddle,” he wrote in a 2017 report. These are the customers ThirdLove’s Zak was courting when she bought ad space for an outraged tirade against Victoria’s Secret’s lack of inclusiveness.

Retailers ignore the changing tastes of millennials and post-millennials at their peril. Millennials, defined as ages 23 to 38—already a larger cohort than Gen X (ages 39 to 54)—are predicted to overtake boomers (ages 55 to 73) in the coming year as the largest living adult generation.

The Body-Positive Brands

These cultural shifts have had an impact on the women’s underwear market, changing not only the marketing imagery and messages offered by a range of startup brands but also the products themselves. Sports bras are now the third-most-popular bra style, while unstructured bralettes and triangle bras, which don’t have wires or a molded cup, became mainstream in 2016, with two to three times as many styles of bralette as pushup bras showing up in stores over the past two years. Nevertheless, both styles were nearly invisible on the 2018 Victoria’s Secret runway.

Cacique—once, along with Lane Bryant, part of the L Brands family—was one of the early brands to take aim at Victoria’s Secret. When the company claimed its sexy ad featuring a size-16 Ashley Graham was banned by Fox and ABC for showing too much skin (a claim the broadcast networks denied), “The first thing I thought of was Victoria’s Secret commercials, and how they’re just as racy, if not more racy, than Lane Bryant,” Graham told the New York Post. “Let’s face it, America is getting bigger, and women want to see themselves instead of the image of what society says they should be.”

In 2015, Cacique took sly aim at Victoria’s Secret again with its highly regarded “I’m No Angel” campaign, featuring an array of curvy women chuckling throatily and casting come-hither looks. (“Want to meet my girls?” Graham asked, as the camera lingered on her well-beyond-supermodel-size cleavage.)

That same year, American Eagle’s Aerie line of underwear (headquartered in Pittsburgh but overseen by Columbus-based CEO Jay Schottenstein) stopped airbrushing advertising photos and announced it was trading in supermodels for models with realistic bodies. Aimed at 15-to-25-year-olds, Aerie wasn’t going for plus-size customers, specifically—just girls and young women who didn’t want to pursue or compare themselves with an impossible-for-most ideal. The result has been phenomenal growth for the brand: 16 consecutive quarters of double-digit comparable-store sales increases—32 percent in the most recent quarter. This year, Aerie’s marketing images take inclusion further, featuring models with disabilities, prosthetic limbs and insulin pumps.

Some of the competitors driving hardest for Victoria’s Secret’s market share have, like Cacique, a genetic link to the brand. Take Lively, for instance. Founder Michelle Cordeiro Grant was happy working as a senior merchant at Victoria’s Secret until the day she stopped wearing the product. “I started to realize that I wanted to live my life for myself versus living my life for others, where I was concerned about how I looked for other people,” she says. “My biggest strength is uniqueness. So why am I trying to be Candice Swanepoel and all of these other supermodels?”

Lively, the New York-based company she founded, makes comfortable, no-wire bras, marketed with the message “Inspired by women with wild hearts and boss brains.” Compare that with “Perfect Shape,” “Very Sexy” and “Body by Victoria.”

ThirdLove—founded in 2013, also with a focus on comfort and fit—is the first bra company to offer half-cup sizes. The startup underwent two years of research and development that included scanning women’s bodies with a camera to understand them better. An early backer was Lori Greeley, who was CEO of Victoria’s Secret from 2007 to 2013. Greeley made a substantial investment in the company and sits on its board of directors. In February, ThirdLove won $55 million in expansion investment in its third round of fundraising.

These companies are still relatively small. But they have the potential to scale up quickly, because they don’t depend on a store-based distribution network. And they are already stealing market share. In 2016, Victoria’s Secret controlled nearly 33 percent of the U.S. women’s underwear market; in 2018 it dropped to 24 percent, according to The Economist.

The success of these rebellious offspring must be getting under the skin of Victoria’s Secret brass. Indeed, Razek revealed irritation with at least one upstart competitor in his Vogue interview: “We’re nobody’s third love,” he said. “We’re their first love.”

The Battle

While some industry experts are pessimistic (“It’s game over” for Victoria’s Secret, wrote Jefferies analyst Randal Konik last June), few Columbus-area observers are willing to bet against retail master Les Wexner’s ability to right a listing ship once he’s acknowledged a navigational error—something he did in November, when he told investors that Victoria’s Secret had “lost our close connection to our customer.” But when cultural trends are moving so clearly away from a brand’s core identity, is such a correction possible?

Wexner, through his staff, declined to be interviewed for this article, nor would anyone else at Victoria’s Secret agree to speak on the record. They explained that they wanted to give Mehas, the new CEO, who began work in the company’s Morse Road headquarters in February, time to assess the damage and craft plans before commenting. But Wexner made clear in a public statement of his own last fall that “everything” is on the table, including real estate, brand positioning and personnel. “Most importantly, we are focused on our merchandise assortment—it all starts with the customer saying, ‘I’ll take it.’”

To focus its attention, L Brands has pared back, shuttering its Henri Bendel stores and selling its La Senza division, which also makes lingerie and intimates. The company has engaged in a similar strategy in the past, most notably in 2007 when its leadership sold Express and The Limited, the onetime flagship chain that Wexner built from scratch. Jack Kessler, a close friend of Wexner and a former L Brands board member, says that move shows Wexner’s willingness to make hard choices. “That was his baby,” he says. “He sold that, and Express and Abercrombie, and it was the perfect thing to do at the time, and it made a lot of money for shareholders.

“I don’t know what he’ll do with Victoria’s Secret,” Kessler continues, “but I know he’ll be successful with it, and it will thrive and do well.”

Most analysts caution that the company must shrink its brick-and-mortar footprint. With so many consumers buying online and mall traffic declining, other mall-based retailers have been closing stores in droves. Gap closed hundreds of locations in 2018. Victoria’s Secret, by contrast, closed only 27 stores. That’s because of penalties that might be incurred by breaking long-term lease arrangements, CFO Stuart Burgdoerfer told investors in November. It’s a problem that is likely to continue—but in a February earnings call, Burgdoerfer told investors that the company plans to step up U.S. store closures in 2019, while opening 100 to 120 stores overseas.

It’s fair to wonder, too, whether the company will take advantage of the digital innovations that are allowing upstarts to grab market share. ThirdLove, for instance, is focused on data collection (founder Zaks is a former Google executive). Through a combination of its body-scanning technology and online surveys, the company has gathered millions of data points to help it discern what women want and need. But a writer from the Financial Times reported last spring after a lunchtime interview with Wexner that he “pooh-poohs” the relevance of data and algorithms.

Long periods of success can make it hard for companies to rethink their premise, says Bills, pointing to the near-demise of Abercrombie & Fitch when CEO Mike Jeffries ignored the cultural shift away from the exclusive and sexualized marketing that had long brought profits to the brand. It’s worth pointing out, however, that A&F’s new CEO, Fran Horowitz, has overseen a dramatic remaking of the line’s image and, as a result, a return to black ink.

Retail strategist Lee Peterson of WD Partners in Dublin is optimistic that Victoria’s Secret can do the same. He recalls a CEO at The Limited once told him, when he was working at the company, not to be too impatient for change. “She said, ‘You’ve got to remember, we’re on a rocket ship. We’re going the speed of light in one direction, right? To turn this rocket ship around, we’re still going to go in that direction for a while. You just don’t turn it on a dime.’”

“I do think they’re going to fix it,” he says. “They’re definitely going to fix it.” Then he offers one caveat: the age of the men at the helm—Wexner, 81, and Razek, 70.

In early March, activist hedge fund manager James Mitarotonda of Barington Capital made a related point in an open letter to Wexner. Mitarotonda raised questions about the independence and effectiveness of the L Brands board, citing the members’ long tenure (36 years on average), their high median age (71) and some members’ longstanding business and social relationships with Wexner. He also suggested that the company should spin off Victoria’s Secret or issue a separate IPO for Bath & Body Works, which was “overshadowed by the struggles” at Victoria’s Secret.

This month, L Brands announced a slate of board nominees including incumbent Patricia Bellinger and two additional women: Anne Sheehan, chair of the SEC's Investor Advisory Committee and Sarah Nash, CEO of Novagard Solutions. In a press release, the company noted that if the slate is elected at the company’s May 16 annual meeting, the board will be 40 percent female. L Brands also reached a deal with Mitarotonda, who agreed to support the nominees in exchange for a role for his firm as a special advisor to the company.

In 2007, L Brands was at another turning point, and Columbus Monthly ran a feature article in which a stock analyst speculated that Wexner could still be running the company a decade later. “Imagine, Les Wexner bringing sexy back on his 80th birthday,” the article declared.

That birthday has come and gone, and Wexner is as closely associated with the company as ever. But he has often been quoted as saying that change is central to his life—a fact he demonstrated last fall when he announced he was leaving the Republican Party, to which he has donated millions of dollars over the years.

Some Republicans may wish that instead of leaving, he created change from within. Perhaps, with Victoria’s Secret, he will get another chance.