If the Abercrombie & Fitch documentary didn’t open the floodgates of early 2000’s fashion trauma, then this new show certainly will. Hulu’s newest docuseries “Victoria's Secret: Angels and Demons” shows the rise and fall of America’s sexiest and messiest brand. It premiered on July 14 and includes three episodes. So brace yourself for a lot of push-up bras, pink dogs, and angel wings.
For a deeper dive into the creation of the docuseries, our “Skimm This” team spoke with two of the filmmakers: Jenny Ewig, the executive producer of the documentary. And Matt Tyrnauer, the series director. Here’s a peek at our convo with them.
The power of Victoria's Secret branding
For most millennials, Victoria's Secret makes them think of something specific — good or bad. That’s a testament to their decades-long marketing strategy.
“Since the ‘80s, this has been a huge brand and it's completely influenced how we define beauty, how we look at ourselves. This was a brand that had a huge power and influence,” Ewig said.
“They used sex to sell things in a way that was incredibly forward. At the time, the culture was in a very different place. It was this sort of bizarre amalgamation of frat boy culture with ‘Baywatch’ culture,” Tyrnauer explained. “It's all these tropes that society really loved and got eyeballs, and this was a way to [transform] that attention economy before social media into dollars.”
How exactly did the company accomplish that? Through provocative TV ads, catalogs, and its infamous fashion show. Plus, the high-profile models and reasonable price tags didn’t hurt. Soon enough, Victoria’s Secret became a sex symbol. And one of the top brands in the world.
A different kind of Victoria's Secret bombshell
But beneath that surface of so-called "female empowerment" through sexuality was something a lot darker. As years went on, reporters started to peel back layers of what was happening at Victoria's Secret. The results? They found a toxic workplace culture.
“There's a lot of people who genuinely felt back in the day, in the beginning…it was a different culture. That it was empowering. A lot of people felt [like], ‘here's a company that's allowing women to own their sexuality,’” Ewig said. “But then, as they say, absolute power corrupts absolutely. And it just got a little bit too far off the rails and I think ultimately what happened is you really did have this men's point of view driving the narrative and the marketing.”
The men in question? The brand’s former owner Les Wexner, and one of his top deputies Ed Razek. Investigations have revealed that they helped create a company culture of widespread bullying, inappropriate conduct, sexual assault and harassment — with complaints coming from both former employees and models. Razek was also the subject of a number of those harassment complaints, and had made transphobic and fatphobic comments privately and to the press.
As the public started finding out about all of this information, the company built on "angels" began to fall from grace. But it wasn’t just because the internal organization was built on a toxic foundation.
VS’s (attempted) brand transformation
Another issue for the company: What it represented externally wasn't resonating anymore. The way people thought about beauty and what was ‘sexy’ had been changing over time. And after the fashion world had been dictating what women wore for so long, the reverse started to happen. With women telling the fashion world what they wanted to see. Which, shockingly, didn't include women putting on 10-foot angel wings and underwear.
In fact, some of the brand's most notable models — like Bella Hadid and Karlie Kloss — even started to publicly back away from the company. Tyrnauer compared this to 'Frankenstein.' “They created the angels, and then the angels turned around and helped to destroy their creator,” he said.
In 2019, the brand officially canceled its fashion show. And now, when you look at their marketing, you might wonder: ‘Where's all the hot pink?’ The company also hired brand ambassadors, including soccer star Megan Rapinoe and actress Priyanka Chopra, to help reinvent their image as one that values inclusivity and body diversity.
But just like we learned in middle school, reinventing yourself is harder than it seems. Especially when there's a toxic legacy involved.
“I think they've gone through one of the biggest brand transformations in recent history. Whether or not they can really get rid of the toxicity and what people now associate the brand with, I think that remains to be seen…I don't know if everyone's gonna feel that it's authentic because they feel so burned from the past,” Ewig said.
The company’s everlasting presence
While the company has tried to shed itself of the old Victoria's Secret, its impacts on beauty standards live on in our culture today.
“What I discovered that was most interesting to me of almost everything was that this was the 1.0 of Instagram. I think the influencers who invade our lives, whether we want them to or not, this was that in an analog way. And I think that the great digital marketers of our time learn from the analog marketers,” Tyrnauer said.
“This series is a bit of a cautionary tale when you think about the sheer power of marketing and advertising and how that can influence society. We live in a world of consumerism and I think Victoria's Secret and the story of it is representative of that,” Ewig said. “But [marketing is] more sophisticated now in the sense that you may not even realize you're being marketed to. And that's scary.”
Listen to more of what Ewig and Tyrnauer said about their project below.
The influence of Victoria’s Secret will likely be ingrained in society forever. This docuseries shows just how far the brand went to make sure its impact would last. And what secrets Victoria was really keeping from us all along.
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