An angel fresh from the sky flaps its wings in a series of pirouettes before landing with a blue explosion, in a spectacle more akin to Cirque du Soleil than an underwear show.
From the blinding light emerges the Brazilian model Adriana Limawith a metal fastener type push up and pink latex stockings up to the groin, followed by her compatriot Gisele Bundchenthe highest paid model of the moment, who wears a bright yellow trikini.
Seated in the front line are the musicians Sean Combs —better known as Puff Daddy or P. Diddy— and Pharrell Williamsactor Chris North, Mr. Big in Sex and the Cityor the real estate tycoon donald trump and his still girlfriend Melania Knauss.
It’s 2003 and no one in the motley crowd wanted to miss the ninth Show Annual Victoria’s Secret, the most famous lingerie firm of all time.
After an applauded performance by Sting and Mary J. Blige, the last of the entourage of mannequins with kilometric legs and tiny thongs to appear on stage is the German Heidi klum.
In charge of closing the 40-minute show, she walks the runway clad in an ensemble studded with diamonds and lace valued at $11 million dollars and white wings four and a half meters high.
This is what the company looked like in its good times, when year after year it broke profit records and set a trend of what it was sexy and what was not, as the inescapable cultural phenomenon that it had become.
However, not everything was glitter, and his status in the Olympus of the retail it didn’t last
From the darkness behind the brand and its resounding fall, even more spectacular than its ascent, it deals with Victoria’s Secret: Angels and Demons (“Victoria’s Secret: Angels and Demons”).
The three-part documentary series deals with episodes related to bullying and misogyny and involves even the financier Jeffrey Epstein, who committed suicide in 2019 before being tried for child trafficking and conspiracy. And he does it with interviews with former executives, other key employees of the company and some models, and with unpublished internal videos.
Its editor, Matt Tyrnauer, a former editor of the magazine Vanity Fair turned documentary filmmaker, he knew he had found a subject for his new job when in 2019 he found out that several models were rebelling against the firm on social media.
“They were biting the hand that fed them,” the director told the British newspaper Guardian. “I like to tell stories about closed worlds and systems and I thought there was something there.”
The series does indeed have a lot to cut, but here are four of the most shocking revelations it makes as it dismantles the Victoria’s Secret universe.
1. A decades-long relationship of its CEO with Jeffrey Epstein
There will be few people who have not heard of Victoria’s Secret, but there will be fewer those who are familiar with the name of its former general manager, Leslie Wexner.
Born in Ohio in 1937, he is the billionaire founder of L Brands Inc., parent company of brands such as The Limited, Bath & Body Works and Abercrombie & Fitch (which was also in the eye of the storm and has its own documentary).
His crown jewel, Victoria’s Secret, he bought for $1 million from founder Roy Raymond in 1982 and within a decade had turned it into a multi-million dollar business.
“It was the guy who figured out how to get americans to shop, shop, shop, shop“says Teri Agins, author of the book The End of Fashion (“The end of fashion”, 1999).
But despite his merits that already in 1986 made him the sixth richest man in the US, Wexner kept a low profile beyond business circles for years, until the arrest of financier Jeffrey Epstein on charges of sex trafficking in 2019 put him on the radar of the general public.
Epstein and Wexner met in the mid-1980s, when they were introduced by a mutual friend, insurance executive Robert Meister. And according to those who frequented them at that time, they quickly became allies.
“People say it’s as if we had a same brainEpstein himself told Vanity Fair in 2003 about her relationship with Wexner. “Each controlled one side.”
Asked how a former math teacher turned investment adviser turned Wexner into his biggest client, several voices from the docuseries point to his “fascinating personality” and his “ability to convince anyone of anything.”
Although Cindy Fedus-Fields, former CEO of Victoria’s Secret Direct, one of the conglomerate’s branches, points out that it was a win-win relationship: “Wexner had the money that Epstein wanted, and Epstein the glamor and refinement that Wexner was looking for” to be able to move among New York high society.
Be that as it may, the employer granted the consultant powers of attorney in 1991, giving “unlimited control over all your assets”according to the reporter from Washington Post Sarah Ellison.
Epstein could write checks, buy and sell property, and borrow on Wexner’s behalf.
He had such powers until 2007, when Wexner severed professional relations with him, after the first accusations against him in Florida came to light.
2. Epstein posing as a model recruiter
Epstein never officially worked for his client’s lingerie firm. This was clarified in 2019 by a Victoria’s Secret spokesperson to New York Times.
However, that did not seem to be an obstacle for the financier to present himself as a in charge of recruiting models for the same.
In a part of the documentary Fedus-Fields remembers how an executive of the firm informed him of it in 1993 and how she herself reported it to Wexner. This, she assures her, replied that he “would stop her feet.”
According to a written statement included in the documentary series, the businessman’s lawyer affirms that he “confronted Epstein” as a result of the accusations that same year, but that he denied having posed as a headhunter for the company.
However, in 1997 the model alice ardenwho had posed for the magazine Playboy and acted in the series Baywatch (“The Baywatch”), reported to the police that Epstein had invited her to a hotel in Santa Monica, California, with the excuse that they were looking for models for Victoria’s Secret.
As described by Arden, who was then 27 years old, Epstein he grabbed her by the butt, tried to undress her and told her he wanted to “kill” her.
The financier repeatedly denied it and Wexner continued to support him publicly.
In 2003, in an interview with vanityfair, The businessman referred to Epstein as someone “very intelligent, who combines excellent judgment with unusually high standards”, in addition to describing him as “the most loyal of friends”.
To this day, he continues to deny “having any knowledge of Epstein’s sexual misconduct while working for him,” his lawyer told the documentary’s producers.
Even so, former employees of the firm and journalists who have investigated the issue assure that this behavior attributed to Epstein is part of the accusations that would later come to light: that between 2002 and 2005 he paid minors up to 14 years of age in exchange for sex and then used them to recruit other girls for the same thing.
Trafficking attorney Conchita Sarnoff says Epstein was able to “bring girls from all over the world to the US under the guise that he was hiring them to model” thanks to his position as Wexner’s financial adviser.
Epstein committed suicide on August 10, 2019, in his prison cell in New York while awaiting trial on charges of sex trafficking and conspiracy. He was 66 years old, had pleaded not guilty and faced up to 45 years in prison if convicted.
The one who was sentenced was her ex-partner and partner Ghislaine Maxwell, whom in December 2021 the judge found guilty, among other crimes, of sex trafficking for Epstein to abuse minors.
Wexner was never listed as a co-conspirator in the indictments or implicated in any way in the case..
And in a letter sent to his workers in 2019 after Epstein’s arrest, he assured them that “he was never aware of any illicit activity by the defendant.” “I never would have imagined that one of my employees could cause so much pain to so many people,” he added.
That same year, the businessman revealed that he was also a victim of Epstein, whom he accused of stealing US$46 million, although he never filed charges against him for it.
Meanwhile, there are voices calling for a more in-depth investigation, pointing out that it was Wexner who sold Epstein the private plane that he allegedly used to traffic women and girls — which journalists and investigators refer to as the “Lolita Express” —, or the New York building where some of the abuse allegedly took place.
3. The “culture of bullying and misogyny” within Victoria’s Secret
The misconduct accusations against Epstein were not the only ones that splashed Wexner in his time at the helm of the lingerie giant.
Around this time, a number of employees and models began to speak of the “culture of harassment and misogyny” within Victoria’s Secret.
In the documentary, several former executives accuse ed razekwho was the firm’s chief operating officer, creator of the “angels” parade and its shows televised, of try to kiss models and ask them to sit on your lap.
He has rejected these accusations and has refused to give statements for the series, “so as not to dignify such crazy accusations with an answer”, as the magazine collects Times.
However, in an interview offered in 2019 to fashion he exposed in a certain way the culture indicated in the documentary, leaving himself in evidence.
“If you’re asking me if we’ve thought about including a transgender model in the show or a plus-size model, we have,” Razek said. “Why don’t we include someone in size 50? Or with the 60? Shouldn’t we have transsexuals in our show? No, we shouldn’t. And why not? Because the Show it is a fantasy”.
The reaction of rejection by LGBTI groups and members of the fashion industry was such that Victoria’s Secret issued an apology statement and Razek was forced to resign.
4. The brand’s inability to adapt to the post-MeToo world
“We had to follow these men’s closed vision of what a woman should be, a sex bomb, (someone with an image) unattainable,” says Sharleen Ernest in the docuseries, referring to Razek but also to Wexner.
According to the former Victoria’s Secret executive, her managers never accepted suggestions to expand the brand into the underwear market for pregnant and lactating women, or to include slimming garments in their catalog.
At that time, models of the highest level who had been angels for several seasons began posting messages on social networks in which criticism of Victoria’s Secret could be read between the lines.
Like when Bella Hadidafter participating in the Show of Savage x Fenty, Rihanna’s brand, whose casting included women of different ages and physiognomies, said that she had never felt so comfortable in her underwear.
In 2020 Wexner stepped down as CEO, also selling his majority stake in the company.
A year later, Victoria’s Secret’s said goodbye to the parade of angels that had generated so much expectation since 1995 and announced a complete redesign of its brand image.
In an attempt to become more inclusive, it created the collective vs.made up of women like the soccer player megan rapinoethe skier Eileen Guy and the plus size model Dove Elsesser.
Those interviewed for the documentary agree that it was a positive change, but a late one.
“That they present themselves as a reborn brand is also an interesting part of the story,” director Tyrnauer told CNN about it.
“But the most fascinating thing of all is how late they came to it, having been so brilliant at navigating the spirit of each age and exploiting major cultural trends to generate millions of dollars for so many years.”
Victoria’s Secret is still a lucrative brand—last year it reported $6.7 billion in profits, 25% more than the year before—but it’s fighting for something that already seems impossible: regain relevance from another era.
Meanwhile, at $5.8 billion Wexner remains Ohio’s richest man, but his legacy has been deeply, perhaps irrevocably, damaged by the scandals and his close relationship with Epstein.
It may interest you:
* Camila Cabello makes history as the new face of Victoria’s Secret
* “Let the whole world see me!”: Sofía Jirau, the first woman with Down syndrome to be a model for Victoria’s Secret
* Victoria’s Secret announces the definitive closure of more than 250 stores in the United States and Canada
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