When cameras started rolling on the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show on November 8 of last year, there was a lot to celebrate.
It was Adriana Lima's last show as an Angel, as the venerated model was hanging up her wings for good. The occasion marked the show's return to New York City after sojourns to Paris and Shanghai in years prior. And Shawn Mendes was due to take the stage as one of the many musical acts. Who doesn't love that?
Yet, by the time the show had finished taping ahead of its December airdate on new network home ABC, all anyone was talking about was the incendiary quotes from parent company L Brand's chief marketing officer Ed Razek uttered on the record during an interview with Vogue.
With more inclusive upstarts like Rihanna's Savage x Fenty, Aerie and ThirdLove nipping at the brand's heels, carving away at their market share, Razek was clearly on the defense. Responding to Rih's prior show, which earned glowing praise from press and fans alike for its refreshingly inclusive approach to sizing and model selection, the CMO said, “Everybody keeps talking about Rihanna's show. If we had done Rihanna's show, we would be accused of pandering without question.”
And then he kept going.
“We attempted to do a television special for plus-sizes [in 2000],” he said at one point in the interview. “No one had any interest in it, still don't.”
But the real coup de grâce, came when he ranted, “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. It's a 42-minute entertainment special. That's what it is. It is the only one of its kind in the world, and any other fashion brand in the world would take it in a minute, including the competitors that are carping at us. And they carp at us because we're the leader.”
Reaction was swift and decisive. The internet was not on his side. And a day later, via Twitter, he issued an apology.
“My remark regarding the inclusion of transgender models in the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show came across as insensitive,” his statement, shared on the Victoria's Secret main account, read. “I apologize. To be clear, we absolutely would cast a transgender model for the show. We've had transgender models come to castings…And like many others, they didn't make it…But it was never about gender. I admire and respect their journey to embrace who they really are.”
A week after the debacle, Victoria's Secret CEO Jan Singer, who had come to the company two years earlier from Spanx, resigned from her post amid reports of declining sales. According to the Wall Street Journal, who first reported Singer's departure, quarterly same-store sales had risen only once since she arrived. She was replaced by former Tory Burch president John Mehas, who would later admit, in September, that it was time for the brand to “evolve.”
But the damage to the Fashion Show had been done. By the time it aired on ABC in December after years on CBS, it hit an all-time viewership low of just 3.3 million viewers. And as it was about to be broadcast, Halsey, who performed at the show alongside Mendes, Bebe Rexha, Rita Ora, The Chainsmokers and more, took to social media to express her contempt for Razek's comments.
“After I filmed the special performance, some comments were made regarding the show that I simply cannot ignore,” she wrote on Instagram. “As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, I have no tolerance for a lack of inclusivity. Especially not one motivated by stereotype … If you're a trans person reading this, and these comments have made you feel alienated or invalidated please know that you have allies. We stand in solidarity. And complete and total acceptance is the only 'fantasy' that I support.”
By May, a memo from L Brands CEO Les Wexner would reveal that the company was reconsidering their approach to their highly-popular annual event. “Fashion is a business of change. We must evolve and change to grow. With that in mind, we have decided to re-think the traditional Victoria's Secret Fashion Show. Going forward we don't believe network television is the right fit,” the memo read, in part. “In 2019 and beyond, we're focusing on developing exciting and dynamic content and a new kind of event – delivered to our customers on platforms that she's glued to … and in ways that will push the boundaries of fashion in the global digital age. I've never been more excited about the power of this brand and where it's going … [Victoria's Secret CEO] John [Mehas] and team are re-birthing the brand.”
Two months later, Shanina Shaik, who'd previously walked in the show in 2011, 2012, 2014, 2015 and 2018, told The Daily Telegraph that the show wouldn't be happening at all this year. “It's something I'm not used to because every year around this time I'm training like an Angel. But I'm sure in the future something will happen, which I'm pretty sure about,” she added. “I'm sure they're trying to work on branding and new ways to do the show, because it's the best show in the world.” (Perhaps not coincidentally, Rihanna's Savage x Fenty show became the fashion world's must-see TV event when it streamed exclusively on Amazon Prime Video earlier this fall.)
Come August, Razek would resign. “With the exception of Les [Wexner, L Brands CEO], I've been with L Brands longer than anyone,” he wrote in his resignation letter. “But all good things must and do, inevitably, come to an end.”
While it's unclear when, if ever, the Fashion Show will return–Brazilian Angel Lais Ribeiro reportedly told a Brazilian outlet that the show would be returning in 2020–it's clear that the company isn't out of the woods yet. After February's announcement that 53 more stores would be closing this year, following the 30 that shuttered in 2018, it was reported that Victoria's Secret stock had fallen by 40 percent in the last year. And just last month, amid reports that the brand had laid off 15 percent of its employees at its Columbus, Ohio headquarters, around 50 total, ranging from senior leaders to junior staffers, April Hold, the executive vice-president of stores, quit after 16 years with the company.
“We're on the all-important journey to turn around the Victoria's Secret business,” an L Brands spokesperson said at the time in a statement released to CNBC. “As we've said, everything is on the table including having the right talent in the right places. Today we announced new leadership positions and organizational changes that help us simplify the business which allows us to be more agile. We believe these efficiencies are crucial to the evolution of our brand.”
The question on everyone's lips, though, is what if it's too late?