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A lot of people will be watching closely when the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show is taped in New York tomorrow — and not just for the reasons you think.

Fashion Industry observers are hoping the annual pageant of lanky beauties will answer a question that’s been hounding the lingerie retailer for months: What — and who — is next for the Victoria’s Secret Angels, the brand’s highly visible (and enormously popular) spokesmodels?

The question is not as simple, or as trivial, as it seems.

It’s been a stellar year for the Ohio-based chain and parent company Limited Brands, but changes in the Angels’ lineup have left its creative team scrambling to plug holes in the production schedule after some high-profile departures.

For starters, U.S. favorite Marisa Miller (who was rumored to have left VS after last year’s fashion show) has been largely AWOL throughout 2010.

Brazilian beauty Adriana Lima returned from materinity leave in the spring — but it wasn’t long before two others (Doutzen Kroes and Miranda Kerr) revealed they too were pregnant and off the runway till next year.

But the real bombshell (pardon the pun) came in September when German supermodel Heidi Klum (below), an 11-year VS veteran, announced her retirement to focus on other projects, depriving the squad of its undisputed leader.

Since then, chat rooms and Twitter accounts have been buzzing with rumours about what will become of the suddenly depleted Angels, which now includes an active duty roster of only nine girls. One popular Internet forum, www.lovevsmodels.com, has a 72-page thread on the subject, and dozens of other conversations in which members analyze every new face (and outfit) in the Angels lineup.

Seems like a lot of fuss, but then there’s a lot at stake.

The Angels are the fashion world’s A-Team, an elite squad of brand ambassadors with few peers. You have to go back to the 1980s (Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders) or even the 1950s (Disney’s Mouseketeers) to find a collective marketing ploy that has so thoroughly captured public attention and become synonymous with the brand it represents.

It’s even an exclusive club among the rarefied world of supermodels. As VS creative director Ed Razek pointed out last week during casting for the fashion show, there are probably only 100 models in the world with the appropriate figure, poise and personality to walk a Victoria’s Secret show — let alone join the permanent Angels corps.

Current industry speculation about the Angels suggests changes may be in store for the VS bod squad. Recent rumors suggest the company may try:

  • rotating more models through the Angels lineup in order to minimize the impact of future departures or pregnancies;
  • expanding the lineup to increase cultural and ethnic diversity;
  • using a core group of Angels — the friendliest ones — for the grueling (and growing) schedule of public appearances;
  • exclusively “attaching” some models to specific product lines, in the way that Behati Prinsloo has become the face of VS Pink.
  • or even retiring the Angels name altogether and replacing it with the sexier “Bombshell” label, which has been used for several new products.

The biggest question mark, though, involves the team’s unofficial leadership position vacated by Heidi. Those are mighty big wings to fill, and there are really only two contenders: Adriana, now the longest-serving Angel, and Alessandra Ambrosio, another Brazilian who is frequently associated with VS swimwear.

Many observers believe the decision to give Adriana the job of opening this year’s fashion show and wearing the $2-million diamond Fantasy bra is a not-so-subtle way of anointing a new queen and nudging her into the senior role.

The company, meanwhile, hasn’t done much to quell the rumors or reveal its strategy. In fact, it is often surprisingly coy when it comes to making announcements related to such a valuable franchise.

News of Angel appointments are often slyly tucked into Facebook posts or promotional videos in a way that drives fans crazy:

  • Lily Aldridge was identified only as a new “supermodel” in an introductory video, but in subsequent references was called an Angel;
  • when Katsia Damenkova was hired, she was identified only as a new “face” and fans were asked to guess her identity;
  • Brazilian Arlenis Sosa was identified as a new Angel in a September video, but she isn’t on the cast list for the fashion show and her current status is unclear;
  • Likewise for Indian supermodel Moni Dutta, who has been widely reported as having joined the Angel team last month — although VS hasn’t mentioned her.

For the record, Victoria’s Secret discourages suggestions that the Angels are an exclusive club, or that there is a preferential pecking order among the company’s models, or that a model has to “earn her wings” before getting promoted to Angel status.

“All models that work for Victoria’s Secret are our Angels,” a company spokesperson told us. “We will have 33 Angels walking in our show this year.”

When asked if the company would name a new head Angel to replace Heidi, the spokesperson remained vague: “All of our Angels have different personalities and bring something unique to our fashion show and our brand.”

Like any good ball club manager, Victoria’s Secret jealousy guards the right to change its game-day lineup to suit its own needs with the best talent available. For the Angels’ millions of obsessive fans, it wouldn’t hurt to keep a scorecard.

[NOTE: The Victoria’s Secret website currently lists 13 supermodel/Angels (although Heidi is still on that list). Some VS watchers contend that only four — Miranda, Adriana, Alessandra and Doutzen — have exclusive “Angel” contracts, but the company won’t confirm this.]

Photos courtesy LoveVSModels.com, shot today at VS Fashion Show photo op.

Posted in Victoria's Secret

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