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This Hallowe’en, I’m Dressing Up As Miranda
Posted by richard | September 26, 2012

Victoria’s Secret might be the first clothing retailer to turn ITSELF into a Hallowe’en costume.

Yes, this year you can dress up as Miranda or Candice or any of the other VS supermodels, simply by splurging on the Sexy Little Angel costume (above) that’s included in this year’s Sexy Little Fantasies collection of adult costumes.

This isn’t the same “angel” costume that appeared in previous collections — that was a more conventional take on celestial angels, complete with halo and miniature wings. Instead, the new version is inspired by those earthbound Angels who are familiar to millions of viewers of the annual televised Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show.

The outfit — which promises to help you “sparkle up the runway” — is a sheer mesh teddy embellished with rhinestones and designed with revealing cutouts and a “cheekini” backside profile. It comes with an accompanying feather hairpiece and strap-on wings, but you’ll have to supply the 5-inch heels yourself.

It’s unclear where it might be appropriate to be seen in such a get-up, but if you’ve always fantasized about joining the high-voltage runway parade that is the VS Fashion Show — and inevitably dating Adam Levine — this might be your best chance.

The Angel costume ($136) is one of a handful of new pieces in the popular Sexy Little Fantasies lineup. There’s a Prohibition-era Sexy Little Mobster outfit and a Sexy Little Sergeant that will no doubt offer some comfort to military personnel returning from overseas duty. The company has also updated past bestsellers like the sailor and Santa outfits.

You can see the full collection and a brief intro video here.

What you won’t find this year in the VS Fantasies collection are a couple of dubious costumes that could be construed as racial stereotypes. The Sexy Little Geisha outfit (below) disappeared quickly, possibly due to this blogger’s complaints, and last year’s Sexy Little Senorita is likewise MIA.

The long-awaited opening of Victoria’s Secret‘s London flagship store yesterday had plenty of ‘wow factor': a glittering glass staircase, pink chandeliers, costumes from the VS Fashion Show, even the debut of a new fragrance, called ‘London’, developed especially for the occasion.

The only things missing were, arguably, the star attractions: Victoria’s Secret’s superstar celebrity Angels. Unlike the company’s highly publicized launch in Canada two years, the opening of the 40,000-square-foot pink palace on New Bond Street offered no celebrity sightings or meet-and-greets with Miranda, Doutzen, Candice or local favorite Rosie.

That didn’t seem to deter fans, though, as thousands braved threatening skies to line up outside the four-storey shop in London’s tony Mayfair district for a chance to fill up one of those iconic pink shopping bags.

And while no Angels were spotted in the throng, their images were everywhere in massive posters lining the walls and museum-like displays of custom costumes worn by the models during the last TV runway show. The shop also includes a VS Pink floor, a VIP floor for celebrity shoppers, and plenty of London-themed souvenir products.

Check out some of the store interiors in these images from London’s daily Telegraph.

To learn more about what the arrival of Victoria’s Secret means to the UK lingerie industry, read our earlier feature here.

Anticipation over the opening of Victoria’s Secret‘s new London flagship store — its first full-product store outside of North America* — has been building for months. So it was a major buzz-kill when the company suddenly announced in July that its long-planned, pre-Olympics launch was delayed indefinitely.

The news sparked plenty of speculative rumors: that there were problems with the massive New Bond Street retail space; that Victoria’s Secret didn’t want to compete with the Olympics for media attention; the company wanted to wait out Ramadan in order to cash in on the shopping spree that usually follows the Islamic holiday period; or scheduling problems with its supermodel Angels were making it difficult to put together the kind of traffic-stopping media event that typically accompanies such a launch (more on that later).

[A version of this article first appeared as a guest column on LingerieBriefs.com.]

But the delay — and the company’s summer-long silence on the matter — shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows Victoria’s Secret. Despite its flashy image, the lingerie superbrand is a famously secretive and slow-moving company that executes its strategic plans like they’re plotting moves in a chess game. Limited Brands, the Ohio-based retail giant that owns VS, has been planning its UK expansion for a long time (the London store was first announced more than two years ago) and, as the saying goes, they have only one chance to make a good first impression.

At this point, only one thing is certain about Victoria’s Secret’s British invasion: whenever it happens, it will be a game-changer, both for the UK lingerie market and for VS itself.

The London opening isn’t a one-off for Victoria’s Secret, which first began to look beyond its American base a few years ago with test-market mini-boutiques in a handful of international airports. Today, the company is committed to an aggressive international expansion and, according to Limited Brands’ latest investor report, is “on track to open over 200 international locations THIS YEAR.”

The opening of the London flagship store will trigger a stealth-like expansion into malls across the UK — a strategy that Victoria’s Secret has used with tremendous success in Canada. In addition, three new high-end stores are slated for the Middle East; 10 stores are targeted for Colombia; one mall store is planned for El Salvador; the Dominican Republic will get two VS shops; and there’s even a franchise beauty and accessories boutique on the books for Poland.

The company’s experience in Canada over the past two years is probably the most instructive indicator for anyone trying to guess what kind of impact Victoria’s Secret will have in the UK.

After massive openings in Edmonton and Toronto in 2010 (complete with attention-grabbing appearances by the supermodel Angels), Victoria’s Secret has slowly built up its Canadian roster. It now has nearly two dozen VS and VS Pink stores around the country, and has announced seven new stores in Canada for the coming year. Its latest opening, just last week, drew predictable crowds of shoppers and gawkers in Halifax.

The Canadian rollout was a triumph of execution and a reminder of the powerful global appeal of the Victoria’s Secret brand. Canadian shoppers welcomed Victoria’s Secret almost ecstatically, even though you could find equivalents to most of the company’s products in Canadian shops like La Vie En Rose, La Senza, Jacob and other mall brands.

And who was the big loser in the battle for market share? Ironically, it’s been Limited Brands itself, which also owns the struggling La Senza brand in Canada. La Senza (Canada) has foundered in Victoria’s Secret’s wake, and last year Limited closed 40 of its stores in this country. La Senza jobs were moved from its historic Montreal base to Limited’s headquarters in Columbus, Ohio, and the company plans to shutter 30 more branches as it tries to “right-size” the brand and convert it into discount teen label.

Meanwhile, the most vulnerable competitor in Canada, La Vie En Rose, responded to the VS invasion cleverly. Rather than just fight Victoria’s Secret on home turf, Canada’s largest independent lingerie chain looked abroad, announcing plans to take its brand into an odd assortment of relatively untapped foreign markets — Georgia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan — and expand its existing presence in several Middle East countries as well as China and India. Such moves won’t protect the company’s historic market share in Canada, but it will give La Vie En Rose new sources of cash to strengthen its brand and its bottom line.

In Britain’s feverishly competitive lingerie market, anyone who thinks there won’t be casualties following Victoria’s Secret’s arrival is either in denial or hasn’t been paying attention. Based on figures from its North American operations, it’s reasonable to expect each new Victoria’s Secret location to siphon $5-million USD (or more) annually from the market. The big question is, who’s going to pay?

Many observers have suggested that Elle Macpherson Intimates — Britain’s most popular bra label — is the most vulnerable, but the Bendon Group‘s flagship brand typically appeals to a slightly older demographic than Victoria’s Secret (a razor-thin distinction that has insulated La Vie En Rose and Jacob from market share erosion in Canada).

More likely, the companies with the most to lose are those with the largest retail operations, who will have to fight for foot traffic, or big e-commerce portals, which stand to lose some click-happy fingers. On the retail front, that means stores like Debenhams and the iconic Marks and Spencer (which claims to sell more than 60% of all knickers bought in Britain); on the e-comm side, it means ASOS, Topshop and others like them.

Larger independent retailers are also nervous — and girding for battle. Ann Summers, the UK’s biggest seller of erotic toys, last year expanded its sexy lingerie offerings significantly in an effort to broaden its customer base. Meanwhile, successful newcomer Boux Avenue has pulled out all the stops, announcing its own plans to expand into foreign markets and, earlier this month, repositioning its brand image by hiring a plus-sized model to be the company’s new face.

Still, the obvious low-hanging fruit in the UK lingerie market in 2012 is La Senza. The historic UK retail label (which is unaffiliated with the North American brand of the same name) teetered on the edge of bankruptcy late last year, sending spasms through the industry. In January, though, it was rescued by the formidable Kuwait-based retail giant M.H. Alshaya, which earned tremendous goodwill by keeping 60 stores open and thus preserving hundreds of UK jobs.

Alshaya’s intervention in La Senza, however, sets the table for an unusual market showdown. Not only does La Senza compete directly against VS for the youth push-up bra and knickers market, but parent company Alshaya also operates Victoria’s Secret’s prized franchise locations in the Middle East. Will Limited Brands really try to build UK market share at the expense of its powerful Middle Eastern partner, possibly cannibalizing itself like it has done in Canada? Don’t bet on it.

One thing you can bet on, though: British lingerie makers and sellers aren’t going to let the pink polyester tide wash over them without a spirited fight.

The UK lingerie industry has been a beehive of activity over the past year as smaller labels expand into new categories and introduce new distribution channels in order to increase brand loyalty. No one will say they’re deliberately bracing to take on Victoria’s Secret, but they’d be foolish not to.

From a fashion standpoint, Britain is also the most hyper-creative lingerie market in the world right now. Whether your tastes run to fashion-forward concept brands like Nichole De Carle or Made By Niki, eco-labels like Sweetling and Ayten Gasson, edgy artsy names like Dirty Pretty Things and Yes Master, vintage revivalists like What Katie Did and Kiss Me Deadly, or high-end fetish wear from the likes of Bordelle and Lascivious, Britain is awash in talent and overflowing with style options. There is nothing you can find in Victoria’s Secret that can’t be trumped by existing goods in the UK market.

There’s also an ‘X Factor’ in the coming market battle. How much do British women care about where their knickers come from? How solid is their allegiance to homegrown UK labels, some of whom (like Marks and Spencer) have been providing undies to British families for generations?

British lingerie professionals see this as vital to the industry’s survival and have collectively been pushing a “Made In UK” promotional strategy that piggybacks on the patriotic fervor whipped up by the Queen’s Jubilee and the recent Olympics. To some, the arrival of Victoria’s Secret in London is a repudiation of that noble nationalistic goal, and one that can only be thwarted at the cash registers. Make no mistake, Victoria’s Secret will ignite a war over brand loyalty in Britain, a battle for the hearts and souls and butts of young consumers.

Victoria’s Secret also faces other significant obstacles in finding a home in the UK market, where people still giggle over the American word “panties”:

  • There are some dramatic differences in foundations sizing between the UK and North America, a fact that has proved costly for other international brands trying to make the same leap. In addition to different sizing protocols, recent studies have shown that British women’s average bra sizes have grown in recent years. Bustier, curvier figures are much more common in the UK, and much less stigmatized than in North America. How will the Victoria’s Secret squadron of rail-thin supermodels appeal to the same consumer base that has embraced Curvy Kate?
  • Victoria’s Secret has sailed through the recession of the past four years with consistent, if unspectacular, growth that has kept shareholders happy and left other fashion retailers writhing with envy. A lot of that success, though, has been the result of discounting products and incentivizing customers with coupons and gift giveaways. It’s a great strategy for hard times in that it keeps cash flowing and inventory moving, but it eats into profit margins and risks turning the brand into a bargain-hunter’s dream. Victoria’s Secret will have trouble using price as an incentive in Britain, where retailers have been slashing costs by outsourcing production and passing savings on to customers for years. Cheap knickers are already abundant.
  • Market localization plays a stronger role in Britain than other markets. What sells in Surrey or Middlesex can be significantly different than what appeals to shoppers in other parts of the realm. It’s a unique characteristic of the UK consumer that bedevils cookie-cutter mall brands, and one which may force Victoria’s Secret to tweak its proven recipes for success to account for local tastes.
  • Cultural differences might also impact the VS product catalog. Perhaps every American college co-ed wants the words “sexy” and “pink” printed on their backsides, but whether UK girls have the same taste for American logo-porn remains to be seen.
  • Victoria’s Secret’s marketing juggernaut is pervasive in North America (seriously, when was the last day you didn’t see an image of Miranda, Candice, et. al. somewhere?). But all those provocative window displays and mural-size street-corner billboards might draw fire from UK censors, who police such things much more closely than we do in North America. A new child-protection law even governs the proximity of lingerie advertising near schools, which will cut into VS’s marketing blanket.

Finally, the biggest impediment to the company’s conquest of Britain and other markets might be Victoria’s Secret itself. Its remarkable success over the past two decades has transformed lingerie marketing and merchandising, but every page in the VS playbook — including its product inventory — has been copied by its competitors everywhere. Victoria’s Secret may land on Britain’s shores only to find its enemy looks frighteningly familiar.

What Victoria’s Secret has going for it in the coming battle is something called brand penetration — that combination of name recognition and customer approval that can be a retailer’s license to print money. Thanks largely to its Angels and the annual TV runway show, Victoria’s Secret has astonishing brand penetration in countries around the world where it has never traded before. And in the UK there’s an added bonus: the Victoria’s Secret name — a sly dig at the country’s longest-reigning monarch and her straitlaced morals — always made the company sound like it was British to begin with.

Brand power alone should give the company a huge head start and ensure a brisk trade when it finally opens its doors. But what happens after that is something else altogether. Victoria’s Secret will be mindful to avoid anything resembling an anti-American backlash, hoping that the allure of its rosy, fragrant emporiums will make British women put their patriotism aside at least temporarily.

Victoria’s Secret is even tweaking its business model to make a good first impression on its new UK audience. Opening its flagship store on New Bond Street — where people shop for upmarket fashions and couture labels — is an ambitious strategy designed to elevate the brand’s image. (Watch for something similar in the U.S. this year as the company undertakes a multi-million-dollar makeover to its flagship New York store in Herald Square.)

There are also rumors that Victoria’s Secret will open its London flagship store quietly, without any Angels present to whip up a predictable media frenzy. If that turns out to be true, it’ll reveal the company’s careful, wait-and-see approach to the task of exporting its American brand of sexy to the world and, perhaps, an uncharacteristic modesty as it begins that noble crusade.

Just don’t expect that to last for long.

[NOTE: *A smaller mall store opened as scheduled in July near the Olympic Village, and Victoria’s Secret also runs a small boutique at Heathrow Airport. The company has still not announced a new opening date for the London store.]

Is This What “Sexy” Really Looks Like?
Posted by richard | May 14, 2012

If you’re young, blonde and white, consider yourself lucky: you’ve won the trifecta of sexiness. If you’re none of those things, give up already.

At least that seems to be the message in Victoria’s Secret‘s annual “What Is Sexy?” list, which features a bevy of slinky blonde Hollywood up-and-comers — and almost no one else.

According to the lingerie retailer’s definition, sexiness today covers the vast human spectrum that ranges from Blake all the way to Britney, from Amber to Stacy, from Ashley to Annalynne. Let’s face it, if you’re on Leonardo DiCaprio‘s speed-dial, you’re probably on this list too.

Think I’m exaggerating? Here are the facts:

Of the 17 individuals on the 2012 “What Is Sexy?” list, 15 are either full-time or sometime blondes. (Only redhead Jessica Chastain and brunette Olivia Wilde offset the monochrome parade.)

Only one person in the homogenous group is non-white: the mixed-race icon Beyoncé. There are no African-American women, no Latinas, no Rihanna.

Thus, you won’t find Eva Longoria, Jennifer Lopez or Selena Gomez in this lineup. Same goes for Jennifer Hudson, Paula Patton, Kerry Washington, Gabrielle Union or anyone else from America’s nearly 20-million-strong community of black women. Instead, ethnic diversity is represented by such figures as German ice-blonde Diane Kruger and platinum-blonde Swedish blogger Elin Kling.

With a couple of exceptions, the women on the list are all single and without children. There are no gay women, only one person shorter than 5’4″ (Kristen Bell) and no full-figured, plus-sized or even genuinely buxom women. The “sexiest curves”, according to Victoria’s Secret, this year belong to svelte actress Amber Heard.

The average age of women on the list is 28, although that figure drops if you include the cast members of Pretty Little Liars (who were named “Sexiest TV Cast”). Only five women on the 2012 list are over 30 years old, the eldest being Charlize Theron at 36.

That may explain why Eva Mendes, Penelope Cruz, Kate Beckinsale, Jennifer Aniston, Denise Richards or Aishwarya Rai didn’t make the cut this year — ALL of those celebrated beauties are older than EVERYONE in the Victoria’s Secret universe of sexiness.

To be sure, all of the women on the 2012 “What Is Sexy?” list are physically attractive, and many are genuinely accomplished. But it’s hard not to see this as a shallow — and woefully unimaginative — lineup that exposes a kind of bigotry at the heart of Victoria’s Secret‘s cynical marketing.

The razor-thin demographic segment represented by the women on this list is conveniently similar to the one occupied by the leggy blonde Angels who model for Victoria’s Secret (there’s an eerie moment in the video below when Candice Swanepoel holds up a photo of lookalike Jennifer Lawrence), but it bears no resemblance to the remaining 99.99% of the female population.

When Victoria’s Secret asks the rhetorical question “what is sexy?”, the answer is obvious — and outrageous. It’s: “People like us. Not people like you.”

The “What Is Sexy?” campaign has changed drastically since Victoria’s Secret introduced it seven years ago.

When the company announced its first “What Is Sexy?” list in 2006, they seemed to take the question seriously. It wasn’t enough to merely declare the “sexiest man alive” (as People did), or the “sexiest woman alive” (as Esquire did), or list the world’s top 100 hotties (as Maxim and all the other lads’ mags did).

Instead, Victoria’s Secret set out to define “sexy” for the modern age by providing a set of familiar cultural reference points. After all, sexiness may be a timeless quality, but it’s also fluid, subjective and heavily influenced by changes in both fashion trends and celebrity popularity.

Thus, in its broad first campaign, the company covered a lot of bases. It bestowed the “sexy” crown on both male and female winners in four categories (music, acting, sports, TV), identified the sexiest U.S. and foreign cities, and chose the sexiest food (chocolate), music video, movie (Unfaithful) and even car.

It was an odd list (where else could you find both Shakira and Jay Leno as co-winners in the same contest?), but you could tell they put some thought into it. Back then, “sexiness” wasn’t just a collection of smooth body parts; it was a reflection of character, style, humor, presentation and self-confidence.

The list was also a strategic marketing coup for Victoria’s Secret. People talked about it, debated the choices, secretly compared themselves to those who made the list. More than any other corporate brand in America, Victoria’s Secret — which, it should be remembered, sells underwear — became the presumptive authority on the subject of “sexy”.

Since the first “What Is Sexy?” list appeared, that question has been at the core of all of the company’s relentless marketing, to the point where the brand and the question gradually morphed into one self-referencing, self-promoting concept. What is sexy? Victoria’s Secret is sexy.

In its first few years, Victoria’s Secret had fun with the question and its annual list. Plenty of men were included, along with sexy athletes, couples and parents. David Beckham was named sexiest dad in 2007, a year before wife Victoria was chosen sexiest mom.

And there were some off-the-wall selections that showed the company was being creative with its choices: Matthew McConaughey was named “best beach body” in 2007, Stephen Colbert earned “sexiest funny guy” in 2009 and Padma Lakshmi was named sexiest chef in 2010. Even Ellen De Generes made the list in the same year as Christina Hendricks and ScarJo.

The most ambitious attempt to create a lasting blueprint that would define sexiness for the ages came in 2009, when Victoria’s Secret presented twin lists that matched current celebrities with icons from the past. Brigitte Bardot and Angelina Jolie were twin winners in the “sexiest lips” category, while Kate Winslet was paired with Marilyn Monroe for “sexiest actress”. Most fun were the oddball pairings that triggered countless debates: Cary Grant/Kelly Ripa for “sexiest smile” and Jim Morrison/Beyoncé for “sexiest musician”.

Since 2009, however, the “What Is Sexy?” list has become little more than a scorecard of who’s-hot-now among the red carpet crowd.

The company no longer includes men on the list, or athletes or anyone who doesn’t appeal directly to the 90210 audience. Instead, “what’s sexy today” are established, currently popular female stars who validate the mainstream tastes of Victoria’s Secret‘s youthful customer base — role models whose generic looks can be achieved with a bottle of hair color and some lacey underthings.

But not every Hollywood bombshell passes that test, which is why you won’t find Nicki Minaj or anyone like her here. She’s too short, she’s the wrong color and, let’s face it, she doesn’t need a push-up bra.

Victoria’s Secret Hits Bottom
Posted by richard | April 11, 2012

Victoria’s Secret is all about one thing: giving you the goods to show off your assets to optimal effect. And when we say assets we mean, of course, asses.

Wait a minute. What the hell? VS is boosting butts now?

Yes, after exhausting every possible way to amplify frontal cleavage, the lingerie retailer has turned its attention to your bottom line.

You can see the results in a daring new video to promote the VS 2012 swimwear collection. Called “Beach Bums“, the saucy spot offers an extended look at the derrières of Candice Swanepeol, Behati Prinsloo, Elyse Taylor and Magdalena Frackowiack, who can now add “butt model” to their resumés and portfolios.

It’s part of a mega-marketing push for the company’s extensive “Teeny Bikini” bathing suit line, ostensibly produced to encourage customers to mix-and-match bikini bottoms. But it’s also one of the most pervy, hyper-sexualized bits of female objectification that Victoria’s Secret has ever produced.

Beach Bums is meant to be “cute, cheeky fun” (their words), although this time VS comes closer than usual to testing the patience of censors and Republicans (you almost certainly will never see this used as TV commercial).

It also risks sparking a backlash from women’s groups and feminist advocates. The video’s explicit, fetishistic fascination with bums is undeniably sophomoric, and would probably be deemed highly offensive if VS took the same drooling, spring-break approach to female breasts. (Whatever you think of Victoria’s Secret marketing, their bra promotions are rarely this crass, typically focusing on the models and the products while leaving the leering to the imaginations of their viewers.)

One other thing stands out in the Beach Bums video: all the butts on display look absolutely identical. In fact, in the numerous shots that DON’T show the model’s faces, it’s impossible to identify the models or tell one from another. Isn’t that one of the main complaints about porn?

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