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Expected VSFS newcomers (top row, l-r): Shu Pei, Sharam Diniz, Cara Delevingne; (second) Hilary Rhoda, Jourdan Dunn, Dorothea Barth Jorgensen; (third) Maud Welzen, Jasmine Tookes, Frida Gustavsson; (bottom) Jessica Hart, Barbara Fiahlo, Barbara Palvin.

The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show gets underway in New York today with an unprecedented level of pre-show buzz, a dramatic Hollywood-style backstory and a even a tiny cloud of controversy.

The sexiest (and most expensive) night on television will be put together from two taped shows held later today at New York’s Lexington Armory. The hour-long spectacle will then broadcast on CBS-TV on Dec. 4, when it’s expected to blow past last year’s record TV audience of over 10 million viewers.

“When you’re talking about major fashion events, there’s our show and then there’s … what?” VS capo Ed Razek says in the video below, which focuses on the annual ritual of casting the show’s models.

That the 17th VS Fashion Show is being held at all is something of a triumph, coming barely a week after Hurricane Sandy devastated the east coast and left much of New York in darkness for days. But rather than cripple the production, the storm merely added another chapter to Victoria’s Secret’s rich corporate mythology.

When a National Guard regiment in lower Manhattan lost power during the storm, it turned for help to the Victoria’s Secret team that was setting up in the armory — and which had the foresight to bring along eight backup generators to help power the show. The VS team loaned generators and a forklift to the Guard unit to support its relief operations for stranded New Yorkers.

Though generally viewed as a selfless gesture, the role of the sexy lingerie retailer in helping the troops also sparked a lot of internet grumbling (ie. Why was the VS show going ahead at all when New Yorkers are still recovering from the storm?) and exaggerated news stories.

On Monday, Victoria’s Secret used its Facebook page to hit back at “false media reports” and dismiss suggestions that the production somehow took resources and energy away from the post-Sandy cleanup efforts.

“We want all of you to know that we’ve been partnering closely with the National Guard since Hurricane Sandy hit, and we’d never do anything to impede their relief efforts,” the company said on its normally chirpy FB wall.

But when the lights go up on the first taping this afternoon, the last thing on anyone’s mind will be the weather outside.

The 2012 VSFS promises to be an almost fissionable blend of impossibly gorgeous women, blinding costumes and megawatt pop stars like Justin Beiber and Rihanna.

It’ll also provide a window into the future of Victoria’s Secret itself, which will spend an estimated $12-million on the production. This year, the company is energizing its annual marketing showcase with the biggest infusion of new blood in the show’s glitzy history.

Nearly a third of the expected 38 supermodels on the Victoria’s Secret runway will be making their first appearance in the show. Although the lineup can change anytime before the curtain rises on the first performance, insiders say 12 newcomers earned spots in the modeling world’s most highly coveted gig.

This year’s casting sparked a flurry of speculation (and handicapping) on fan sites and social media, ratcheting up anticipation for the show. And all those fresh faces on the catwalk will also provide a visual subtext for Victoria’s Secret’s latest corporate ambition — global market expansion.

The flock of Angels for this show represent 16 countries and include a record three models from China and three from the United Kingdom, where VS launched its first two offshore stores this year.

Model Cameron Russell getting fitted with a costume for today’s show.

The lineup is a high-powered one, too. It includes four of the top 10 models currently working (according to Models.com’s rankings), including Joan Smalls (#1) and Karlie Kloss (#2), and six of the 12 highest-paid models in the business.

As for the newcomers and first-timers, fashion fans will be on the lookout for the UK super-duo of Jourdan Dunn and Cara Delevingne, Swedish youngsters Dorothea Barth Jorgensen and Frida Gustavsson, Americans Jasmine Tookes and Hilary Rhoda and the stunning Angolan model Sharam Diniz. Fans will also get their first glimpse of Jessica Hart and Barbara Palvin on the VS runway, although both are now familiar faces in the company’s catalogs and advertising.

And while all the new faces on the runway today might hint at corporate repositioning for Victoria’s Secret, there’s also a simpler explanation.

For those who remember last year’s show, an indisputable new star emerged from the riot of color, sound, flashing lights and glitter-sprayed flesh. The classic American beauty Karlie Kloss, then only 19, stole the show in her first appearance with an effervescent swagger that made her a new VS darling overnight (and added momentum to her meteoric rise up the list of the world’s top models).

Today, Victoria’s Secret is counting on its new girls to generate the same kind of spark — and enough heat to make everyone forget the storm outside.

What was Victoria’s Secret thinking when it decided to hire Justin Bieber to perform during this year’s Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show?

Even diehard fans of both the lingerie retailer and the teen popstar are scratching their heads over the wisdom (and ethics) of using an 18-year-old man-boy to help sell sexy underwear.

The Bieb’s massive international fanbase has broadened a lot since his early days as an adolescent heartthrob, but it still includes countless millions of pre-teen and even infant girls. Not exactly the demo you’re trying to hit when selling push-up bras and lacey thongs, unless you’re counting on the fans’ moms to be watching too.

Bieber, along with Rihanna, Bruno Mars and more than 30 willowy, waving supermodels, will hit the runway when the annual high-wattage spectacle airs on CBS-TV on Tuesday, Dec. 4.

At first glance, Bieber seems both inappropriate and a poor fit for the late-night VSFS audience, which tunes in mainly to ogle the parade of international beauties in opulent, revealing costumes. He’s clean-cut, ridiculously well-mannered and so far scandal-free. And his family-friendly public image is reflected in his choice of female companions: a Disney-bred girlfriend, a heroic single-parent mom, celebrity pals like Ellen and the Will Smith family, and an inspirational connection with 6-year-old cancer victim Avalanna (“Mrs. Bieber“) Routh, who got her dying wish to “marry” her idol earlier this year.

Now, overlay onto all of that the sexed-up razzle-dazzle that is the VS Fashion Show, which is obviously a better showcase for more explicitly sexualized celebs like Rihanna (or last year’s triple threat of Kanye, Nicki Minaj and Adam Levine).

Costume sketches for the 2012 Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show

As always, however, there’s some savvy calculation going on in the VS executive suite, and some strategic reasons why they picked The Bieb instead of other superstar acts like, say, Adele or Gaga or Béyonce that might be more suitable for the VS market.

First, because of his almost universal appeal to high school-age girls, Bieber will provide enormous exposure to Victoria’s Secret’s Pink brand, the rapidly growing collection of underwear, stuffed animals, perfume and logo-printed casual wear aimed at the pre-college crowd. (You can expect his performance to come immediately ahead of the Pink runway segment in this year’s show.)

Bieber also promotes a kind of ultra-generic feel-good message — evidenced by the curiously un-specific word “believe”, which is the name of his new album and world tour and which has turned his legions of fans into self-appointed “beliebers“. That kind of default optimism meshes perfectly with Victoria’s Secret marketing, which consistently emphasizes self-esteem and personal confidence. Don’t be surprised if a new “Believe” push-up bra reaches their shelves in time for Christmas.

But there’s more than just market synchronicity going on here. Victoria’s Secret is highly focused on brand development — expanding the global reach of a company that is already a household name in North America — and Bieber serves that corporate strategy exceedingly well.

In addition to his status as a performer, the young star is also the undisputed king of social media, literally whispering in the ears of young girls everywhere, every day. And hiring him gives Victoria’s Secret access to the single most effective marketing tool in the world today: Justin Bieber’s Twitter feed and other social media accounts.

With nearly 47 million Twitter followers, 29 million Facebook fans and over a billion YouTube views, Bieber’s reach into the hearts and minds of young consumers is unrivalled by any corporate brand, sports star or lifeform on the planet.

He’ll undoubtedly mention his TV appearance on his various social media accounts as the VSFS approaches — with an unsexy message like “Psyched to be taking my mom to #VSFashionShow tonight. Love all my fans so much. #believe” — and his performance will be copied and uploaded onto YouTube where it will be replayed tens of millions of times.

As the agency folks like to say, you can’t put a price on that kind of exposure. If the goal is to court a new generation of future customers and to beef up the company’s international recognition — which it is — Victoria’s Secret couldn’t find a more bankable set of coattails to ride.

Finally, it’s worth remembering that the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show isn’t really just a product showcase anymore (you really don’t see much of the brand’s catalogue, anyway). It’s a television program, a prime-time network TV show, and as such it marches to the drumbeat of ratings and demographics and the precise demands of advertisers, affiliates and network executives.

Last year’s show, which reportedly cost more than $12-million to stage, demonstrated how carefully and expertly Victoria’s Secret and CBS zeroed in on those goals. It had a first-run audience of 10.4 million households, a 15% jump from the previous year. It was the single most-watched entertainment program on TV that week and placed first among key consumer age groups — 18-49, 25-54 and the splurge-spending 18-34 crowd. Among all groups it was the most-watched Victoria’s Secret show since the early 2000s and one of the most successful in the show’s 16-year history.

Now, add to those numbers the “shoulder” demographics that Bieber will pull in — every teenager in the world, anxious parents who might otherwise be in bed by 10 p.m., younger kids who know how to work a TiVo, and members of the Parents Television Council who will have the FCC on speed-dial. Suddenly the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show goes from a TV ratings hit to front page news.

All thanks to a sweet little guy with a girlish voice.

The only risk facing the spritely phenom: standing on that catwalk, in front of a live audience, surrounded by a flirty throng of the world’s most beautiful — and tallest! — women. Now THAT would make me throw up.

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.]

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