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Photo: Victoria's Secret/Brittany Holloway-Brown
Photo: Victoria's Secret/Brittany Holloway-Brown

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Touched by an Angel

Why Victoria’s Secret is still thriving in America’s malls

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There's a good reason why tickets to the Victoria's Secret fashion show are literally golden. Everything about how the event is set up is meant to drive a feeling of exclusivity, from the mandated dress code ("dressy cocktail attire") to the government-issued photo ID check to the fact that recording of any kind is "strictly prohibited."

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In the short walk from the white party tent where I pick up my will call ticket to the show venue across the street, a fleet of hulking security guards in inky black suits and pastel ties ask to see both my hot pink wristband and my golden cardboard slab of a ticket at least seven times.

The live taping of the show takes place on a drizzly night in November, exactly one month before it will air on primetime network television. The entire thing is recorded twice, once at 4 p.m. and then again at 8, inside New York City's Lexington Avenue Armory, where every part of the set is built from scratch about two weeks before the taping. Tickets are not technically available to the public, although several concierge services charge up to $25,000 for the chance to attend (and get sued for doing so).

Inside the Armory, up the stairs and past the bag check station, there is one last checkpoint. Just beyond a giant backlit Victoria's Secret sign that practically begs for Instagrams stands a line of men handing out square plastic sleeves for everyone's cell phones.

Photo: Victoria's Secret/Brittany Holloway-Brown

The emphasis on the no-recording rule is almost comical —€” the ticket confirmation email even threatened that staff would be roaming the crowd inside the show, asking people to delete any footage if they dared snap a picture or record a clip. Of course, by the end of the night, a deluge of photos and videos will have made its way to social media; anyone could watch the whole fashion show in 15-second increments if they wanted.

"Fashion show" is a pretty loose term for the spectacle that Victoria's Secret parent company L Brands has been engineering for the past 20 years. It doesn't take place within the confines of any official fashion week schedule, but rather exists as an hour-long TV special on CBS right in the middle of retail's biggest selling season. It also attracts many more eyeballs than any actual fashion show —€” half a billion people across the globe will watch tonight, according to the company.

As the lights dim, a deep, booming voice echoes across the crowd, welcoming us to the event. "The Victoria's Secret show is viewed by 500 million people in over 190 countries," the disembodied male voice proudly proclaims. "That means you have managed to procure one of the most coveted seats IN THE WORLD!" Seconds later, Behati Prinsloo opens the "boho psychedelic" portion of the show in a sequined cropped jacket with floor-grazing neon orange fringe pouring from the sleeves, leather boots laced up to her thighs, and elaborate paper wings emblazoned with the word "LOVE" in sparkly red bubble letters.

"The Victoria's Secret show is viewed by 500 million people in over 190 countries. That means you have managed to procure one of the most coveted seats IN THE WORLD!"

Beneath all the fringe and the leather and the sparkles, though, Prinsloo is wearing a Victoria's Secret Bombshell push-up bra and matching underwear. You can buy the bra right now for $49.50 at your local mall, and if you buy two, the second comes at 50 percent off.

This is a brand that sells reasonably-priced lingerie to moms in middle America, but can also pull off an event Vogue covers 14 different ways on the day of taping. The ubiquitous Victoria's Secret name is on practically every mall directory in America, right alongside Sears and JCPenney, yet Gigi Hadid will drop to her knees when she finds out she's finally booked the show after years of rejection.

"Even if you're in the middle of nowhere, you know about the Victoria's Secret show," Prinsloo says in a video hyping the TV special. "It's just such an incredible event to be a part of, and they kill it every year." According to Forbes, 16 out of the 21 highest paid models in the world walked the Victoria's Secret runway this year.

The fashion show is but one piece of the Victoria's Secret fantasy that the company has cautiously, deliberately built over the past 40 years in a successful bid to dominate the mass lingerie market. While other mall retailers are initiating company-wide layoffs and driving deeper and deeper discounts to try and stay afloat, Victoria's Secret just celebrated six consecutive years of sales growth and L Brands' stock hit an all-time high in November.

Back on the runway, Angel veteran Lily Aldridge appears in leopard thigh-high boots, a sequin-embellished jacket with draping, puffy sleeves (not so far off from those puffy sleeves), and a Victoria's Secret Designer Collection bra and panty set. As she pushes her hips out and blows a kiss at the end of the runway, the crowd of hundreds spontaneously rises to its feet from the stadium-style bleacher seating in an uncontained wave of excitement, clapping and cheering as if this were fashion's version of the Super Bowl.

Victoria's Secret is in a league of its own. According to market research firm IBISWorld, lingerie stores pulled in $9 billion in revenue in the US this year; between Victoria's Secret and its younger brand Pink, L Brands owns 61.8 percent of the lingerie store market share. In comparison, American Eagle's Aerie stores account for approximately 1.4 percent, and the formerly commanding Frederick's of Hollywood exited the market earlier this year when it went bankrupt, closed all of its physical stores, and became an online-only business.

Photo: Victoria's Secret/Brittany Holloway-Brown

"If you want to buy that affordable luxury undergarment that makes you feel good and sexy, but isn't La Perla prices, Victoria's Secret is really the only standalone store in the game," Morningstar retail analyst Bridget Weishaar explains. "There are online retailers and a bunch of new startups, but lots of people don't want to buy underwear without trying it on, so that hurts them. Then, if you want to go to a store, it's a department store and people just don't like shopping in department stores. It's a dying breed."

Without the competition, Victoria's Secret simply isn't bogged down by the same problems as everyone else. Other mall staples like Gap and J.Crew don't even come close to pulling in the same figures as Victoria's Secret, which boasted $7.2 billion in net sales in the US and Canada last year, about 80 percent of which were in-store sales. For comparison, Gap reported $3.9 billion in net sales in 2014 and J.Crew reported $2.2 billion.

Victoria's Secret can operate 1,531 stores, and have all of them do very, very well. L Brands CFO Stuart Burgdoerfer went so far as to break down the percentage of company stores that are in A, B, and C malls (rated based on the mall's financial stability) in the annual investor update meeting this year to prove that malls are still an incredibly safe bet for the company.

Trying to survive in the lingerie industry when you're not Victoria's Secret is incredibly difficult.

"We have very high profit levels across all of these mall types," Burgdoerfer said, pointing to a slide that indicated 73 percent of all Victoria's Secrets are in malls, with 23 percent specifically in struggling C malls. "We also have very solid sales growth across all of these mall types. So you may be thinking, ‘Really? Are you guys really growing sales in C malls?' And the answer to that question is yes, we really are. And we're growing them in B's and A's as well."

But trying to survive in the lingerie industry when you're not Victoria's Secret is incredibly difficult.

"This is a very unique space," Weishaar says. "It costs a fortune to stock all of the products you need. Think about all of the sizing that goes into bras compared to if you're selling T-shirts, where you just sell in small, medium, and large sizes. With so many sizes in undergarments, it costs a fortune to stock your store. It's also very hard to make undergarments. With a bra, there's over 10 components to it, so to get the sizing, fit, and quality right is much harder than making clothing. That's really been a sufficient barrier to entry to keep people out."

Independent lingerie designers are forced to sell their bras at double Victoria's Secret's price point in order to produce goods that match the brand on quality, but shoppers have been conditioned to think of a $100 bra as an overpriced luxury.

On top of that, Victoria's Secret is constantly refreshing its stores with new products. Heading into the last couple months of the year, Victoria's Secret was still "open to buy" on 90 percent of its merchandise, which, as Weishaar explains, means that the company (just like the H&Ms and Zaras of the world) has the ability to decide what it wants the vast majority of its assortment to be right now instead of needing to plan seasons in advance.

Photo: Victoria's Secret/Brittany Holloway-Brown

The lingerie market is also characterized by more intense brand loyalty than what you'll find in the clothing market. It's miraculous enough to find a bra that fits well; why leave your comfort zone once you get there? "The Bombshell bras make every blouse, sweater or dress fit better. I have about 20 of them and love them all," reads one of 455 online reviews of the Bombshell bra. (Kylie Jenner is a loyal fan too.) "These are the only bras I ever buy," exclaims one of 700 reviews on a Body by Victoria demi bra. The Body by Victoria Perfect Coverage bra has racked up over 1,200 overwhelmingly gushy reviews.

"I think what Victoria's Secret has done very well is kept their brand top of mind. I'm a very big believer that the internet has put a magnifying glass to brands, because the way people shop is through brands," says Marni Shapiro, a managing partner at retail analytics firm The Retail Tracker. "To use an example, I don't think most people are going online, popping into Google, and typing ‘red bra.' That's just not how somebody would shop. They're going to go to the brands they know and trust, and then they're going to search for ‘red bra.' And because L Brands has such strong brands with Victoria's Secret and Pink, it further helps them in the digital world."

But Shapiro adds that though brand loyalty is key, Victoria's Secret doesn't coast on its reputation. "I think the reason they've dominated is not just based on lingerie —€” they've had their ups and downs over the years —€” but they are very good at reinventing themselves," she explains. "If you walk into the store today and see what they've built with Pink or with [activewear line] VSX, it's quite a business."

Victoria's Secret was the brainchild of Roy Raymond, who founded the company because he wanted a non-embarrassing place to shop for lingerie for his wife.

Victoria's Secret was the brainchild of Roy Raymond, who, as the story goes, founded the company because he wanted a non-embarrassing place to shop for lingerie for his wife, i.e. not the lingerie section of a department store. He opened his own store in a shopping center on Stanford University's campus in 1977; it grossed $500,000 in its first year. Five years later, he had six Victoria's Secret stores, as well a catalog business, that he sold to L Brands founder and CEO Leslie Wexner for $1 million.

That same year, Wexner also acquired 207 Lane Bryant stores and Brylane, which owned Lane Bryant's catalog operation, to add to a brand portfolio that already included the two brands he himself had founded, The Limited and Express. Over the next decade, Wexner acquired Lerner New York (which now goes by New York & Company), Henri Bendel, and Abercrombie & Fitch, and launched Structure (which sold Express's men's clothes), upscale lingerie line Cacique, Limited Too, and Bath & Body Works.

By the early ‘90s, L Brands began experiencing difficulties selling women's apparel. In 1993, the company's annual report announced "a disappointing year" for Lane Bryant, Express, The Limited, Lerner, and Henri Bendel, while the Victoria's Secret store and catalog divisions posted their highest operating income numbers in brand history.

As sales at the other brands kept flatlining, Victoria's Secret was just getting started. 1994 marked the first year the brand surpassed $1 billion in sales, and in 1995, the Victoria's Secret fashion show debuted at New York's Plaza Hotel. During those initial years, the show took place right before Valentine's Day (another huge selling season for the retailer). The public got its first glance at the show when Victoria's Secret uploaded it online in 1999; the New York Times reported that over two million people attempted to log in to view it.

Photo: Victoria's Secret/Brittany Holloway-Brown

In stores, the Victoria's Secret of the ‘90s positioned itself as a softer alternative to Frederick's of Hollywood's riskier, sexier brand. Rick Barrick, vice president of digital strategy for Adrenaline, a design agency in Atlanta, says that when he was consulting on retail design for Victoria's Secret during that time, the stores were characterized by soft pink hues and piped-in classical music. The store playlist was so popular that the brand began selling Victoria's Secret CDs at the register; five of them made it onto the list of the top 10 best-selling albums in classical music history at the time.

But walk into any Victoria's Secret today, and you won't hear the London Symphony Orchestra or be bombarded by baby pink, just like you won't find the same bras that the company was selling 20 years ago. While Frederick's was declaring bankruptcy for the first of several times in the early 2000s, Victoria's Secret was closing in on $2 billion in net sales and cementing its status as the jewel in L Brands' crown. Despite this mounting success, Victoria's Secret's stores then went through a major refresh, ushering in the kind of change that Wexner swears is an essential component of retail success.

"We know, no matter how clever or insightful we think we're going to be, over a decade, we're going to be wrong in our capital investment," Wexner explained at the annual investor meeting. "We can just see that one coming from day one. Look out 10 years and say, as sure as hell this location may be, the design's going to be wrong, and probably the fixturing was designed to match an assortment which we know is going to be wrong. So this constant evolution of how do we change the merchandise mix, how does the brand evolve, how does the store design evolve —€” we know it's coming. And if you walk down a mall and you say, here's a store design and a mix that hasn't changed in a decade, it's probably dead on its ass."

"In real time, the fashion show lasted 20 minutes, but by the broadcast on Thursday it was as padded as a Miracle Bra."

At the same time, in 2001, the Victoria's Secret fashion show finally made the leap to TV. "In real time, the fashion show lasted 20 minutes, but by the broadcast on Thursday it was as padded as a Miracle Bra," quipped a Times review of the show. "And so we learned that the 17-year-old model from the Dominican Republic loves animals and that another hopes to travel to the moon."

The Federal Communications Commission has received an outpouring of complaints about the special, particularly in the show's early years, but it was never canceled save for one year: 2004. That was the year of Janet Jackson's infamous Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction, and the subsequent crackdown on "on-air indecency." While Victoria's Secret and CBS never officially admitted that was the reason the show did not in fact go on, all speculation was directed that way.

It was also in 2004 that L Brands fully launched Victoria's Secret Pink. It was targeted to a younger demographic —€” future Victoria's Secret shoppers —€” and sold sweatshirts, pajamas, and cotton underwear plastered with Pink's logo. It struck a particular chord with college-aged women who were likely to stick with the greater Victoria's Secret brand, even as they grew out of Pink. There was immediate positive sales growth, and by 2010, Pink was pulling in more than $1 billion in annual sales on its own.

Wells Fargo's most recent analysis of L Brands notes that Pink is still growing, and finding success through diversification. "Though Pink has historically been loungewear-oriented, they've more recently been investing in their bra business, managing to expand organically into this category by integrating bras into their storytelling while remaining authentic to the brand," the report reads. "Not only do bras provide incremental growth for the business, but it also introduces the customer to bras as a fun fashion purchase (rather than merely a functional one), so that when she graduates to [Victoria's Secret], she already has this shopping behavior."

Photo: Victoria's Secret/Brittany Holloway-Brown

The report notes that fast fashion has not been the terrifying threat to Victoria's Secret or Pink the way it has been to many other mall brands. In fact, if anything, it's good for the company since it conditions younger shoppers to seek out fashion-forward bras, which Victoria's Secret can supply in droves and at a higher quality level.

"If you want to get something sexy that makes you feel good, you're not going to go to H&M," Weishaar posits. "It doesn't feel as good, it doesn't look as good. It's just not the same thing."

By and large, the Victoria's Secret customer knows what she wants to buy from the brand, and her product expectations are pretty clear. For example, this past summer, when Victoria's Secret tried to introduce lacier swimwear than it has in past seasons, it saw an immediate slump in sales. "Swim has been my biggest disappointment, and we did it to ourselves," Victoria's Secret CEO Sharen Turney said on a conference call at the time. "We changed instead of reacting to the things that were working. We said, ‘Let's land a brand-new fashion delivery,' and it was a big misstep. We didn't follow our own fundamentals."

"If you want to get something sexy that makes you feel good, you're not going to go to H&M."

The brand has decided to phase out all of its regular apparel to focus more on its core lingerie business, the entire cosmetics line was killed last year, and the rest of the beauty offerings are in the middle of a complete overhaul to make the products "more consistent with the Victoria's Secret brand," as Turney put it in L Brands' latest earnings report.

"The first thing if you're going to be successful in retailing is you've got to have product that your customer wants and you've got to really, fully understand your target audience," says Anne Brouwer, senior partner at retail consulting firm McMillianDoolittle. "What do they really want? If you don't have quality product that's meaningful to your target customer, you can do everything else really well and it's not really going to matter. They've got to buy what you're offering."

Stepping into a Victoria's Secret store is not meant to be a casual experience. The brand's scents waft through the space in Abercrombie-worthy doses, pre-Zayn-split One Direction blasts from the speakers, and everywhere you look, there's a Victoria's Secret Angel giving you a sexy side-eye stare from her gilded picture frame. In most stores, giant video screens play last year's fashion show on loop. The sexiest seasonal underwear is positioned at the front of the store, but those red bralettes with fuzzy white pom-poms placed over the nipples are mostly for show; the rest of the store is an endless parade of soft, easy-to-wear bras in an overwhelming array of colors to appeal to the wide variety of women who walk into the store. As Brouwer puts it, "It's a wonderland for intimate apparel."

The Victoria's Secret store experience is crucial to driving sales. Wexner and his team believe this is where the brand thrives, and will continue to thrive, even in an increasingly digital future. "We really focus [on stores] because that's where all the damn money is," Wexner explained in the annual investor meeting. "We get the real estate wrong and the store design wrong, then we've sunk all that capital into a horrific marketing expense. So, we're really good at this."

Photo: Victoria's Secret/Brittany Holloway-Brown

To wring all that I could out of said store experience, I arranged to walk through the brand's Fifth Avenue flagship store with Anthony Deen, the creative director of branded environments for CBX, an agency that's worked with everyone from Duane Reade to Saks Off Fifth to M&M's. On the walk over to the store, he admits he has always been skeptical of how Victoria's Secret panders to the male gaze while selling to a customer base of millions of women.

"Obviously, there's an aspect of the Angels that is just totally geared toward this male audience," he tells me. "And I always saw that as somewhat cynical. But in going into the stores, you realize that there's actually something more to it, which is this proximity to beauty, and wanting women to associate beauty with this product, so that they feel beautiful when they purchase it and wear it."

As soon as we step into the store, he starts to point out the store's signature touches, like the framed pictures of Angels hanging from the walls, which feed into this idea of beauty proximity. "This is like a rich person's private dressing room," he says, pointing out the faux dresser drawers doubling as wall decor. Tables and chaise lounges feature bras laid out on their cushions instead of on hangers on a rack; a range of sizes and styles are tucked into actual drawers under the tables so shoppers can help themselves to what they want. "In the back of your head, you know that's what's going on, but you don't necessarily put it together to say, ‘Oh yeah, this is my closet.'"

"You realize that there's actually something more to it, which is this proximity to beauty, and wanting women to associate beauty with this product."

The store's sexier rooms, outfitted with black wallpaper and low lighting, are usually the first ones you walk into, while the milder ones featuring more everyday bras are set towards the back of the store. "It says, ‘This is for women,'" Deen explains as we venture into a girly pink room. "And it says, ‘Guys, you're not allowed back here.'"

Salespeople greet us at the front of the store and hover in every room but don't approach us, which Deen counts as a plus. "They're not overly solicitous," he says. "People like to shop. If you get in their way, you inhibit them from actually exploring."

Customer service is indeed a big part of how Victoria's Secret differentiates itself from competitors, and Wexner laid out plans to invest more heavily in sales staff at the company's annual investor update meeting, saying that he wanted to pay "fewer, better people" up to $20 an hour in the stores.

"I'm imagining in a couple of years virtually every sales associate is looking forward to a career in retailing," he explained. "And 10 or 20 percent of them will be store managers somewhere in the world in a year. They can literally go from $40,000 to more than $100,000 a year in compensation and we can really teach and train and retain them." However, the brand only just got rid of on-call scheduling, where employees were forced to stay available for possible work shifts without pay or guarantee that they'd be actually needed earlier this year.

I visited stores in New York City; Pittsburgh; Amherst, Massachusetts; and Buffalo, New York over the past month to test out one of the brand's lauded features, the in-store bra fitting, and had no trouble finding sales staff eager to help at each store. The actual fitting wasn't always a seamless process, though —€” sometimes it took 10 minutes, sometimes it took 30 —€” and I left each store with a pink card proclaiming different results every time. In New York's Herald Square, I was confidently measured at a 32B, while in Amherst, I was surely a 34B. In Pittsburgh, I was a 34A, but in Buffalo, the bra specialist declared me a 36A.

Photo: Victoria's Secret/Brittany Holloway-Brown

This wasn't entirely surprising, as bra sizing is a Herculean task that apparently no one can get right —€” everyone from industry specialists to Kate Middleton's bra fitter has proclaimed that millions and millions of women are walking around in broad daylight, wearing the wrong bra size. When I went back to present my findings to the bra specialist at my hometown store, after getting four different results at four different stores, she was hardly shocked.

"I think each specialist does it differently," she explains. "They have a different opinion. We all have the same method of measuring, but the way the bra looks —€” every specialist is a little bit different."

In the Fifth Avenue store, Deen and I start making our way through the beauty products. "There aren't a lot of mirrors, which is kind of counter to any beauty environment," he says. "It's a lot of skincare, so again it's about this idea of pampering, indulging in you and making you feel really comfortable and feminine."

"There's an extent to which you can do this stuff, and then there's a point where you're pushing too far. There's definitely a point at which this beauty becomes oppressive."

Up on the walls, more framed photos of overwhelmingly white, blonde Angels stare down at us, with the occasional close-up shot of Angel butt and Angel boob mixed in. "There's an extent to which you can do this stuff, and then there's a point where you're pushing too far," Deen says. "Ultimately, it can't be aspirational. People aren't just going to look like that. If I went into any store and saw nothing but male body builders, at a certain point I'd be like, ‘This is not my store.' There's definitely a point at which this beauty becomes oppressive."

I mention that it doesn't seem to be slowing the brand down at all, and Deen points back to the fact that there is no real competition out there in this mass market space. As we head for the door, we again pass by the front displays of sequined holiday lingerie and busts with wings sprouting out of their backs. "They really doubled down on this Angel metaphor," Deen says. "They're reaching out to women and they're saying that they're angels. How that translates into the physical environment is a little bit tougher. The wings... that's a little over the top. Although, we'll see, in two years, maybe people will be walking around with their wings on outside."

The day before the show is set to air, the Angels are tasked with hours of photo ops and press engagements to drum up coverage for the event, which is how I find myself in front of Taylor Hill, the brand's youngest Angel at 19 years old, in a back corner of a Victoria's Secret store in Soho. She's already endured an interview on a CBS sports radio show earlier in the morning and stood through at least an hour of interviews from waves of entertainment, fashion, and beauty press, and it's only 11:30 a.m. In the 20 minutes that I stand waiting for my turn to speak, I hear her barn discovery story over and over.

She's polite and engaged and draws easy laughs as she tells a lively anecdote about her hair, and when it's time for my five minutes with her, I'm acutely aware of her capital-A Angelic proportions. My own face feels rounder, my lips thinner, my 36A (or 34B) chest flatter.

Photo: Victoria's Secret/Brittany Holloway-Brown

"I would never think of myself as a supermodel," she says when I ask if she sees any tension between the Angels who represent the brand and Victoria's Secret's target mall shopper. "I'm just a girl from Colorado like everybody else —€” I'm from the Midwest, I grew up with all my friends. I think the focus of Victoria's Secret is being yourself and being beautiful, because I didn't think I was beautiful and I didn't think I'd be here today. They took me and they were like, ‘You are beautiful and here's how beautiful you are and we believe in you.' I think that's incredible, and I feel like that's the message that Victoria's Secret is sending."

And when the show airs, you won't see that Ellie Goulding had to use a teleprompter for her lyrics, or that she forgot to appear for a final bow at the end of the first taping, or that Kendall Jenner might have slipped a little. It will just be the most spectacular bodies in the world, wearing fantastical costumes worth millions, representing America's favorite mall brand, Victoria's Secret.

Editor: Julia Rubin
Photo illustrations by Brittany Holloway-Brown


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