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But the company didn’t become the lingerie powerhouse beloved by Midwest moms and sorority girls alike until it debuted its catalog five years later. At the time, many mall flagships like JCPenney and Sears brought in big money from their mail-order businesses, inspired by the success of catalog companies. Spiegel, for instance, was bringing in around $500 million in revenue at that time. Pre-internet, catalogs allowed everyone — especially housewives who didn’t live in major metropolitan cities — to buy stylish things they wouldn’t otherwise have access to. And why wouldn’t they want lacy bras and silk negligees, too?
By 1997, Victoria’s Secret was sending 450 million catalogs a year and seeing a return of $661 million in mail-order sales alone. When Sears ended its catalog business in 1993, JC Penney became the largest catalog retailer in the U.S. And when JCPenney ended its catalog business in 2011, Victoria’s Secret took over that honor — or burden, depending. L Brands announced in May that it would cease publishing the catalog, which was costing the company $150 million to produce about 300 million copies.
In early 2015, before cutting the business altogether, the company began dialing back how many catalogs they were mailing each year. Although exact figures weren’t revealed, the company said they saw virtually zero impact on sales. As Stuart Burgdoerfer, L Brands finance chief, explained in a company earnings call, "Would you start with one of your major ideas being a paper-based catalog sent through the mail as one of your key, if not your key, marketing activity for a global brand? As we thought about it in that way, along with the numerical tests and financial evaluation, [we became] very comfortable with the change that we've made."
As we say goodbye to the iconic catalog (and continue stockpiling old issues destined for eBay greatness), let’s take a look back at how the publication has evolved over the years.
To understand the history of the Victoria’s Secret catalog, it’s necessary to understand the history of the company first. Victoria’s Secret — named as a wink to Victorian times, and the desire to keep one’s underthings secret — was started by a man (but you probably already assumed that). The story goes that Roy Raymond was made to feel like a "pervert" when he went to a lingerie store to buy a gift for his wife. Inspired by the ugly treatment he was subjected to, as well as the ugly floral nightgowns they were selling, he decided to open up a lingerie boutique that was as welcoming to men as it was to women. Unfortunately, while Raymond got the first part right, he didn’t quite nail the second.
Leslie Wexner, a retail vet who started The Limited, walked into a Victoria’s Secret and immediately recognized that the store catered to men a little too effectively. Between the overtly-sexual photography and the low-brow merchandise, it was so aimed at men that it alienated woman. Excited by the potential nonetheless, Wexner eventually bought Victoria’s Secret for $1 million in 1982. He masterminded a rebrand intended to make the company more appealing to middle America (a market he understood well, given that he founded The Limited), he morphed the brand into the household name it is today. At 87, he continues to call the shots as chairman and CEO of the L Brands.
But let’s back up. When the catalog was initially created, the target audience, according to Raymond, was men who wanted to buy gifts for their wives but felt uncomfortable walking into the stores. Over the years, the catalog did indeed build up a large male fanbase, though whether these men used the catalogs to shop or to do, um, other things is up for debate.
At first, the photoshoots looked like the kind of boudoir glamour shots you can get at tourist attractions like Mall of America. This isn’t so surprising when you consider the company’s primary competitor was the significantly smuttier Frederick’s of Hollywood. There was lots of lounging in silk and staring seductively at the camera. The models posed in front of ornate backdrops, often with props that gave the impression of a movie set. A set of a very, very bad movie. Merchandise was heavy on silk and lace. There were a lot of sheer fabrics — and since airbrushing was used sparingly, that means there were a lot of nipples, too. In the decades since, nipples disappeared altogether from the catalogs, while the, uh, sheer amount of skin shown skyrocketed.
Things took a turn in the ‘80s, when the catalog stopped looking like a catalog and started looking like the book cover for bad romance novels. It was a circa-1988 50 Shades of Grey, with lots of lustful ecstasy-soaked poses, often co-starring legendary male model Bruce Hulse and garters. This shift came around the time Wexner took over the company. To better appeal to women, apparently, he decided to throw in some shirtless men. Not a bad way to get women to flip through the catalog, true, but not the best way to sell bras via mail-order.
Not helping the case was that the brand was trying to be high-brow by attempting to channel a "romantic, aristocratic English lifestyle," according to Marketing Aesthetics, which may or may not have been required reading in your Marketing 101 class in college. "Victoria's Secret is a thoroughly American venture — based in Ohio — but used a classical, thoroughbred English theme to convince women that it's classy, not trashy, to spoil themselves with fancy undergarments."
They went so far as to write catalog copy in "British-sounding prose style" and used British spellings for words like colour and, fittingly, catalogue. Nevermind that the copywriters were in Columbus.
The era of the supermodel proved beneficial to Victoria’s Secret, which was able to get runway models — and Vogue cover girls — like Stephanie Seymour, Tyra Banks, Elle Macpherson, and Helena Christensen in their catalogs.
Gone was the excess of the ‘80s and the mostly naked men, and in its place was…well, excess of the ‘90s and mostly-naked women. Christensen and her glorious decolletage were frequently featured, typically encased in moody metallics or come-hither animal prints, the go-to aesthetic of the time. But don’t call it sexy.
As writer Mimi Swartz wrote in a 1990 issue of Mademoiselle, "Pretty is a word you hear over and over again when women talk about Victoria's Secret [...] Women want to be really sexy—as long as they aren't made to feel cheap about it. Keeping that secret is, in fact, Victoria's Secret's secret."
Another writer theorized that not only did Victoria’s Secret make wanting to feel sexy more acceptable, but it also helped domesticate porn. In At Home with Pornography: Women, Sex, and Everyday Life, Jane Juffer writes:
Appealing to the independent, mobile woman, the VS catalog references places — the workplace, sites of leisure and exercise, and various rooms in the home — and thus shows a relationship between the erotic and the everyday that suggests a more fluid kind of domestication than pure Victorian backlash. A new advertising campaign for a line of sheer bras and panties called "Angels" in spring 1997 self-reflexively foregrounds this play of private and public, good girl and bad. "Good angels go to heaven," says the catalog cover, "Victoria's Secret angels go everywhere."
But you can’t wear lingerie everywhere, so in the ‘90s, VS expanded into clothing. The majority of the apparel was sold in a spin-off catalog called Victoria’s Secret Country, which had more in common with L.L.Bean than Frederick’s of Hollywood. Karen Mulder wore a barn jacket, Laetitia Casta wore a red bandana-print camisole, and Elle Macpherson wore skies (which they may or may not have sold at one point). Domestication indeed.
In the early aughts, the magazine became noticeably less Dynasty and more girl-next door. Heidi Klum wore flannel PJs printed with pastel hearts on one cover; another showed Daniela Pestova in a knee-length duster sweater. That was the doing of Sharen Jester Turney, a former exec at Neiman Marcus Direct who was brought on to revive the mail-order in business in 2000. As Forbes reported,
She wants to increase its appeal to an upscale customer who now feels more comfortable buying La Perla or Wolford lingerie. That means dimming the hooker looks in the Victoria’s Secret catalog. Tight jeans and stilettos? Not on Turney’s watch. In the coming months, the 22-year-old catalog, a substitute for Playboy in some college dormitory rooms, will look more like Vogue.
Turney’s attempts appeared to be unsuccessful. Several years later, the New Yorker published a scathing review of the catalog — yes, really — in which the writer Drew Dernavich mocked the puzzling nakedness of the models:
Victoria does have a secret, but it’s not so well hidden. It’s obvious from the very first page: Victoria is really friggin’ cold, because it’s winter and she’s too poor to afford clothes. I can see why this catalog is so popular. It tugs at the heartstrings of any compassionate American. Who doesn’t want to help out the impoverished at this time of year, especially when they could potentially have lucrative modelling careers ahead of them?
Victoria’s Secret catalog models have never worn less or been airbrushed more than they have in the last decade. The brand came under major criticism in 2012 for haphazard photoshopping.
"Unless Candice [Swanepoel] modifies each and every one of her photos to hide the fact that one of her breasts is the size of a cantaloupe, it seems obvious that this image has been photoshopped by some ham-handed operator working for the lingerie company," Gizmodo wrote. That same year, Jezebel got ahold of a bunch of before-and-afters that revealed that — surprise! — cleavage is often enhanced. Who would have guessed?
And the bad press didn’t stop there. Not long after, Kate Upton criticized the company for using old photos of her — after they famously criticized her for being "like a footballer’s wife, with the too-blond hair and that kind of face that anyone with enough money can go out and buy."
Perhaps they actually cut the catalog to give their corporate communications department a much-needed raise.