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The more the world changes, the more the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show stays the same.
Last night, the lingerie giant aired its annual Angel-winged runway extravaganza on CBS, and as always, the hour-long special featured a display of over-the-top costumes, A-list musicians, and toned, tanned, minimally clothed models. The only thing unfamiliar was the venue: For the first time ever, the event was held in Shanghai, where the brand opened a flagship store — its first in mainland China — earlier this year.
The decision was clearly a strategic one, giving VS a huge platform in a lingerie market that’s poised to be worth $33 billion by 2020, more than double that of the United States, according to Euromonitor. While the brand’s revenues have been steadily falling domestically, a new set of Chinese customers could turn the overall downward trend around.
The location may have been the only forward-thinking aspect of the evening, however. From the start, the show was plagued with problems, which experts have said the brand should have anticipated given China’s authoritative political environment: Gigi Hadid, one of the brand’s top faces, was denied a visa, along with a host of other models. Performer Katy Perry was also barred from entering the country, reportedly from appearing to support Taiwan, and had to be replaced last-minute by Harry Styles (trading up, in my opinion, but surely a stressful situation). Employees involved in the production complained about emails being monitored by the Chinese government, and the after-party, usually a late-night blowout, was shut down before midnight by local police.
From a viewer’s perspective, there were other missteps: While the brand this year cast a record seven Chinese models — Liu Wen, Ming Xi, Sui He, Xiao Wen Ju, Xin Xie, One Wang, and Estelle Chen — curiously, it didn’t highlight any of them during the broadcast, even during a segment focused on models’ diverse nationalities (perhaps because none have yet been inducted into the VS “Angels”). It did, however, play up Xi’s dramatic runway fall, which had already gone viral on Chinese messaging platform Weibo, showing not only the fall, but the model crying backstage afterwards.
Despite greater racial diversity (the brand only cast its first Asian model in 2009), VS still hasn’t expressed any interest in broadening its image of “what is sexy” beyond the traditional size-2 runway model look, a fact that plus-size model Ashley Graham alluded to this week in a Photoshopped Instagram showing her on the glittery runway with a pair of Angel wings. And while it’s the brand’s prerogative to choose who to cast, the uniform thinness feels outdated, particularly for such a mass spectacle at a time when fashion as a whole is waking up to the need for more inclusivity. The New York Times also posed the question earlier this week of what place this kind of sexualized display has in a world grappling with revelations of widespread sexual harassment and assault in all industries, including fashion.
Finally, the brand was admonished on social media this week for cultural appropriation, after choosing yet again to show a white model in a feathered headdress. (Seriously, guys? Again?!) However, the response felt distinctly lukewarm compared to the backlash that occurred in 2012 after Karlie Kloss walked the runway in full Native American-style garb, which resulted in a public apology and the look being cut from the televised broadcast. Maybe we’re all just too tired to be outraged at this point, or maybe Victoria’s Secret does indeed need to look beyond its US customers to recapture its relevance.