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Can The Knicker Queen Save Victoria’s Secret?

With its push-up bras, thongs and questionable catwalk shows, Victoria’s Secret was woefully out of touch with what women want now. So how can it revive its reputation? Janie Schaffer, its new head of design, tells John Arlidge her plan to polish up the tarnished brand.

Can The Knicker Queen Save Victoria’s Secret?
Victoria's Secret Fashion Show 2018Image: Getty Images

By John Arlidge
Text The Sunday Times / The Interview People

Nobody has proven that sex sells, better than Janie Schaffer. She has been selling lingerie to women since she started her career at Marks & Spencer when she was 21. She co-founded Knickerbox in the mid-1980s and was soon headhunted to become chief creative officer of Victoria’s Secret, where she helped to make its parent company — L Brands — a US$30 billion business, earning her the nickname the “Knicker Queen”. Now, after relaunching cheeky Italian icon Fiorucci, she has returned to face the toughest challenge of her career, perhaps the toughest challenge in fashion: reviving Victoria’s Secret.

Few brands have become so tarnished so fast. Once a high-street darling — its catwalk shows were watched by 12 million viewers — it is now seen as outdated and more than a little sleazy. For years, the company’s boss, Leslie Wexner, refused to dump the brand’s trademark glitz’n’tits style, even though it was offensive to many modern consumers. Worse was to come: Wexner was forced to quit the board after it was revealed he had close ties to the financier and convicted child-sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.

Janie SchafferImage: The Sunday Times / The Interview People

After “Sleazegate”, you’d think the first thing Schaffer, reappointed as chief design officer, would do is dump the overtly sexy stuff, but when I walk into the brand’s flagship European store on Bond Street to meet her, the first thing I see are stockings, suspenders, garters and all manner of racy laciness, decorated with crystals and labels that include Cheeky, Tease and Bombshell.

Sex (Still) Sells

Schaffer, 59, is unapologetic. “Beautiful, overtly glamorous ‘date night’ lingerie is the mainstay of the business,” she says. “Women want to look and feel fabulous, especially after the year we’ve just had. We can’t do sackcloth and ashes!” Half of Victoria’s Secret’s annual sales of £5.4 billion (S$10.04b) in its 1,387 stores are items labelled “very sexy”.

Elsa Hosk wearing the 2018 Dream Angels Fantasy BraImage: Getty Images

The same goes for the Victoria’s Secret “angels”, as it calls its models. Schaffer is at pains to refute reports that they have been retired after the brand scrapped its catwalk shows amid criticism that they were little more than soft porn. “I love the angels. In future they will be a new group of amazing, diverse women with fabulous stories,” she insists. 

They will be chosen by the brand’s new advisory collective, which includes US women’s football captain Megan Rapinoe; Indian actress Priyanka Chopra Jonas; curve model Paloma Elsesser and South Sudanese-Australian model Adut Akech.

Fine. But is “angels” the right word for the times — or those women? “It’s our word and we’ll make it relevant by creating different shows, real game-changers. Victoria’s Secret is partly entertainment, that’s why it’s globally recognised.”

See It, Feel It, Wear It

The collective and the new shows are designed to begin to expunge the sins of the past and appeal to a new type of woman. “The problem was not Victoria’s Secret itself but the way we presented ourselves,” Schaffer says. “People thought overtly sexy was the only thing we did. They didn’t know that we do comfort, everyday ranges; high-tech underwear; sportswear; T-shirt bras; pyjamas and swimwear.”

Schaffer’s new collections arriving in stores now “will make every woman feel she is included. What makes a woman feel sexy is what makes her feel sexy, whether it’s a pair of cotton panties, knickers and a bra, or something that’s overtly glamorous. That’s her choice to make.”

It is harnessing new technology to improve comfort. “We’re launching a new bra in September called Infinity Flex, which has a patented supersoft gel wire and a flex system that moves with you if your size fluctuates throughout the day, the month or even if you are pregnant.”

  • Victoria’s Secret Collective member Priyanka Chopra Jonas
    From Angels to the new Victoria’s Secret Collective, which includes Priyanka Chopra Jonas…Image: Getty Images
  • Victoria’s Secret Collective member Adut Akech
    …and Adut Akech.Image: Getty Images

Sportswear is expanding with ranges called Live, Flow and Sweat. “‘Live’ is the one for what I do, which is not much,” Schaffer laughs. “‘Flow’ is for tennis, yoga or Pilates. ‘Sweat’ is for things like running and boxing.” She promises that “nothing moves” in her new sports bras.

New collections will include pregnancy and nursing bras and a mastectomy bra that will be offered free to women who have had the operation. The size range is expanding to 18 and cup sizes will run to G. The stores will retain the brand’s trademark black and pink decor but will be brighter “to look less like burlesque clubs”. Fresh advertising campaigns will feature “a real mix of fabulous women — different sizes and skin tones, tattoos — all the things that reflect every woman in everyday life”, Schaffer says. Among the brand’s new models is Imaan Hammam.

Advocacy For Women

In its zeal to convince consumers that Victoria’s Secret “gets” how much the world has changed, the new executive team sometimes says some odd things. CEO Martin Waters, who is also British, declared recently that the brand that invented the bejewelled Fantasy Bra is “on a journey to become the world’s leading advocate for women”.

When I mention the comment, Schaffer concedes that “saying you’re going to save the world one bra at a time sounds frivolous”. But she insists: “When you’re a brand this big — we employ 28,000 people, nearly 90 per cent of them women, and have one fifth of the US intimates market — there’s so much you can do to empower women. That’s our responsibility.”

  • Victoria’s Secret Collective member Megan Rapinoe
    From Angels to the new Victoria’s Secret Collective, which includes soccer star Megan Rapinoe…Image: Getty Images
  • Victoria’s Secret Collective member Paloma Elsesser
    …and Paloma Elsesser.Image: Getty Images

Corporate logic, not merely morality or the sisterhood, also demands it. “Every brand has to be socially responsible. Younger consumers expect it. My daughters are watching what I do and will be the first to shout out if something doesn’t feel right.” She and her husband have triplet girls, now aged 28.

Trying to be woke so soon after corporate scandals poses greater risks than simply sounding potty. It might not work commercially. “Successful brands, as Victoria’s Secret proved in the past, need to be really clear about what they stand for. Trying to be a beacon for inclusivity while also retaining its previous version of sexiness risks failing to appeal to either audience,” warns Rita Clifton, former head of leading branding agency Interbrand. She points out that women have many alternatives among the raft of ethical underwear start-ups, notably ThirdLove, Heist Studios, Negative, Cuup, Skims and Parade.

Every brand has to be socially responsible. Younger consumers expect it. My daughters are watching what I do and will be the first to shout out if something doesn’t feel right.

Janie Schaffer

It will also be hard to create authentic, diverse advertisements and shows without being accused of being a “Victoria-come-lately” or ripping off Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty brand, which produced catwalk spectacles that are wildly popular with younger consumers. Indeed, when the firm announced its new collective in June 2021, critics dismissed it as a cynical marketing ploy — or “inclusivity washing” in modern parlance.

And what about Schaffer herself? Her role is hardly uncontroversial. She was at Victoria’s Secret during its heyday — 2008-12. Does she feel at all guilty that she played a part in creating a brand that became associated with a sleazy aesthetic?

“There was a moment when the shows created the world that made Victoria’s Secret — and there was a point when that was no longer the right thing to do. From a product standpoint, which is my role, I got it right for the times and I’m going to get it right for new times.”

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