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As Victoria’s Secret Weighs What’s Next, Rihanna May Be Onto Something

The once-dominant lingerie brand is retrenching as new rivals present clear and focused messages that are resonating with consumers.
Rihanna's 2019 Savage x Fenty show | Source: Getty Images/ Courtesy
  • Bloomberg

NEW YORK, United States — Victoria's Secret, amid an identity crisis over its antiquated view of female beauty, is taking a step back to re-evaluate what to do with its annual fashion show. For guidance on how to proceed in the post-supermodel era, the company might want to take a look at Rihanna's show on Sept. 10 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

Sure, there were plenty of stiletto-clad models to promote her Savage X Fenty lingerie brand—some of whom have participated in past Victoria’s Secret events as well. But unlike those shows, Rihanna’s featured women of all shapes and sizes. The models were racially diverse, as well, representing nearly all the shades offered by Rihanna’s Fenty makeup line.

On the same day as the show in Brooklyn, Les Wexner—the billionaire founder of Victoria’s Secret parent company, L Brands Inc.—convened with investors in Columbus, Ohio, where a series of mostly male executives laid out plans to win back market share that’s been lost to upstart rivals like Savage X Fenty. Victoria’s Secret is in the initial stages of recasting its advertising: For now, it’s producing more black-and-white photos with a retro aesthetic and stylised videos touting product partnerships. The company says it will also produce better quality bras, improve in-store experience and  focus on “By Her, For Her,” according to Victoria’s Secret Lingerie Chief Executive Officer John Mehas.

But as L Brands moves tentatively forward, Rihanna and other competitors like Aerie and ThirdLove Inc. have their message nailed down. It’s built on inclusivity and diversity, and it’s letting them jump in and flood the neglected spaces in the market. Victoria’s Secret U.S. market share now stands at 24%, according to Coresight Research, down from almost 32 percent in 2013.  Related: Victoria’s Secret Men Lay Out Female-Driven Turnaround PlanSavage X Fenty isn’t just gaining ground with more diverse models. The product offerings it showcased on the runway were diverse as well, from bralettes and body suits to sports bras and nighties, in addition to the barely-there sets that Victoria’s Secret specialises in. The message that intimate apparel can be functional, as well as sexy, is resonating.

While Victoria’s Secret hasn’t publicly canceled its 2019 show, executives said in May it wouldn't be broadcast on TV for the first time in more than two decades, following years of viewership declines. In 2018, the show drew its smallest-ever audience of just 3.3 million viewers, down from more than 5 million the year before. That, in turn, is down from a 2011 broadcast where nearly 10.3 million people tuned in.

Asked about plans for this year’s show, an L Brands spokeswoman referred to comments from Mehas during the investor event. “We've also made some recent marketing changes,” he said on Sept. 10. “We're re-evaluating the fashion show. We are taking time to evaluate the right marketing strategy going forward.”

Rihanna’s show, in contrast, will be available to Amazon Prime’s more than 100 million subscribers on Sept. 20. A Nielsen study shows the median age of viewers for digital services like Prime is 40, younger than broadcast TV viewers and closer to Victoria’s Secret target of women in their early 30s.

Savage X Fenty has also been quick to pounce on the growing acceptance—and celebration—of transgender models. Rihanna’s show featured Laverne Cox, a transgender actress nominated for an Emmy Award for her role on Netflix’s Orange is the New Black. Her arrival was met with screams and applause. That contrasts with comments from former Victoria’s Secret Chief Marketing Officer Ed Razek, who said in a Vogue interview last year that he didn’t think transgender models should be in the show. The company has since reversed course, hiring its first transgender model for a photo shoot earlier this year.

Razek, who left Victoria’s Secret in August, also said when the company tried to do a television special for plus-size models in the early 2000s that “no one had any interest in it, still don’t.” Rihanna’s show went beyond a token plus-size model and featured many women of different sizes and abilities, including a model with prosthetic legs. Last year’s show had a pregnant model who went into labor right after the event.

Victoria’s Secret still holds the most market share in the $13.1 billion U.S. women’s underwear sector—a fact that L Brands Chief Financial Officer Stuart Burgdoerfer highlighted on Tuesday. But its nimble adversaries continue to gain ground. “These brands are losing customers and pricing power while competition is increasing,”  said Jefferies analyst Randal Konik in a research note about L Brands titled “Don’t Buy the `Sexy Illusion.’” While it’s good that management has acknowledged that change is needed, “consumer perceptions of brands are hard to change,” he said.  When it comes to investment, the upstarts are making their presence felt: Savage X Fenty announced a $50 million funding round earlier this month. ThirdLove, an online lingerie seller, recently opened its first pop-up shop this summer in Manhattan’s SoHo district after raising $55 million earlier this year. Meanwhile, L Brands shares have fallen 26 percent this year, compared with a 20 percent gain for the S&P 500 index.

Victoria’s Secret is aware of the challenge. As its CEO Mehas said:  "There’s a big belief in the company that we need to evolve.”

By Jordyn Holman and Rebecca Greenfield.

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