The current resurgence of Y2k fashions has prompted recent documentary reappraisals of that era’s biggest brand names, from Von Dutch to Abercrombie & Fitch. Now the mother of them all receives the docuseries treatment with Victoria’s Secret: Angels and Demons, a three-parter about fashion, sex, power, money and misconduct that’s sure to titillate when it premieres this week.
After all, the multibillion-dollar lingerie juggernaut was an inescapable cultural phenomenon in the late 1990s and early 2000s, known for high-octane fashion shows, suggestive mail-order catalogues, impossibly leggy spokeswomen dubbed Angels, and lacquered stores (and signature pink-striped shoppers bags) ubiquitous in shopping malls and the broader American fashion landscape. But behind the glitz and glitter touting female empowerment through in-your-face sexuality lay allegations of bullying and harassment of employees and models; executives dismissive of casting more diverse and inclusive models; and former billionaire CEO Les Wexner’s disconcertingly close ties to convicted sex offender and disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein.
The series traces the rise and fall of the megabrand, telling the story both from the inside (courtesy of two former CEOs, other key employees, damning never-before-seen internal videos, and a few Angels themselves) and out: the late-90s, post-Clinton/Lewinsky, Sex and the City–era cultural shifts that ignited the brand’s particular brand of aggressive sexuality and those that portended its decline decades later in the wake of #MeToo.
That’s around when the controversies encircling the brand appeared on the radar of director Matt Tyrnauer. “In a meeting I had with a fashion company in 2019, it came up that some Victoria’s Secret models were rebelling against the brand on social media,” he told the Guardian. Prior to that, he admits, “I hadn’t really paid any attention to the brand.” (He didn’t even know about the Angels until he began research on this film: “My first reaction was, ‘This is the worst, dumbest, most insulting, retrograde, backward-looking marketing idea I’ve ever seen.’ And yet it worked to a degree that maybe no other fashion marketing campaign has ever worked.”)
Indeed, Tyrnauer, a former longtime Vanity Fair editor who previously directed documentaries on Studio 54, Roy Cohn, and the high-fashion designer Valentino, tends to operate in more rarefied circles. But, “this seemed to me to be an example of yet another crack in the foundation of the top-down old fashion establishment, where the models, who used to be completely controlled by the brands, were in effect biting the hand that had fed them”, he says. “I like to make stories about closed worlds and systems, and I thought, There’s something here.”
Many of the more lurid details were still yet to be revealed, including that Wexner, now 84, enabled Epstein’s access to wealth and women by granting the financier broad powers over the corporate titan’s finances, philanthropy, and private life. Epstein even posed as a talent scout for Victoria’s Secret in 1997, luring a model to a Santa Monica hotel room where he groped and manhandled her. As the series lays out in detail, Epstein’s long and close relationship with Wexner facilitated the purchase of his townhouse (where he sexually abused underage girls) and private jet used to traffic his victims, known infamously in the media as the Lolita Express. (Wexner, who stepped down from the company last year, declined the series’ interview requests but denied knowledge of Epstein’s sexual misconduct while under his employ. The former chairman has acknowledged that on one occasion he was informed that Epstein was claiming an association with the company and that he forbade Epstein from doing it again. Wexner maintains that he severed ties with Epstein in 2008.)
“New York’s a town where you fake it till you make it, and Epstein is the poster child of our time for that,” says Tyrnauer, who previously oversaw Vanity Fair’s annual New Establishment list. “There was clearly nothing there of valuable substance and yet the New York media world and what passes for society –– which is just basically a money culture, which I think at its core is very corrupt –– seemed to either embrace him or just turn a blind eye. The more we examine that culture, which is basically a money and power and publicity culture, and the more that that facade is stripped away, the better.”
On the surface, he argues, “this series about this shallower than shallow pop brand that is the most basic, low-brow consumer thing imaginable. But that’s just marketing. When you look behind it, it goes to the core of the establishment.”
Yet the brand had been struggling even before Wexner’s association with Epstein came under scrutiny, straining to find relevance in a world that was viewing its brand of airbrushed-perfect bodies and male-gaze sexuality as increasingly out of touch. The company hawked “a woman born perfect and made better with push-ups and padding,” as former VS exec Sharleen Ernster says in the series, images that instilled body dysmorphia into a generation of people around the world.
That vision was drastically different from the company’s roots in the early 1980s, when Wexner built a brand inspired by a tasteful, educated British lady named Victoria, with stores evoking Victorian boudoirs. By the late 1990s, that refined image had contorted into one more blatantly risque, meeting the appetite for a new breed of woman looking to reclaim her sexuality.
That involved casting spokeswomen who exuded an unattainable sexiness: supermodels, who had heretofore been reluctant to appear in lingerie ads. Victoria’s Secret brought the category often perceived as déclassé on par with high fashion, consistently booking top models. “Lingerie is really a kind of obscure corner of fashion,” Tyrnauer points out. “It’s not part of that world, and it never has been. That also began to fascinate me –– this is viewed as a fashion brand, it’s got the most viewed fashion show ever, and it actually has nothing to do with fashion. It’s the exploitation of the tools of fashion marketing to make billions of dollars.” Tyrnauer aimed to “strip away the facade of that technique, which was so successful for them, and point out that they used the sex-sells and sexual-empowerment narrative of the Sex in the City era to justify it”.
It’s a time he knew well, as a journalist working in 1990s New York who rubbed elbows with Candace Bushnell and Darren Star. “I wanted to remind people that was an agreed-upon facet of society that no one really looked twice at the time –– a celebration of the type of forward sexuality that was equated with empowerment. You can’t view everything accurately through the way we lens things as a society today.”
Tyrnauer sees Victoria’s Secret and Abercrombie & Fitch as kind of proto-Instagrams, promoting an unattainable body image and FOMO. “The mall was the Instagram 1.0. It was the anesthetizing fantasy machine that we all participated in and took over our lives and was manipulating us every step of the way along those tile floors and making us buy things we didn’t need. There’s nothing wrong with shopping, but how giant companies exploited consumers and workers is a story worth paying attention to.”
Some of the series’ most eyebrow-raising scenes involve the brand’s teen-oriented line, Pink, with which it hoped to cultivate impressionable young shoppers into dedicated long-term consumers. Tyrnauer found himself shocked by the Pink fashion shows: “It’s tweens wearing scanty clothing with giant lollipops and hula hoops. Either I’m in a kind of Lolita Nabokovian parody or this was real. I’m afraid it was real.”
As the company takes pains to reinvent itself to fend off its downward spiral, the question remains: Can the brand change its stripes? Last summer it announced a major rebrand, with a diverse slate of spokespeople including Megan Rapinoe and Priyanka Chopra Jonas. “It talks about female empowerment from a more current perspective,” Tyrnauer notes –– a pivot perhaps not so different from its original rebrand in the 1990s.
Ultimately the director hopes the series reveals the machinations behind the business of enticing us to buy, particularly in the most successful cases. “The facades of marketing sometimes hide ugly truths,” Tyrnauer says. “To try to understand why we’re so seduced by these things is a very important thing to look at.”
Victoria’s Secret: Angels and Demons is available on 14 July on Hulu and will stream on Paramount+ in the UK from 15 July, with an Australian airdate yet to be announced