Topic: FASHION NEWS
What is Victoria Secret's Real Secret?
Almost every woman and man has gone lingerie shopping. They buy for themselves, their lovers, a new romantic interest, etc. It's quite enjoyable to see men trying to negotiate their way around huge displays of pink and champagne-hued lace, or make awkward eye contact with the provocatively dressed sales girls.
The feeling of embarrassment and fear in equal parts, while being utterly incongruous, is palpable. Even the frothy Frenchness of the word – ‘lingerie’ – seems designed to keep all decent men a good 15 feet away from the windows, lest they be accused of being risque.
It was the universal certainty that most men would rather be in a war zone than a women’s underwear store that led Californian native, Roy Raymond to set up Victoria’s Secret back in 1977. A Stanford business graduate, Raymond hit on the idea when he tried to buy some underwear for his wife and was left feeling like he was about to be put on some sort of register. What if there was a nice place that men could feel comfortable in; a shop where they could browse at their leisure without having to manically flash their wedding bands?
He opened his first store in Palo Alto, now famous for breeding 27-year-old trillionaires, but then just a suburb of a California suburb. The shop was the quintessential American vision of an English boudoir. The brand was called Victoria’s Secret after Queen Victoria - the figurehead of a notoriously repressed era. The name suggested a veil of respectability pulled over ‘secrets’ hidden underneath.
Raymond’s homage to the boudoir was all about seduction, with dark wood and red velvet sofas and silk drapes featuring heavily in the décor. However, the real genius in his idea was not the marketing to men – that actually proved the business’s downfall, more of which later – but the attempt to provide something in the middle of either joyless, functional underwear and pieces only fit for a wedding night.
At the time, such a compromise did not exist and Victoria’s Secret changed that, bringing flirty bras and delicate lace thongs in a rainbow of colours to a newly sexually liberated generation who were more than happy to invest in fun, pretty pieces that only a few people (you would hope) would ever see.
Raymond launched a Victoria’s Secret catalogue, which in pre-Internet days went down very well, and allowed the brand to reach customers across America. By 1982, he had opened another three stores in the Bay Area and the company was making more than $4m in annual sales.
And yet he was reportedly nearing bankruptcy. In marketing only to men, Raymond forgot the basic principle that most of a women’s underwear drawer will be purchased by her and not her other half. And as has been proved time and time again, men will never completely understand such female items, like when Dolce and Gabbana expressed their confusion at women's refusal to wear shape-correcting corsets all the time. (Dolce also added that: 'For me, it is impossible to see a woman in flat shoes' – try running in them, Domenico…). Alienating the main consumers of women’s underwear, i.e. women, was probably not the most sensible idea, and in 1982, Raymond sold the company to sportswear mogul Leslie Wexner for around $1m.
Wexner quickly set about correcting the mistake, while keeping the ‘English’ vibe that always goes down well over the pond (even setting up the home address as No. 10 Margaret Street – despite the headquarters being located in Ohio). His aim was to bring a touch of Anglo-Saxon class to the underwear drawers of the average American women. He toned down the catalogue so that it appealed to women as much as it did to their husbands, and cleansed the stores of the dark woods and plush sofas, replacing them with chintzy floral prints, gilded perfume bottles and neatly hung pieces in soft, flattering lighting.
Wexner’s hunch paid off. By 1995 when the brand launched its now iconic catwalk shows, featuring supermodels including Helena Christiansen and Tyra Banks, Victoria’s Secret had become a $1.9bn company, with 670 stores across the US. Today the brand control a huge 35pc of America’s lingerie market (according to Forbes), with sales over $6.6bn in 2013.
Sadly, despite his original foresight, Raymond did not share in this success. After staying on as president for a year, he left to form another retail and catalogue company, this time in children’s clothes. His brand My Child’s Destiny was declared bankrupt within two years, leaving Raymond personally liable for its debts.
The Raymonds lost two homes and their cars. In 1993, after another failed business attempt – this time a children's bookshop – the couple divorced. In August that year, Roy Raymond jumped to his death from San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.
As far as Victoria's Secret went, Raymond’s instinct was spot on, but his implementation lacked the understanding of his successor, leaving him to become a cautionary tale for entrepreneurs. However, his legacy lives on: thanks to Raymond, right now there are several of the world’s highest paid supermodel’s preparing to strut down a catwalk in little more than feathers and Swarovski crystals alongside Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande in a televised production that draws in almost 10 million viewers globally.
In 2017, it will mark the 40th anniversary for Victoria Secrets. One can only hope they create a new line that has RR initialed in it somewhere to bring homage to the man who started it all in 1977, Roy Raymond.