The announcements of Barbara Palvin and Alexina Graham's new contracts show just how out of touch the brand is today.
For Victoria's Secret, the end of 2018 was, to put it kindly, not stellar in the press department. Ahead of the lingerie giant's annual blowout fashion show in November, Chief Marketing Officer Ed Razek and Executive Vice President of Public Relations Monica Mitro sat down for an interview with Vogue.com's Nicole Phelps, and despite the presence of a PR exec who was presumably on hand to keep Razek on message, the story was a disaster for the already-beleaguered brand.
Razek's comments about Victoria's Secret's casting practices, especially relating to plus-size and trans models — "Shouldn't you have transsexuals in the show? No. No, I don't think we should. Well, why not? Because the show is a fantasy," reads one particularly horrible quote — cast a giant spotlight on just how out of touch the brand had become with the current social climate, and blowback was swift. Many spoke out against Victoria's Secret, including several high-profile models, the Model Alliance and perhaps most damning, pop star Halsey, who had already performed in the pre-taped 2018 Victoria's Secret Fashion Show but waited until the night it aired to release her own statement; the show itself brought in its lowest-ever ratings.
Add this on top of longstanding sales woes, the departure of CEO Jan Singer and waves of store closures, and it was clear that Victoria's Secret started 2019 in need of some serious rehabilitation. The brand may be too big to fail — at least, for now — but it is unquestionably facing serious competition, if nothing else but as far as positive press goes, from more inclusive brands like Aerie and Savage x Fenty.
The most obvious place to start would be a makeover of the Victoria's Secret Angels roster. Landing an Angel contract has long been regarded as one of the most coveted jobs in fashion, coming with a high paycheck (though perhaps not as lucrative as they were in the brand's heyday), steady work and an instant profile boost. Models who have become Angels are often able to parlay their status into other blue chip contracts, TV appearances and charitable work.
That is to say, the Angels roster is the most visible and high-stakes way the brand could show its commitment to correcting its inclusivity issues. Of course, it's likely that current Angels have good contracts, and firing a bunch of models just because you have a problem in the C-suite isn't exactly a good move, either. But Victoria's Secret did have at least one opening to fill after the public retirement of Adriana Lima in 2018. It was the perfect opportunity for Victoria's Secret to shake things up.
Then, last week, Victoria's Secret announced its latest Angel: Barbara Palvin. The twenty-five-year-old Hungarian model had only walked for the brand once in 2012, not appearing on the runway again until 2018. Perhaps this is too skeptical, but it seems unlikely that anything major had changed about Palvin in those six years except her 10 million-plus Instagram followers and a growing call for Victoria's Secret to cast "curvy" girls. Palvin is certainly more curvaceous than the brand's standard (ironic for a lingerie brand), but despite a now-viral Facebook post to the contrary, she is far from being a plus-size model.
All things considered, Palvin was a perfectly reasonable — if not safe and predictable — pick to join the Victoria's Secret Angels lineup. More surprising was the announcement this week that Alexina Graham would join Palvin as an Angel newcomer, too. The British model has also walked for the brand twice, in 2017 and 2018. She looks pretty much just like every other model on the roster, except that she is the first-ever redhead to be named a Victoria's Secret Angel, so... there's that. ("Being an Angel is part of having that media outreach so that I can say to young red head kids, 'you can do anything you want! Nothing is impossible!'" Graham tells Glamour UK.)
It's not hard to imagine that Victoria's Secret feels pleased to have ticked off the "diversity" box by casting two new Angels who have, respectively, slightly wide hips and red hair. To be as explicit as possible, this is not a knock on Palvin or Graham; they are both beautiful and clearly hard-working women who deserve recognition. They do provide a break from the stick-straight, blonde norm at Victoria's Secret, but it's not nearly enough from a brand which has been so resistant to change. Palvin and Graham are the kinds of Angels we should have seen when the brand brought on a whopping 10 new models back in 2015 — not the kind of game-changing choices the brand so desperately needs.
If the brand requires that a model must walk at least one Victoria's Secret runway before earning her wings, they had their pick of more diverse newcomers in last year's lineup; they could have also waited until after the 2019 Victoria's Secret Fashion Show — another major opportunity for the brand to change, though I'm hardly holding my breath — to find the right new face who actually breaks the Angel mold. Certainly, Victoria's Secret isn't lacking in Angels: The current lineup features 14 models, so there couldn't have been a hurry to replace anyone. (If anything, that kind of dilution shows that the brand didn't even necessarily need to wait for an Angel to retire to add in more diversity.)
These choices show that Victoria's Secret really, truly just doesn't get it. As its competition whizzes by, casting models across racial, size, gender and ability lines, Victoria's Secret has dug its heels in and shown just how disinterested it is in any change at all. Palvin and Graham aren't so much a sign of a commitment to diversity as they are a great, big middle finger from Victoria's Secret execs — crumbs for consumers begging for actual substance. Whether the new Angels will be enough to stave off critics and help turnaround dismal sales figures remains to be seen.
At least, as Victoria's Secret continues to sink, there's always the newly relaunched swim, right?