After a week of cultural losses, something has gone, too, from the fashion world. Traditionally, at this time of year, supportive women’s magazines and pages would have been running awed interviews with stars of the Victoria’s Secret fashion show, marvelling at their exercise routines and extolling the distinction, in their ranks, of being picked to wear the year’s most risible outfit.
Which of the show’s uniformly shaped bodies will get to wear the platinum brassiere, the miraculous suspender, the surpassingly rare crystal thong? As ever, Vogue led the coverage last year, with an excitable “everything you need to know” primer. “Elsa Hosk was chosen to wear the Victoria’s Secret Fantasy Bra. This year’s show-stopping piece was created using 100 per cent Swarovski Created Diamonds and responsibly sourced topaz.”
British Vogue’s contributing beauty editor, Charlotte Tilbury, was close to delirium: “I am beyond excited to officially announce that I am the exclusive make-up sponsor of the heavenly, world-famous, iconic Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show 2018…”
But this year the heavenly, iconic display of 60 models dressed in wings, heels, straps and what the brand calls “panties” is declared over, and, more remarkably, barely mourned, even by formerly loyal red tops. The Fantasy Bra is extinct. The show’s millions of spectators may never again, unless some equally shameless pantmaker takes up the challenge, be encouraged to pretend, with invaluable media support, that this crotch-centred perv’s paradise is a deeply creative and empowering phenomenon, “so relevant”, as one of its favoured models, Karlie Kloss, explained last year, “in the world we live in today”.
She added – piercingly unaware that the inspirational event would not be with us much longer – that the show “allows all of us to be the best versions of ourselves”. Much as a butcher’s shop gives all cows a chance to shine. Less affirmatively, a VS executive, Ed Razek (recently retired), explained that neither trans nor plus-size women fitted with the “fantasy” of the show. The VS models are – were – young, narrow, unusually tall, and expected, like prize animals, to adhere to stringent diet and exercise regimes, the better to de-sleaze, via their own lean athleticism, the brand’s essentially Amsterdam shop-window aesthetic. Adriana Lima, we have learned, empoweringly, “stops drinking entirely” 12 hours before the show. Hence, similarly, the de-pornifying wings and the preferred epithet, for its models, “angels”.
Whatever killed the show, it was not unfriendly media coverage. In fact, given the widespread determination to portray this high-end woman-trussing as iconic, empowering etc, the brand’s gloss on the cancellation amounts to a critique of its lavishly uncritical press. Why hadn’t Vogue et al pointed out that the annual thigh-fest was as inspirational a fashion event as, say, Eric Morley’s Miss World, the Rear of the Year award or, for that matter, female gymnast curation in the former Soviet Union? Now the new chief financial officer of L Brands (which owns VS), Stuart Burgdoerfer, says: “We think it’s important to evolve the marketing of Victoria’s Secret.”
Some underwear observers, including – in a well-illustrated piece – the BBC, have attributed this realisation to declining TV ratings and “changing attitudes”, although not, clearly, such as to also afflict the equally objectifying Kardashian brand. A gutted commentator at Russia Today diagnosed, with his special insight, Orwellian thought-control. But it seems more likely that the annual pant celebrations were principally contaminated, like Prince Andrew’s reputation and the MIT Media Lab, by association with Jeffrey Epstein. Effectively, the Victoria’s Secret show seems to have been closed down, inadvertently, by a dead sex offender who was probably its biggest fan.
Inexplicably, the billionaire CEO of Victoria’s Secret, 82-year-old Les Wexner, had allowed Epstein to become very close, over decades, as both his “most loyal friend” and his “manager of fortune”. He now says Epstein “misappropriated vast sums”.
As for Epstein, what attracted the paedophile and sex trafficker to working alongside the proprietor, among other things, of an annual underwear gala? At one point he pretended to be recruiting models for the Victoria’s Secret catalogue, in which guise he allegedly assaulted a woman, although no action resulted from her police complaint. Wexner, who colleagues claimed was aware of this report, continued to associate with Epstein, and did not cut ties until after the latter served a 13-month sentence for soliciting prostitution from a minor, and was registered as a sex offender. Like Prince Andrew, he did not notice anything untoward about Epstein’s habits. Perhaps, when men become old and rich enough, some medical condition prevents them even from registering unexplained young women who pass through their field of vision, the way the brain blocks out floaters.
However innocent the explanation, revelations of a link between the Victoria’s Secret brand and an infamous sex offender might have cast an unfortunate shadow over this year’s claims of relevance from girlish underwear models. And if that, along with its hilarious catalogue (“VERY SEXY halter garter slip”) rather than anti-objectification boycotters, explains the decision to pull the event – as opposed to updating Mr Razek’s fantasy – it’s still a result for women in general, maybe a productive one. Let’s see what happens on Love Island.
There could be some cautionary value, too, in this latest illustration of the continuing opportunities in all workplaces where powerful older men acquire authority over much younger women, are licensed to recruit on looks, and equipped with excuses to get them alone in private, even to paw them in public. After Epstein was charged, more than 100 models, some of them victims of molestation, wrote an open letter to Victoria’s Secret, asking the company to sign up to an anti-harassment scheme.
Did Mr Wexner ever respond? Maybe he didn’t need to. The fact that he remains at the helm of its parent company probably tells women all they need to know about Victoria’s grubby Secret.
• Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist
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