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The sad story behind Victoria’s Secret

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Victoria's Secret models Behati Prinsloo, left, and Miranda Kerr pose at the companys flagship store in New York.

Washington - In the mid-1970s, a Stanford University MBA Roy Raymond walked into a department store to buy his wife lingerie, only to find ugly floral-print nightgowns – which looked even uglier under harsh fluorescent lights – and saleswomen who made him feel like a deviant just for being there.

Realising that other male friends felt the same way, the 30-year-old saw an opportunity to create a market where none existed: a lingerie store designed to make men feel comfortable shopping there.

Raymond imagined a Victorian boudoir, replete with dark wood, oriental rugs, and silk drapery. He chose the name Victoria to evoke the propriety and respectability associated with the Victorian era; outwardly refined, Victoria’s “secrets” were hidden beneath.

In 1977, with $80 000 (R814 000 at current exchange rates) of savings and loans from family, Raymond and his wife leased a space in a small shopping mall in Palo Alto, California, and Victoria’s Secret was born.

To understand how novel Raymond’s idea was, it helps to have a little context. In the 1950s and 1960s, underwear was all about practicality and durability. Sensual lingerie was reserved for the honeymoon trousseau or the anniversary night.

When the women’s movement of the late 1960s and 1970s called for women to liberate themselves from the bondage of bras, the intimate apparel industry responded with new designs that they claimed would give women the natural look they desired without the embarrassment of a sagging bustline. But for the most part, underwear remained functional.

Victoria’s Secret changed all that, and its sales continued to boom – thanks in large part to its catalogue, which reached customers across the US.

Within five years, Raymond had opened three more stores in San Francisco. By 1982, the company had annual sales of more than $4-million – yet something in Raymond’s formula was not working.

According to a book by management experts Michael J Silverstein and Neil Fiske, Trading Up, Victoria’s Secret was nearing bankruptcy.

Enter Leslie Wexner, the man who had ushered in the mass-market sportswear boom with a store he called The Limited.

While in his 20s, Wexner had recognised that women were ditching dresses for separates and casual wear. In 1963, he opened a store “limited” just to sportswear. Wexner’s foresight paid off. The Limited grew to 11 stores by 1970, and 188 by 1977, according to a Forbes profile published that year. Wexner, now 40, was worth $50-million.

By the early 1980s, Wexner was looking to branch out into new brands. While visiting one of his outposts in San Francisco, he stumbled across Victoria’s Secret.

“It was a small store, and it was Victorian – not English Victorian, but brothel Victorian with red velvet sofas,” Wexner told Newsweek in 2010. “But there was very sexy lingerie, and I hadn’t seen anything like it in the US.”

Wexner quickly saw what was wrong with the Victoria’s Secret business model: in focusing on a store and catalogue that appealed to men, Raymond had failed to draw a large following among women.

Wexner surmised that women were about as uncomfortable in Victoria’s Secret as Raymond had been in that department store.

Nevertheless, Wexner saw the company’s potential and, in 1982, he bought the stores and the catalogue for about $1m.

His first step, Silverstein and Fiske wrote, was to study European lingerie boutiques, whose female customers approached lingerie as an everyday essential.

Wexner returned home convinced that if American women had access to the same kind of sexy, affordable lingerie as their European counterparts, they, too, would want to wear it every day.

He also saw a huge gap in the market – next to no products that filled the gap between the luxury brands and the Maidenforms and Cross Your Hearts.

Finally, a new shopping environment – one that was inviting to women and fulfilled an attainable fantasy of glamour and luxury – would help create greater demand.

Wexner ultimately decided to create for the company what Ralph Lauren had mastered the decade before him: a British-inspired aspirational world that the American consumer would clamour to enter.

Gone were the dark woods and deep reds of the original stores; now, gilded fixtures, floral prints, classical music, and old-timey perfume bottles filled the space. Lacy bras and panties hung neatly under warm-hued lights.

The catalogue, which had become modern and racy, was softened to reflect the new image, with models who looked like they had just walked off the pages of Vogue or Glamour. New products like the Miracle Bra became top sellers.

In short, women were buying, while men continued to ogle the catalogue. Wexner’s plan was working. By 1995, according to Trading Up, Victoria’s Secret had become a $1.9-billion company with 670 stores nationally.

As they continued to refine and tweak the company image (they abandoned the English-boudoir theme in about 2000), Victoria’s Secret became the most popular apparel brand in the world, with a net income of nearly $5bn.

Sadly, as Wexner and Victoria’s Secret’s success grew, Raymond, despite his keen instincts, saw his fall apart.

After selling the company to Wexner, Raymond stayed on as president of Victoria’s Secret for about a year before leaving to open a high-end children’s retail and catalogue company based in San Francisco.

But it went bankrupt two years later in 1986. The couple ended up divorcing, and in 1993, Raymond jumped to his death from the Golden Gate Bridge, leaving two teenage children.

Raymond’s genius was in recognising the need to remove shame from the process of buying unmentionables. But his story reads like a cautionary tale of how a brilliant opportunity can be seized and yet missed.

Wexner, on the other hand, had vision and skill. He imagined a world where there was no such thing as an unmentionable, and figured out a way to make it so.

He made sexy underwear commonplace, and convinced us that investing in what’s underneath our clothes is as necessary as the clothes themselves. The world would never be the same. – Slate/The Washington Post News Service

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