For one of the world’s brashest brands, Victoria’s Secret seemed rather nervous on its big European debut.
The lingerie giant was staging its annual fashion show outside of the U.S. for the first time, showing a little leg to the European market by transplanting the lavish gala to West London. (It will be shown on CBS on December 9.) Sharen Jester Turney, the company’s CEO, admitted that they had been treading carefully. “I would just say that we've put our toe in the water,” she told me.
The organizers certainly appeared worried about plunging into the notoriously fierce world of London fashion and media. One of the army of staff running the event on Tuesday said the scale of the security operation and PR management was unprecedented. “I’ve never seen anything like this in London. It’s a VS thing,” she said. “There are so many press they haven’t let in. If they’ve written something they don’t like--forget it, you’re out like the Daily Mail.”
Those who were allowed to cover the greatest catwalk show on Earth had to watch what they said. My question about London’s readiness to welcome lingerie as mainstream entertainment was cut short and I was escorted from the backstage area, accused of broaching a subject that was too “deep” for the show’s breathtaking models.
When the performance was about to begin, the compère pleaded with the British crowd to cast aside its traditional reserve in favor of whoops and cheers for the angels. “It’s perfectly ok if you get off your rich English butts,” he said. “They kill themselves every single day.”
Accompanied by artists including Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande, the models succeeded in generating a healthy roar even if the butts stayed mainly in the seats. Most Brits have seen clips or pictures from the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Shows over the years but the event has shown no signs of growing into a cultural phenomenon.
On this side of the Atlantic the fashion show is not broadcast on mainstream television and the first store didn’t open until 2012. With an underwear industry worth more than $3 billion a year, Victoria’s Secret is understandably keen to upgrade its status in Britain.
Despite an impressive celebrity guest-list and the extraordinary garments on show, the event failed to make newspaper front pages.
The British Fashion Awards held the previous night had been attended by Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss, Anna Wintour, and Victoria Beckham as well as the cream of the young party circuit Harry Styles, Kendall Jenner, and Cara Delevingne. None of them were at the Victoria’s Secret show (although Cara’s big sister Poppy insisted the show had been “fabulous”).
Turney said her company’s underwear designs were worthy of consideration alongside the couture produced by the major fashion houses. “Dear friend,” she said. “We don't sell underwear. We sell lingerie, and lingerie is all about fashion.”
That may well be the case but few people inside the show at Earls Court seemed to be talking about the lingerie. Ed Sheeran, one of the performers on the night, was a notable exception.
The British singer, who has emulated Swift by selling a million copies of his new album, was on stage as Adriana Lima and Alessandra Ambrosio, both in the tiny group of Victoria’s Secret “angels,” strutted down the catwalk in bras worth around $1.5 million (£1 million) each. “It’s a bit strange,” he said. “You're looking at it like, ‘Is that really worth a million pounds? And who’s gonna buy that? Who’s gonna wear that?’”
The Victoria’s Secret Show is, then, less about what the models are wearing and more about what they are not wearing. Even the small band of fans gathered outside the venue to catch a glimpse of the models said they were not terribly keen to buy the lingerie. “The bras are OK,” said one student from Washington, DC. “But the panties not so much -- they give you a wedgie.”
The bodies, on the other hand, are flawless. Lais Ribeiro, one of the contracted models, said that was down to a lot of hard work, although she had drawn the line when they landed in London on Sunday night and a couple of her colleagues had gone straight to the gym for a session that lasted until 1am.
Preparing for this week’s show, Ribeiro said she had done three months of high intensity work. “We work out a lot so we can eat whatever we... not whatever we want... but to have some chocolate, some pizza and that's why we work out like crazy to eat and have fun,” she said.
There’s no such room for maneuver on the day of the show when many of the models refrain even from drinking water. “We try to not but before the show, a little sip,” she said.
Mary Ellen Bowers, one of the models’ physical trainers said their bodies were perfectly toned through a carefully calibrated regime. “This is the most exposed catwalk show,” she said. “The girls train like athletes leading up to this day because they are out there in front of millions of people wearing the sexiest lingerie and you can literally see every muscle in their body the whole way down so we're working really hard to get them ready for it.”
Soccer coach Jose Mourinho agreed. “I can imagine that,” he told me. “They have to work as much as my players or top sports guys have to do.”
Bowers said dieting was never a major part of the regime, and she had no concern that the bodies she was honing created an unrealistic image for ordinary people. “I don't think so at all, I think that obviously it's aspiration but that's what the ‘angels’ are they are the example of the sexiest the most beautiful, and really the most incredible bodies in the world.”
Not everyone agreed with her assessment. Child protection campaigner Kathy McGuinness said she was dreading an attempt by Victoria’s Secret to push skinny women in nothing but their underwear into mainstream British culture.
“It's just another form of sexualization of young women. It's aspirational for younger teens as well,” said the founder of Child Eyes. “When they combine it with their pop music, like Taylor Swift, it's basically targeting children and that's wrong.”
For the most part, the Victoria’s Secret stars seem happy to be cast as role models. Maria Borges, an African model in her second VS show, said everyone back home in Angola would be watching her. “I'm the example,” she said. “I would like to inspire some people from Africa, and my country, to try and work hard and be a supermodel.”
Lindsay Ellingson, an “angel” for three years, said she had been inspired by Giselle and Heidi Klum. “That's what every girl wants: to be in Victoria’s Secret,” she said as a stylist worked on her beautiful sweep of blonde hair.
The next question was the one considered a step too far. I said, “In Britain, [Victoria’s Secret] is more of a place where you might buy underwear rather than this incredible mainstream event, and people in Britain have said they find it a bit odd or even a bit worrying that an underwear..."
A minder stepped in halway through my sentence. "We're gonna cut it off there," he said. Ellingson started to answer anyway, but he spoke over her. “No, no, no,” he said. “You were talking about business and the perception of the brand. It's getting bit deep for this kind of environment."
Then I was escorted out. The show, of course, went on.