Thursday, May 12, 2016


“No Padding Is Sexy Now!” It was raining softly that morning, which had drawn my gaze up and away from my phone as I headed into the mall on a recent Saturday. That “Now” caught my eye and pulled my focus from everything else. The pink striped border surrounding the store window. The image of a artfully windswept young woman frolicking...somewhere. The candy-colored bra that covered her perfectly perky breasts. It was in almost every way the same Victoria’s Secret image that I had seen repackaged over the years with different girls and different kinds of windswept hair. Usually my eyes would have slid over the image to focus on something else. But there was that “Now” asking me to inspect things in a way that I hadn’t felt the need to in years.

Many a mall retailer has had their moment in the sun, holding the style narrative by the throat and inspiring haters and imitators. Gap in the 1990s with its basics and its clever advertising campaigns for example. When one is in such control, it is easy to forget that it is a moment. There is a boom that will undoubtedly be followed by a bust. This is not pessimism, only realism and pragmatism. When one is not prepared for that bust, the fallout can be ugly. You can throw a stone and hit a story about the quagmire Gap Inc. still finds itself in almost a decade after its bust began. The good times lead to growth, of style lines and stores and expectations, so when the downside and the sharp pivot that often accompanies it come, there can be a derailment.

There was always a Victoria’s Secret catalog around the house during my childhood and adolescence. But then it was the 90s. There were a lot of catalogs in general. I remember this one more than the others because of its glossiness. Not the glossiness of the pages, all of the catalogs had that trait, but a glossiness of a different sort. Back then they sold a wide array of clothing, not just lingerie but a full swim and sportswear line as well. There were sun dresses and evening gowns. Bodysuits were everywhere alongside all sorts of tops with built-in bras. When I first began to take notice of the catalog, I, much to my chagrin, had no breasts to speak of. Inspired by a healthy diet of Judy Blume books and those catalogs, I prayed for the arrival of puberty with almost the same fervor that I prayed for my family to be kept safe and for my grades to remain excellent. Puberty came eventually and I relished the chance to finally wear the pretty little, soft-cupped, transitional bras for girls available at Filene’s.

Victoria's Secret isn't selling chinos, at least not anymore. It's not even really selling bras and underwear. What is it selling then? Corporate Sexiness. The padding is often thick. The lift is often high. Cheeks are firm. Nipples are never to be seen. The Pink line, made to tap into that enviable adolescent goldmine, is sweeter and softer but still covered in that sexy yet sexless sheen. They are selling an idea and a dream that can be tapped into only through the items that they have for sale. 

It wasn't only that idea and that dream and their accessibility that kept Victoria's Secret on top. How many other non-luxury retailers have lingerie as their primary focus? You can weave your way through Macy's or Marshall's or American Eagle to the lingerie section but few stores greet you at the door with a land full of bras and underwear and negligees. And because the main image has barely changed, that girl frolicking in an unknown somewhere with her windswept hair, you always know what you're going to get when you cross the threshold. Victoria's Secret's dream is presented in clear, bold type and you can find it in almost every mall in America and occasionally beamed into your home.

Chanel is also selling an idea and a dream but theirs is far harder to attain and much harder to define, and with that lack of definition comes a freedom of movement that Victoria's Secret lacks.

I spent the latter part of my adolescence giving little thought outside of function to the items that I wore under my clothes. I dabbled in “fun” underwear but I was a straight edge and a prude in a hate/hate relationship with my body. I was uncomfortable with these truths about myself but was yet to face that discomfort head on. And while I am loathe to admit it, many of my ideas about what lingerie was supposed to be and how one was supposed to look in it came from those catalogs and a small part of my prudish nature could be traced back to my discomfort with that Corporate Sexiness. 

What's eating at Victoria's Secret's control? The Fast Fashion giants, who are causing trouble for everyone, and a lack of traction in the much discussed athleisure market aren't helping but I think there is a broader cause for the slippage. 

No Padding Is Sexy Now!

Who says? Not Victoria's Secret at first. They are no longer the leader. They are the follower. Who are they following? There still isn't anyone who does exactly what they do. But the people who decide what is in style and, more importantly, what is not has broadened and deepened as the influence of the internet has grown. They came first for the clothes and the accessories but items are easier to pick away at than an idea, a story. Maybe that's why Victoria's Secret was blindsided?

They wouldn't be the first to underestimate the speed or strength of a sea change.

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