Update: On February 20, it was announced that Victoria’s Secret had been sold. The company, which has been under the ownership of L Brands since 1982, was acquired by Sycamore Partners, a private equity firm. Per Fashionista, Sycamore acquired 55% of the $1.1 billion business. In addition to the acquisition news, L Brands founder and Victoria’s Secret executive Leslie Wexner announced that he is stepping down as chief executive officer and chairman of the board for L Brands.
In case we needed more proof that Victoria’s Secret is highly problematic and pretty much the epitome of what is wrong with the lingerie and fashion industry, the New York Times has published an investigative report on the culture of misogyny within the company. The bombshell report, published on February 1, alleges years of sexual harassment and bullying of employees and models by VS’s two most powerful men: Leslie Wexner and Ed Razek.
According to the investigation, both Wexner (the chief executive of Victoria’s Secret’s parent company, L Brands) and Razek (the former VS chief marketing officer who stepped down from the company in 2019) created an environment where models felt pressured into uncomfortable situations, for fear that saying no would harm their careers.
The Times reports that 71-year-old Razek, who created the now-cancelled Victoria’s Secret fashion show, engaged in many incidents of inappropriate behaviour, including trying to kiss models, asking them to sit on his lap and touching one’s crotch ahead of the 2018 VS runway show. During that same fitting, Razek also allegedly watched model Bella Hadid as she was being measured for underwear to wear on the runway. According to the Times, the exec reportedly told employees in the room to “forget the panties,” and questioned whether the TV network would let the then-22-year-old model walk “down the runway with those perfect titties.” Disgusting, much?
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For the record, Hadid has not yet responded to the reports, though she seemingly threw shade at the brand back in November when expressed she never felt completely comfortable modelling lingerie until she walked her first Savage x Fenty show in September 2019.
“For me, that was the first time on a runway that I felt really sexy,” Hadid said at the Vogue Fashion Festival in Paris. “Because when I first did Fenty, I was doing other lingerie shows and I never felt powerful on a runway, like, in my underwear.”
And for what it’s worth, Razek “categorically” denied the Times’ allegations, while Wexner’s spokesperson declined to comment. A spokesperson for L Brands told the publication that the company is “intensely focused on corporate governance” but did not refute the claims.
Honestly, as disturbing and gross these allegations are, they’re not entirely surprising. Razek has a laundry list of problematic behaviour (ahem, remember when he told Vogue that “transsexuals” had no place in the VS fashion show?) and Wexner has ties to now-deceased sex offender Jeffrey Epstein who managed Wexner’s fortune and reportedly lured some of his alleged victims by posing as a recruiter for Victoria’s Secret models. What else would you expect from two powerful white men who created a brand that perpetuated the idea that women should look sexy for men?
By creating a “culture of misogyny,” Razek and Wexner made models and staff feel powerless and fearful
What’s perhaps most unsettling (and evident) in the Times story is how a misogynistic, male-dominated culture such as the one reported to thrive at Victoria’s Secret puts women—especially young women—in such a terrifyingly powerless position. According to the Times report, Razek “often reminded models that their careers were in his hands,” with occasional VS model, Alyssa Miller, summing up his attitude as “I am the holder of the power. I can make you or break you.”
Model and two-time Angel Andi Muise faced the repercussions of rebuffing Razek’s advances, according to the Times. In 2007, Razek reportedly invited then 19-year-old Muise out to dinner. On the car ride there, Muise recalled Razek repeatedly trying to kiss her against her will. In the following months, he allegedly emailed her, asking her to move in with him in Turks and Caicos or the Dominican Republic, reportedly writing, “I need some place sexy to take you!” When Muise declined an invitation to dine alone with Razek at his home, she says she was not picked for the 2008 fashion show for the first time in four years.
The Times reports that an employee complained to human resources about Razek’s behaviour, presenting HR with a document listing more than a dozen allegations about the former exec, including demeaning comments and inappropriate touching. Former public relations employee Casey Crowe Taylor also filed a complaint to HR after Razek publicly berated her about her weight. In both instances, Victoria’s Secret allegedly did nothing, and Wexner reportedly turned a blind eye to all of it.
And because of this fear, Razek’s behaviour was often just accepted
Because Razek and Wexner were in such positions of power, it makes sense that Victoria’s Secret models and others just “accepted” his behaviour.
“What was most alarming to me, as someone who was always raised as an independent woman, was just how ingrained this behaviour was,” Crowe Taylor told the Times. “This abuse was just laughed off and accepted as normal. It was almost like brainwashing. And anyone who tried to do anything about it wasn’t just ignored. They were punished.”
And again, that’s unfortunately what often happens when men are in extreme positions of power (just look at Harvey Weinstein). We can just imagine the VS models nervously laughing off Razek’s behaviour like we often do a creepy older uncle, not just in the hope that they would be able to walk in what was once regarded as the pinnacle of a model’s career, but also from fear that their careers would be harmed had they spoken up. It’s sickening to think of how helpless Victoria’s Secret models and employees must have felt watching Razek’s disgusting and inappropriate behaviour carry on without repercussion, all while smiling on the runway and publicly praising the company.
As for what the future holds for Victoria’s Secret? That remains to be seen, although, by the looks of it, the lingerie behemoth seems to be falling farther and farther from grace. Wexner, now 81 years of age, is reportedly in talks to step down and is discussing a full or partial sale of the brand. But as long as Victoria’s Secret continues to cater to the male gaze of what women should look like, we have a feeling it’ll easily make it’s way from “heaven” to “hell” in no time.