Say this for Victoria’s Secret: The company knew exactly what story it wanted to tell.
According to ex-CEO Cindy Fedus-Fields, Les Wexner, the founder of parent company L Brands-which also owned Abercrombie & Fitch, Lane Bryant, Express, Structure and The Limited-believed the key to building a successful brand was having a story to serve as “not only your inspirational mechanism but also as your control mechanism.” The lingerie line certainly had that. It may have been a narrative about unattainable female physical perfection served barely-dressed for a leering male gaze, but it was coherent, consistent and, throughout the 2000s and early 2010s, extremely lucrative.
Victoria’s Secret: Angels and Demons
The Bottom Line
A tangle of interesting ideas and good intentions.
Matt Tyrnauer’s three-part Hulu docuseries Victoria’s Secret: Angels and Demons, on the other hand, has nobler intentions, but no such clarity of purpose. It’s a chronicle of the brand’s ascent and descent, a look back at its place in our culture and an exposé of the rich, powerful men behind it, who inevitably connect – like so many of the US’s richest, most powerful men seem to – to Jeffrey Epstein. But in trying to braid all these threads together at the same time, Victoria’s Secret: Angels and Demons ends up a hopeless tangle.
To be fair, it’s easy to understand how a documentary about Victoria’s Secret might get lost in the weeds. You can’t talk about the company without talking about its cultural and commercial dominance in the 2000s and 2010s, but you can’t talk about the brand’s popularity without talking about the very specific vision of sexiness driving it. That, in turn, means you’ll want to discuss the specific individuals who created and capitalized on that image – namely the aforementioned Wexner and Ed Razek, the company’s Chief Marketing Officer. But of course you can’t do that without talking about their close ties to Epstein and their complicity in his rise. And so on, and so on, and so on.
Victoria’s Secret: Angels and Demons does mount a persuasive argument that the interconnectedness of all these various throughlines is key, and backs up its ideas with interviews from a broad array of smart, well-spoken subjects including former employees, models and journalists covering everything from the fashion industry to Wexner’s hometown of Columbus, Ohio. In contrast to the lurid sensationalism of Hulu’s other recent docuseries about a trendy millennial brand (at this rate, can a searing exposé on Juicy Couture be far behind?), This one is ambitious in scope and sober in tone.
But with so many rabbit holes to explore, Victoria’s Secret: Angels and Demons often seems at a loss as to which to tackle first. The three hourlong episodes are split up not by theme or chronology so much as by the blunt pragmatism of keeping all installments the same digestible length. The docuseries jumps back and forth between concepts and time periods, sometimes with abrupt and tenuous transitions and sometimes with no transition at all – just an awkward long pause I’m assuming will be filled with commercials on Hulu’s cheaper plans.
Some issues, like Wexner’s relationship with his mother, are set up in one episode to be revisited in a later one. Others, like the poor working conditions of the company’s overseas factories or the apparently “cultlike” corporate culture, are raised briefly and then never explored further. Still others turn out to be pure detours: It’s fun to hear from Martin Izquierdo, the man who designed wings for Victoria’s Secret’s runway shows, but in context it becomes just another questionably relevant scrap of information in an endless torrent of it.
What makes this haphazard structure so frustrating is that buried within it are compelling lessons about how Victoria’s Secret blossomed into a commercial trailblazer and then calcified into a dinosaur, as put forth by former executives and business journalists. There are also thoughtful conversations about the effect that Victoria’s Secret’s super-sexualized, hyper-specific ideal of femininity had on women, including the ones selling its products: “I was happy to leave, go home, cry in a bathtub,” supermodel Frederique van der Wal recalls, with a rueful laugh, of walking in the first Victoria’s Secret fashion show.
Most urgently, there are disturbing details about Epstein’s murky but tight professional and personal bond with the famously private Wexner – sometime in the 1990s, Wexner granted full power of attorney to Epstein over all his assets, which Washington Post journalist Sarah Ellison describes as “something that I’ve never seen in all my years of reporting” – along with speculation about the true nature of the men’s relationship, and about their overlapping views of the world. (Wexner has since distanced himself from Epstein and, in a statement to the filmmakers, insists he had no knowledge of Epstein’s wrongdoings and cut ties in 2008 after Epstein’s first conviction.)
However, grasping at these ideas feels like a losing game when Victoria’s Secret: Angels and Demons keeps pulling us this way and that. At one point in the final episode, as the experts spun a dizzying web of theories about what Wexner and Epstein were really up to together, I felt myself struggling to process what exactly what is being suggested, let alone how plausible or well-founded it might be. In the context of the series, it only mattered for a few minutes anyway. Before I knew it, the episode had moved on to talking about the company’s latest pivot into the more inclusive “Victoria’s Secret & Co.” marketing campaign.
“This is all a story meant to be hidden and stay hidden,” one journalist stresses about how the Epstein scandal exposed the dark side of the billionaire class, and his observation rings true. No doubt Wexner and his associates would have preferred we never dig deeper beyond the glossy, gorgeous facade of the brand they were peddling, and no doubt that’s exactly why they merit a closer look. In that regard, Victoria’s Secret: Angels and Demons is trying to do meaningful work. If only it could get out of its own way long enough to tell that tale properly.