At its peak, Victoria’s Secret was a nearly $8 billion business that dominated malls across America. Renowned supermodels like Tyra Banks, Heidi Klum and Gisele Bündchen donned the runway and graced the glossy pages of catalogs.
Behind it all was Les Wexner.
But, due to changing culture trends, allegations of a lack of prioritization of diversity and inclusivity - Wexner’s modern day retail empire would soon come under fire.
Wexner’s relationship with disgraced financier and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein that would further raise questions about retail legend Wexner.
A new Hulu docuseries “Victoria’s Secret: Angels and Demons” looks at the ties between Wexner and Epstein and the meteoric rise and fall of the brand.
Stream “Victoria’s Secret: Angels and Demons” on Hulu starting July 14.
Matt Tyrnauer, the director of the docuseries, spoke to ABC News about the scandals that rocked the company and where it leaves the iconic brand today.
“Victoria's Secret was one of the greatest brands ever created,” said Tyrnauer. “This is one of the greatest collapses in the history of fashion. And the fastest.”
Company’s rise and downfall
In the late 90s, Victoria’s Secret achieved explosive and commercial success.
Wexner built a portfolio of brands called L Brands, that included The Limited and Bath and Body Works, and rode the booming success of shopping malls in America.
“The mall was everything,” said Tyrnauer. “Now [the mall has] shifted to the digital world and we carry it in our pockets and hold it in the palm of our hands.”
Also by the early 2010s, culture started to shift and the thin body image that Victoria’s Secret had built its entire brand around no longer resonated with many women.
“Victoria’s Secret lost connection with the customer. Things were falling apart,” said Tyrnauer. “[The] branding was very nude forward. It was almost like softcore porn meets fashion. And that did not stay viable.”
On top of the cultural shift, the company faced allegations of sexism and transphobia after a senior executive made comments in a 2018 Vogue interview that some viewed as transphobic.
Ed Razek, the former chief of marketing officers for L Brands, Victoria’s Secret parent company, said Victoria’s Secret didn’t hire “transexuals” for their runway show because “the show is a fantasy.”
Razek apologized for his remarks and resigned in 2019. That same year, the brand hired its first openly transgender model Sara Sampaio.
In 2020, the New York Times published an article based on the interviews of more than 30 current and former executives, employees, contractors and models of Victoria’s Secret. According to the report, Razek, who played a central role in casting the models, was allegedly the subject of multiple complaints which he has denied.
Razek told ABC News in 2020 that the accusations in the New York Times story were “categorically untrue, misconstrued or taken out of context.”
Tyrnauer said it was surprising that the brand couldn’t keep up with the shift in trends and called the problem “systemic.”
“Clearly, there was a systemic problem at the company and it couldn't sustain its remarkable success any longer after a certain point,” said Tyrnauer.
ABC News reached out to Les Wexner’s attorney for comment on the allegations and have not heard back.
In a statement to ABC News, a Victoria's Secret spokesperson said “The company featured in this docuseries does not reflect today’s Victoria’s Secret & Co…Today, we are proud to be a different company, with a new leadership team and mission to welcome, celebrate, and champion all women.”
Beyond allegations of sexism and misconduct, there are questions surrounding Wexner’s relationship with Epstein, who served as Wexner’s financial manager and had a wide-ranging power of attorney.
“Epstein was a really accomplished con man. [The way] Epstein was able to attach himself to a man of such wealth and influence is one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of recent days,” said Tyrnauer.
In 2019, Epstein was charged with sex trafficking of minors.
In the series, one former Victoria’s Secret CEO said she was made aware that Epstein had allegedly been purporting himself as a Victoria’s Secret model scout in 1993.
“There are people to whom we spoke, who said that [Epstein] had interfered in the company and they talk about discovering that and at a certain point and being alarmed by it,” said Tyrnauer.
In a statement to the series’ filmmakers, Wexner’s attorney said that the former CEO “confronted Epstein and was clear that” what Epstein was allegedly doing “was in violation of company policy” and he “was forbidden from ever doing so again. Epstein denied having done so.”
In 1997, actress Alicia Arden told police in Santa Monica that Epstein invited her to the Shutters Hotel for a “modeling interview” for the Victoria’s Secret catalog and “groped her buttocks against her will.”
No charges ever stemmed from Arden’s police report.
Wexner claims to have cut ties with Epstein in 2007 during the first federal investigation into Epstein’s sexual crimes. Wexner also maintains that he had no knowledge of Epstein’s sexual predation prior to that investigation.
Wexner resigned from L Brands in 2019.
“We will never know the influence that Jeffrey Epstein had on the CEOs and the important people [of Victoria’s Secret],” said Tyrnauer. “This is one of the greatest mysteries of our time, certainly in the sphere of pop culture and the business world.”
Last year, L Brands committed to invest $90 million to protect employees from harassment and discrimination after it was sued by at least two shareholders, who allege the company failed to investigate Wexner’s ties to Epstein and ignored a widespread culture of sexual harassment at the company. The company made no admission of wrongdoing.
Victoria’s Secret today
With the advent of brands like SavagexFenty, ThirdLove and Aerie, Victoria’s Secret remains competitive, but is no longer the leader of its industry,
The company has made some major changes to its branding, including canceling its annual runway show in 2019 amid falling TV ratings.
It has also phased out its iconic Angels and had tapped into a diverse array of activists and icons like soccer star Megan Rapinoe and body advocate Paloma Elsesser.
Tyrnauer said the brand’s reinvention is “almost a perfect 180 degree shift.”
“Instead of what [has been] seen as exploitation of sexuality, [the brand] has embraced diversity and body type diversity,” he said. “For me, it's all marketing, and whether the marketing appeals to you or not, is your individual choice.”