Issue No. 271: A Modern Luxury Update

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There is a famous scene in The Social Network where Justin Timberlake’s portrayal of Sean Parker tells Jesse Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg contemporary the story of the Victoria’s Secret rebirth. In the script, it was Sean Parker that explained the genius of Les Wexner and his ability to change with the times after acquiring the $6 million / year business for a fraction of its real value, only to turn it into a $500 million dollar brand just four years later. The brand grew from four to nearly 100 stores in that short amount of time. It was a historic turnaround for a brand that was more niche than it was main street at the time.

The fundamentals of the brick and mortar lingerie business changed because Wexner emphasized the appeal of the brand to female consumers. He set aside the money-losing model of selling lingerie to men and replaced it with one that focused on female customers. But more importantly, he recognized that it should have been that way all along. It was an authentic move that evolved Victoria’s Secret (and its parent company: L Brands) into the $10 billion dollar company that it is today. But the brand is overdue for another shift. And it’s worth considering the recent hires and acquisitions by Wal-Mart to turn L Brands‘ most valuable ship around.

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Now led by CEO Jan Singer (former CEO of Spanx and Global VP at Nike), Victoria’s Secret cites the lingerie icon’s struggles on corporate restructuring, ending the famous catalog, and exiting the swimwear category. These are contributing factors, in addition to increasing pressure from eCommerce-first retailers.

The growing competition is promoting more variety in models and products. Now in its fifth year, online retailer ThirdLove has shoppers answer a series of intimate questions about their breasts — which of these nine illustrations matches your breast shape? — while reassuring consumers that every woman’s body is unique. The company has raised $13.6 million from investors and expects to double its sales this year. Companies like Adore Me, True&Co. and Everlane are taking a similar approach.

Business of Fashion

Their chief challenger, Adore Me (21) was founded in 2010 with the express intent to challenge Victoria’s Secret by giving consumers an online-first, inclusive alternative to the lingerie titan. The latest Inc. 5000 list has Adore Me’s growing 1,400% from 2014 and 2016 with revenues exceeding $100 million. Now, Adore Me is looking to expand offline and the timing couldn’t be worse for the L Brands subsidiary.

Niche players may only have a small share compared to Victoria’s Secret, but their innovative approaches mean they are nibbling away at its market share.

GlobalData Retail Managing Director Neil Saunders 

In addition to intimates brands expanding into VS’ territory, there are adjacent pressures from the athleisure market, an evolving beauty market, and the rejection of lingerie by consumers looking for comfort, function, and individuality. Rather than continue competing against the likes of Adore Me (21), THINX, Inc. (31), and Third Love (51), Victoria’s Secret could re-invest in the brand by following Wal-Mart’s lead.

Making a strategic acquisition to evolve Victoria’s Secret’s prized retail real estate could be just what the forty-year old retail property needs. The brand has a history of retail innovation. In addition to Wexner’s early decision to rebrand the shopping experience, Victoria’s Secret was one of the first brand’s to invest in early eCommerce (1999). In a recent retail roundtable, it was proposed that L Brands execute a Lore-like acquisition to oversee the brand’s eCommerce and omni-channel experience.

In addition, an interesting pivot was discussed. Victoria’s Secret could house brands and content across beauty, women’s athleisure, and intimates. The express goal would be to rebuild Victoria’s Secret as the premiere women’s-only destination – a house of brands, with their VS namesake positioned as the most premium offering within the store.

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Lean Luxe Founder, Paul Munford

In a conference call with Lean Luxe’s Paul Munford, he added, “Not every brand deserves to exist forever.” He also added that L Brands‘ recent track record has been less than favorable, making the idea of a pivot like this highly unlikely. Specifically, he cited the $710 million dollar La Senza acquisition (2006) that did not achieve the intended effect. According to Munford, there was no indication that the retail group could operate with the same speed and precision that Wal-Mart has since Marc Lore became their eCommerce CEO. Munford added, “With Lore coming in at Wal-Mart, there wasn’t a negative track record of Walmart acquiring brands and dropping the ball. Walmart just started from scratch. So comparatively, Victoria’s Secret’s task seems harder.” 

Though Munford and I disagreed on the approach that the vaunted L Brands subsidiary should take, we did agree that VS is a brand that is long overdue for a modern luxury update. One of the first names that arose when discussing who’d be a great number two to Jan Singer was Emily Weiss, founder of Glossier.

Read more of the issue here.

By Web Smith and Meghan Terwilliger | About 2PM

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