Victoria’s Secret added new safety measures. Models say it’s not enough.

Jordyn Holman and Kim Bhasin
Bloomberg News

Last spring, Victoria’s Secret imposed official rules to protect its lingerie models for the first time in its four-decade history.

The Harvey Weinstein scandal was at that point almost two years old, and the MeToo movement that would follow was fostering something of a cultural rejection of the underwear maker’s dated vision of female beauty, accelerating the 75% collapse in the stock price of its parent company L Brands Inc. from a 2015 peak.

Management could no longer afford to turn a blind eye to the perils its models faced on the job being alone with photographers or executives who wielded power over their careers, feeling pressure to bare more of their bodies or participate in private photo shoots.

A Victoria's Secret ad looms large in a Columbus, Ohio, mall.

The new rules included making sure models have private places to change clothes and that they’re never left alone with a photographer, makeup artist or anyone else. Those guidelines, the backstory of which Bloomberg is reporting for the first time, are part of a wave of self-reflection in the modeling and retail industries about the treatment of people whose faces and bodies help sell the clothes we wear.

The question is whether the rules go far enough to make a difference. Sara Ziff, a former model who now leads a group advocating for more protections in the industry, had been hoping to convince the retailer to sign on to a program she’s designed to combat harassment by requiring more independent oversight. She chose Victoria’s Secret because the nation’s largest lingerie company had come under fresh scrutiny for its treatment of women, in part because of its controlling owner’s ties to convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.

Ziff also felt that Victoria’s Secret could be a force for reform as widespread accusations of assault, rape and sex trafficking of models were being levied against executives across the fashion industry.

As models converge on New York, Paris and Milan this month for the spring’s major fashion shows, the industry is teeming with debate about whether companies like Victoria’s Secret can sufficiently police themselves to root out abuse. Models have a tough enough time trusting their agencies to look out for their interests, much less the clients.

Until last year, Victoria’s Secret didn’t have stringent, formal policies on appropriate workplace behavior during photo shoots, according to a person familiar with the matter. In late 2018, Victoria’s Secret started reviewing its own policies, developing them internally through legal and compliance teams and rolling them out in May 2019 with training sessions, said the person, who asked not to be identified discussing internal matters.

In addition to ensuring models are chaperoned during shoots, Victoria’s Secret’s rules explicitly stated that no one on set could drink or use drugs, or post “lewd, offensive or unprofessional images” on social media that included L Brands products or sets. Underage models were officially barred. And the policies offered specific guidance on how photographers and models should interact with one another on set.

Models would get private dressing spaces that photographers couldn’t enter. Before showing up to the workplace, models would be required to receive information about who they’d be working with, the creative plan and the photographer’s vision for the project. Finally, the lingerie chain said models should “not be pressured to expose their bodies more than they are comfortable doing” while participating in shoots.

Anyone working on the set — from the models to photographers to makeup artists and L Brands associates — had to acknowledge these guidelines, which extended to the making of videos, fashion shows and commercials for Victoria’s Secret. If participants felt uncomfortable, they would be advised to tell the L Brands representative on site or call the company’s ethics hotline, operated by a third party.

The MeToo movement wasn’t the only reason L Brands was under pressure to make changes. Victoria’s Secret’s same-store sales, an important metric in retail, had been negative for three years, margins had been hit by discounting and even its youth-targeted line, Pink, was in need of an overhaul. L Brands, which also owns Bath & Body Works, had lost about $22 billion in market value since 2015.

Victoria’s Secret had also struggled to adapt to competition online, watching as foot traffic in shopping malls began to slow. The brand lost market share to rivals such as American Eagle’s Aerie and Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty that catered to women with more varied body types and skin tones. Last year, Victoria’s Secret canceled its hypersexualized annual fashion show. Then in July, Jeffrey Epstein was arrested, and all hell broke loose.

Federal prosecutors accused the financier of running a sex-trafficking ring, which included girls as young as 14. As Epstein’s past and connections came to light, it became clear how closely affiliated he was with Leslie Wexner, L Brands’ chairman and chief executive officer, serving as his money manager and using his power of attorney. Wexner, 82, denied knowledge of any illegal activity by Epstein, who also backed a modeling agency that worked with Victoria’s Secret.

Epstein, who died by suicide in his jail cell in August, once claimed to an aspiring model that he was a Victoria’s Secret model scout, according to the New York Times, and used to promise women jobs through his network of powerful men.

The same month that Epstein died, Ziff’s organization sent a letter to John Mehas, the Victoria’s Secret CEO, offering a way the company could address its mounting problems. The Model Alliance called on Victoria’s Secret to join its Respect program, billed as the only existing anti-sexual harassment code of conduct designed by and for models. Retailers that sign the pact agree that employees, agents, vendors and photographers will follow rules not unlike the ones Victoria’s Secret had already developed. The difference is that under Respect, an independent monitor can access cases where harassment might have taken place, providing a level of oversight outside the company.

“Victoria’s Secret has the opportunity to be a leader, to use its power and influence to bring about the changes that are urgently needed in our industry,” the Model Alliance said.