I don’t know what a world would be like if you do away with sexy images.—Christie Hefner
When one spends two months or more out of every year, as I do, watching fashion show after fashion show after fashion show, one can become a little jaded. What might have been considered innovative and attractive at the beginning of the season starts to look boring and over-used by the point we’ve seen it 87 times. We see certain designers try to define, or re-define, what is going to be the look for the next season and sometimes what they might send down the runway intending to be sexy completely changes how we look at women’s apparel. Other times, however, the whole concept fails, miserably. Even the best of designers have off seasons. Getting sexy right can be challenging
“Sex sells,” has been an advertising commandment longer than I’ve been alive and nowhere has that been more true than with lingerie brand Victoria’s Secret. The company has not only dominated the lingerie market, currently holding a 61.8% share, but they’ve successfully changed the entire course of the conversation regarding women’s underwear. Through the 1980s and 90s especially, they defined sexy with lace and silk, a heavy dose of tease, and an out-of-season runway show that is the thing of fantasies for both men and women. All that, however, may be changing.
Anyone paying attention last week was caught off guard when Victoria’s Secret CEO, Sharen Jester Turney, the woman largely responsible for making the brand the powerhouse that it is, resigned without warning. Her reasons were, “to prioritize my family and my personal life and consider what’s next for me professionally,” she said. Yet, the timing is interesting. The brand just finished its strongest quarter ever. What might Ms. Turney see on the horizon to make her think this is a good time to take a few days off?
Mallory Schlossberg thinks Ms. Turney might not like what she sees coming in the future. In an article for Business Insider this morning, Ms. Schlossberg considers all the social changes taking place that could very well challenge the VS approach to what is sexy. After all, attitudes are changing. Look at the covers of this month’s Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition and on one we see a very fit but definitely not size two Ronda Rousey, while on another we find the very curvy Ashley Graham who is more along the line of size 14-16. Younger women especially are less likely to respond to overly airbrushed and manipulated images of women that are not real. What was considered sexy for previous generations of women isn’t working for Millenials or the Generation Z that is following them. Could this mean that Victoria’s Secret and brands like them, who have largely built their empires on being sexy, are going to have to change their tunes?
Maybe, or maybe not. For all the fret and worry and endless discussion over what Millenials and “Gen Z” shoppers may or may not buy, the fact is we’re just now starting to see the leading edge of their purchasing power. While that power is going to continue to grow, so, too, does their income. What we’ve not yet explored is the degree to which their shopping habits might change as they get older and reach a more mature income status. Granted, their shopping habits as young people are different from their parents, but they’ve yet to achieve the same income level as their parents. They don’t yet have the same level of expendable cash, so it seems natural that they’re a little more conservative with how they spend.
By contrast, let’s look at the fashion styles we’ve seen coming down the runway the past two weeks. Sheer is now everywhere, despite the fact that we’re looking at fall/winter collections. Backs are more likely to be open and necklines are likely to plunge well below the navel. Slits up the side of skirts frequently go all the way to the hip. While layering is still popular and often results in very bulky, shapeless silhouettes, even there, designers have found ways to show a bit of cleavage or flirt with the sight of bare thigh. Sexy is still a very strong look and we’ve yet to get to the notoriously skin-tight styles of Milan and Paris.
Each generation puts their own twist on what is sexy, to be sure, but whatever direction that twist takes, the fact remains that sex still sells. So maybe Victoria’s Secret has to widen the sizes of lingerie they’ve traditionally offered, and maybe they use a little less airbrush in their ads. I don’t imagine women’s appetite for things that are sexy to go away anytime soon. If anything, as the definition of sexy expands, it gives advertisers even more options for reaching out to a new generation of shoppers.
Sexy as your mother defined it may not always be enough, but it is still the dominant force in selling clothes. Sex still sells. A lot.