‘Angels’ in Hell: The Culture of Misogyny Inside Victoria’s Secret

‘Angels’ in Hell: The Culture of Misogyny Inside Victoria’s Secret
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Victoria’s Secret defined femininity for millions of women. Its catalog and fashion shows were popular touchstones. For models, landing a spot as an “Angel” all but guaranteed international stardom.

But inside the company, two powerful men presided over an entrenched culture of misogyny, bullying and harassment, according to interviews with more than 30 current and former executives, employees, contractors and models, as well as court filings and other documents.

Ed Razek, for decades one of the top executives at L Brands, the parent company of Victoria’s Secret, was the subject of repeated complaints about inappropriate conduct. He tried to kiss models. He asked them to sit on his lap. He touched one’s crotch ahead of the 2018 Victoria’s Secret fashion show.

Executives said they had alerted Leslie Wexner, the billionaire founder and chief executive of L Brands, about his deputy’s pattern of behavior. Some women who complained faced retaliation. One model, Andi Muise, said Victoria’s Secret had stopped hiring her for its fashion shows after she rebuffed Mr. Razek’s advances.

A number of the brand’s models agreed to pose nude, often without being paid, for a prominent Victoria’s Secret photographer who later used some pictures in an expensive coffee-table book — an arrangement that made L Brands executives uncomfortable about women feeling pressured to take their clothes off.

The atmosphere was set at the top. Mr. Razek, the chief marketing officer, was perceived as Mr. Wexner’s proxy, leaving many employees with the impression he was invincible, according to current and former employees. On multiple occasions, Mr. Wexner himself was heard demeaning women.

“What was most alarming to me, as someone who was always raised as an independent woman, was just how ingrained this behavior was,” said Casey Crowe Taylor, a former public relations employee at Victoria’s Secret who said she had witnessed Mr. Razek’s conduct. “This abuse was just laughed off and accepted as normal. It was almost like brainwashing. And anyone who tried to do anything about it wasn’t just ignored. They were punished.”

The interviews with the models and employees add to a picture of Victoria’s Secret as a troubled organization, an image that was already coming into focus last year when Mr. Wexner’s ties to the sex criminal Jeffrey Epstein became public. Mr. Epstein, who managed Mr. Wexner’s multibillion-dollar fortune, lured some young women by posing as a recruiter for Victoria’s Secret models.

L Brands, the publicly traded company that also owns Bath & Body Works, is on the brink of a high-stakes transition. The annual Victoria’s Secret fashion show has been canceled after nearly two decades on network TV. Mr. Razek, 71, stepped down from L Brands in August. And Mr. Wexner, 82, is exploring plans to retire and to sell the lingerie company, people familiar with the matter said.

As those plans progress, L Brands’ treatment of women is likely to come under even closer scrutiny.

In response to detailed questions from The New York Times, Tammy Roberts Myers, a spokeswoman for L Brands, provided a statement on behalf of the board’s independent directors. She said that the company “is intensely focused” on corporate governance, workplace and compliance practices and that it had “made significant strides.”

“We regret any instance where we did not achieve this objective and are fully committed to continuous improvement and complete accountability,” she said. The statement did not dispute any of The Times’s reporting.

Mr. Razek said in an email: “The accusations in this reporting are categorically untrue, misconstrued or taken out of context. I’ve been fortunate to work with countless, world-class models and gifted professionals and take great pride in the mutual respect we have for each other.” He declined to comment on a detailed list of allegations.

Thomas Davies, a spokesman for Mr. Wexner, declined to comment.

Victoria’s Secret, which Mr. Wexner bought for $1 million in 1982 and turned into a lingerie powerhouse, is struggling.

The societal norms defining beauty and sexiness have been changing for years, with a greater value on a wide range of body types, skin colors and gender identities. Victoria’s Secret hasn’t kept pace. Some of its ad campaigns, for example, seem more like a stereotypical male fantasy — the director Michael Bay filmed a TV spot in which scantily clad models strutted in front of helicopters, motorcycles and fiery explosions — than a realistic encapsulation of what women want.

With its sales declining, Victoria’s Secret has been closing stores. Shares of L Brands have fallen more than 75 percent from their 2015 peak.

Six current and former executives said in interviews that when they tried to steer the company away from what one called its “porny” image, they were rebuffed. Three said they had been driven out of the company.

Criticism of Victoria’s Secret’s anachronistic marketing went viral in 2018 when Mr. Razek expressed no interest in casting plus-size and “transsexual” models in the fashion show.

Then, last summer, Mr. Epstein was charged with sex trafficking, and the festering business problems at Victoria’s Secret escalated into a public crisis.

Mr. Wexner and Mr. Epstein had been tight. The retail tycoon gave the financier carte blanche to manage his billions, elevating Mr. Epstein’s stature and affording him an opulent lifestyle. Mr. Wexner has said he and Mr. Epstein parted ways around 2007, the year after Florida prosecutors charged him with a sex crime.

On multiple occasions from 1995 through 2006, Mr. Epstein lied to aspiring models that he worked for Victoria’s Secret and could help them land gigs. He invited them for auditions, which at least twice ended with Mr. Epstein assaulting them, according to the women and court filings.

“I had spent all of my savings getting Victoria’s Secret lingerie to prepare for what I thought would be my audition,” a woman identified as Jane Doe said in a statement read aloud last summer in a federal court hearing in the Epstein case. “But instead it seemed like a casting call for prostitution. I felt like I was in hell.”

Three L Brands executives said Mr. Wexner was alerted in the mid-1990s about Mr. Epstein’s attempts to recruit women. The executives said there was no sign that Mr. Wexner had acted on the complaints.

After Mr. Epstein’s arrest last summer, L Brands said, it hired the law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell to conduct “a thorough review” of the matter at the request of its board of directors. The exact focus of the review is unclear. Mr. Epstein committed suicide in jail in August while he awaited trial on federal sex-trafficking charges.

Davis Polk has worked for L Brands for years. Mr. Wexner’s wife, Abigail, previously worked at the firm. Dennis S. Hersch, a former L Brands board member and a financial adviser to the Wexners, was a longtime partner at Davis Polk. The law firm also has contributed money to Ohio State University’s Wexner Center for the Arts.

Employees interviewed for this article said Davis Polk had not contacted them.

A Davis Polk spokeswoman didn’t respond to requests for comment.

“With the exception of Les, I’ve been with L Brands longer than anyone,” Mr. Razek wrote to employees in August when he announced he was leaving the company he had joined in 1983.

Mr. Razek was instrumental in selecting the brand’s supermodels — known as “Angels” and bestowed with enormous, feathery wings — and in creating the company’s macho TV ads.

But his biggest legacy was the annual fashion show, which became a global cultural phenomenon.

“That’s really where he sunk his teeth into the business,” said Cynthia Fedus-Fields, the former chief executive of the Victoria’s Secret division responsible for its catalog. By 2000, she said, Mr. Razek had grown so powerful that “he spoke for Les.”

Sometimes Mr. Wexner spoke for himself.

In March, at a meeting at Victoria’s Secret headquarters in Columbus, Ohio, an employee asked Mr. Wexner what he thought about the retail industry’s embrace of different body types. He was dismissive.

“Nobody goes to a plastic surgeon and says, ‘Make me fat,’” Mr. Wexner replied, according to two attendees.

Mr. Razek often reminded models that their careers were in his hands, according to models and current and former executives who heard his remarks.

Alyssa Miller, who had been an occasional Victoria’s Secret model, described Mr. Razek as someone who exuded “toxic masculinity.” She summed up his attitude as: “I am the holder of the power. I can make you or break you.”

At castings, Mr. Razek sometimes asked models in their bras and underwear for their phone numbers, according to three people who witnessed his advances. He urged others to sit on his lap. Two models said he had asked them to have private dinners with him.

One was Ms. Muise. In 2007, after two years of wearing the coveted angel wings in the Victoria’s Secret runway show, the 19-year-old was invited to dinner with Mr. Razek. She was excited to cultivate a professional relationship with one of the fashion industry’s most powerful men, she said.

Mr. Razek picked her up in a chauffeured car. On the way to the restaurant, he tried to kiss her, she said. Ms. Muise rebuffed him; Mr. Razek persisted.

For months, he sent her intimate emails, which The Times reviewed. At one point he suggested they move in together in his house in Turks and Caicos. Another time, he urged Ms. Muise to help him find a home in the Dominican Republic for them to share.

“I need someplace sexy to take you!” he wrote.

Ms. Muise maintained a polite tone in her emails, trying to protect her career. When Mr. Razek asked her to come to his New York home for dinner, Ms. Muise said the prospect of dining alone with Mr. Razek made her uneasy; she skipped the dinner.

She soon learned that for the first time in four years, Victoria’s Secret had not picked her for its 2008 fashion show.

In 2018, at a fitting ahead of the fashion show, the supermodel Bella Hadid was being measured for underwear that would meet broadcast standards. Mr. Razek sat on a couch, watching.

“Forget the panties,” he declared, according to three people who were there and a fourth who was told about it. The bigger question, he said, was whether the TV network would let Ms. Hadid walk “down the runway with those perfect titties.” (One witness remembered Mr. Razek using the word “breasts,” not “titties.”)

At the same fitting, Mr. Razek placed his hand on another model’s underwear-clad crotch, three people said.

An employee complained to the human resources department about Mr. Razek’s behavior, according to three people. The employee presented H.R. with a document last summer listing more than a dozen allegations about Mr. Razek, including his demeaning comments and inappropriate touching of women, according to a copy of the document reviewed by The Times.

It wasn’t the first H.R. complaint about him.

At a photo shoot in June 2015, the company put out a buffet lunch for staff. Ms. Crowe Taylor, the public relations employee, went to get seconds. Mr. Razek intercepted her, she said. He blocked her path and looked her up and down. Then, with dozens of people watching and Ms. Crowe Taylor holding her empty plate, he tore into her, berating her about her weight and telling her to lay off the pasta and bread.

Ms. Crowe Taylor, who was 5-foot-10 and 140 pounds, fled to a bathroom and burst into tears. She said that she had complained to H.R. but that as far as she could tell, nothing happened. She quit weeks later.

In October, shortly after Mr. Razek had left the company, Monica Mitro, a top public-relations executive at Victoria’s Secret, lodged a harassment complaint against him with a former member of the L Brands board of directors, according to five people familiar with the matter. She told colleagues that she had gone to the former director because she didn’t trust the H.R. department.

Source: NY Times

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