A crowded Hulu Doc – The Hollywood Reporter
Say this for Victoria’s Secret: The company knew exactly what story it wanted to tell.
According to ex-CEO Cindy Fedus-Fields, Les Wexner, the founder of parent company L Brands – which also owned Abercrombie & Fitch, Lane Bryant, Express, Structure and The Limited – believed the key to building a successful brand was to have a story to serve as “not only your inspirational mechanism, but also as your control mechanism.” The lingerie line certainly had it. It may have been a tale of unattainable female physical perfection served barely dressed for a grinning male gaze, but it was coherent, consistent and, through the 2000s and early 2010s, extremely lucrative.
Victoria’s Secret: Angels and Demons
The bottom line
A jumble of interesting ideas and good intentions.
Matt Tyrnauer’s three-part Hulu documentary series Victoria’s Secret: Angels and Demons, on the other hand, has nobler intentions, but no such clarity of purpose. It’s a chronicle of the brand’s rise and fall, a look back at its place in our culture and a revelation of the rich, powerful men behind it, who inevitably connect – as so many of America’s richest, most powerful men seem to – to Jeffrey Epstein. But when I try to weave all these threads together at the same time, Victoria’s Secret: Angels and Demons ends up in a hopeless tangle.
To be fair, it’s easy to understand how a documentary about Victoria’s Secret can get lost in the weeds. You can not talk about the company without talking about its cultural and commercial dominance in the 2000s and 2010s, but you can not talk about the brand’s popularity without talking about the very specific vision of sexiness that drives it. This in turn means that you will discuss the specific people who created and utilized this image – namely the aforementioned Wexner and Ed Razek, the company’s marketing manager. But of course you can not do that that without talking about their close ties to Epstein and their contribution to his rise. And so on, and so on, and so on.
Victoria’s Secret: Angels and Demons makes a compelling argument that the connection between all these different lines of passage is key, and supports the ideas of interviews from a wide range of smart, well-spoken topics, including former employees, models and journalists covering everything from the fashion industry to Wexner’s hometown of Columbus , Ohio. In contrast to the eerie sensationality of Hulus’ other recent documentary series about a trendy millennial brand (can a burning exposure to Juicy Couture lag far behind?), This one is ambitious in scope and sober in tone.
But with so many rabbit holes to explore, Victoria’s Secret: Angels and Demons often seems unsure of what to tackle first. The three hour-long episodes are not divided by theme or chronology as much as by the blunt pragmatism of keeping all installments in the same digestible length. The documentary series bounces back and forth between concepts and time periods, sometimes with abrupt and thin transitions and sometimes without transition at all – just a difficult long break I guess will be filled with commercials about Hulus cheaper plans.
Some cases, such as Wexner’s relationship with his mother, are set up in an episode to be taken up again in a later one. Others, such as the poor working conditions of the company’s foreign factories or the seemingly “cult-like” corporate culture, are briefly addressed and then never further explored. Still others turn out to be pure detours: It’s funny to hear from Martin Izquierdo, the man who designed the wings for Victoria’s Secret’s runway show, but in context it’s just another dubiously relevant piece of information in an endless stream of it.
What makes this random structure so frustrating is that buried in it are compelling lessons about how Victoria’s Secret flourished into a commercial pioneer and then calcified into a dinosaur, as put forward by former executives and business journalists. There are also thoughtful conversations about the effect Victoria’s Secret’s supersexualized, hyperspecific femininity ideal had on women, including those who sold the products: “I was happy to go, go home, cry in a bathtub,” supermodel Frederique van der Wal recalls, with a sad laughter, about going to the first Victoria’s Secret fashion show.
Most pressing are the disturbing details of Epstein’s murky but close professional and personal ties to the well-known private Wexner – sometime in the 1990s, Wexner gave Epstein full authority over all his assets, which Washington Post journalist Sarah Ellison describes it as “something I’ve never seen in all my years of reporting” – along with speculations about the true nature of men’s relationships, and about their overlapping views of the world. (Wexner has since distanced himself from Epstein and insists in a statement to the filmmakers that he had no knowledge of Epstein’s offenses and cut ties in 2008 after Epstein’s first conviction.)
However, grabbing these ideas feels like a losing game when Victoria’s Secret: Angels and Demons continues to draw us here and there. At one point in the last episode, while the experts were spinning a dizzying web of theories about what Wexner and Epstein were really doing together, I felt I was struggling to work out exactly what was proposed, let alone how plausible or well-founded it could be . In the context of the series, it only played a few minutes anyway. Before I knew it, the episode had gone on to talk about the company’s latest pivot to the more inclusive “Victoria’s Secret & Co.” market campaign.
“This is all a story meant to be hidden and remain hidden,” a journalist stressed about how the Epstein scandal revealed the dark side of the billionaire class, and his observation is correct. Without a doubt, Wexner and his staff would have preferred that we never dug deeper beyond the shiny, gorgeous facade of the brand they traded in, and there is no doubt that this is precisely why they deserve a closer look. In that connection Victoria’s Secret: Angels and Demons trying to do meaningful work. If only it could get out of the way long enough to tell that story properly.