Billionaire Les Wexner gives up control of Victoria’s Secret after failing to fix the struggling brand
L Brands is selling a controlling stake in Victoria’s Secret after 82-year-old billionaire CEO, founder, and biggest investor Les Wexner proved unable to repair the once iconic lingerie brand.
The company, a leading mall-based store operator, said on Thursday it was selling a 55% stake in Victoria’s Secret for $525 million to retail-focused private equity firm Sycamore Partners.
L Brands also said that Wexner, the longest service CEO of any S&P 500 company with 57 years at the helm, would step down as chairman and CEO, taking the title of chairman emeritus. Andrew Meslow, a top executive at its much more successful Bath & Body Works chain, will take the CEO role at L Brands, which will now be primarily made up of Bath & Body Works. L Brands’ portfolio over the years has included names like Express, The Limited, and Abercrombie & Fitch, all spun out by their parent company.
The $1.1 billion valuation for Victoria’s Secret, a chain almost twice as big as Bath & Body Works in revenue, reflects how far the once high-flying brand at the center of American culture has fallen. Its annual prime-time fashion show every autumn (canceled last November after 20 years) used to attract big-name performers like Taylor Swift and Nicki Minaj, with supermodels vying to be a Victoria’s Secret “Angel.”
L Brands fell 4% in early trading as investors had expected Victoria’s Secret to fetch a better price that would help pay down L Brands’ $5.5 billion debt more quickly.
“A partial sale and this low price won’t help the company’s massive debt load and shows just how desperate LB has become to try to unload VS,” wrote Randal J. Konik, a retail analyst at Jefferies. At its peak in 2015, L Brands was worth $29 billion; on Thursday morning, its market value was $6.2 billion.
A mall-based fallen angel
Victoria’s Secret, which Wexner bought in 1982 for a pittance before turning it into a lingerie behemoth, hit its sales apex in 2016, when the brand reached $7.78 billion in sales and clocked massive profits. For 2019, it looks set to report $6.9 billion—and the declines have been accelerating lately.
On Thursday, L Brands reported holiday quarter sales results that show just how much Victoria’s Secret and Bath & Body Works have diverged in terms of financial performance: comparable sales rose 10% at Bath & Body Works, but fell by that same percentage at Victoria’s Secret.
When Wexner bought Victoria’s Secret, he tapped into fatigue at the time with the dullness and poor fits of most lingerie. But in more recent years, he proved out of sync with the times and with women’s growing focus on comfort, rather than a man’s approval, when it came to buying bras and panties.
Last year, Victoria’s Secret tried to remake its image to de-emphasize hyper-sexuality, but during this past holiday season, it was still selling wares that in some cases would fit in quite well in an adult store, as illustrated by a photo taken by Stacey Widlitz of SW Retail Advisors.
Worsening the sense of Victoria’s Secret being a brand led by out-of-touch men in the #MeToo era, Wexner found himself tainted by his connection to Jeffrey Epstein, who for years had been his financial adviser and who died in a New York jail cell last summer while facing federal sex-trafficking charges. Earlier in February, the New York Times published an exposé about the culture of misogyny and harassment at Victoria’s Secret.
For all its glamour over the years, Victoria’s Secret had long become a discount driven, mall-based retailer in the same vain as The Gap and Aéropostale. It was reduced to offering tons of coupons and deep discounts to entice shoppers, something Wexner acknowledged in 2016, when he took direct control of Victoria’s Secret after dismissing its head. His moves, such as eliminating its swimwear line and catalog, were no match for the cultural forces he didn’t see coming and, in fact, worsened matters.
That made for fertile ground for a slew of new lingerie brands like ThirdLove and Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty to emerge, as well room for the likes of Target to make a bigger move in intimate apparel.
Sycamore—which typically buys up struggling retailers, cutting costs, then flipping them—will have its hands full trying to fix Victoria’s Secret. (Its acquisitions in the last few years have included The Limited, show brand Nine West Holdings, and its leveraged buyout of Staples.)
As Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData Retail, put it in a note: “The truth is that the Victoria’s Secret brand no longer attracts a premium in the way it once did.” And with customers walking away in droves, it’s not clear how Victoria’s Secret can regain that aura.
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