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3/7/2004

Lingerie CEO says Secret ads responsible

By Kevin Darst
The Daily Times-Call

FORT COLLINS — Minutes before Victoria’s Secret President and CEO Grace Nichols took the podium at Colorado State University, three female students studied a Secret model posing on a giant video screen thoroughly enough to ace any university exam.

“She’s got some back fat,” one student said. “That makes me feel better.”

“Yeah, the way she’s posed makes it look that way,” said another.

Replied the first woman: “I’ll never look like that, but I’m OK with that.”

Though criticized for using its models to sell underwear and lingerie while promoting unhealthy body image and eating disorders, Nichols said Wednesday the $2.8 billion mega-brand is responsible with its advertising.

“We’re very careful to select models who appeal to women of all ages,” said Nichols, the keynote speaker at CSU’s Business Day. “Real women have real bodies … that come in all sizes and shapes.

“We are absolutely in charge of the image we portray.”

Fashion models weigh 23 percent less than the average female, and a woman 18 to 34 years old has a 7 percent chance of being as slim as a catwalk model and a 1 percent chance of being as thin as a supermodel, according to Mediascope, a national non-profit research and policy organization.

Still, that image has made the company, bought by Limited Brands, Inc., in 1982, financially successful and a “cultural icon,” Nichols said.

Victoria’s Secret has 920 stores in the United States, most in malls and all of which are profitable, according to Nichols.

“We relied on the image of the catalogue to generate momentum for us,” Nichols said, adding that actress Geena Davis graced the company’s first catalogue in 1982.

The company’s advertising and catalogues are “appealing,” even if most women don’t look like Victoria’s Secret models, said 20-year-old Joelle Milholm, a junior at CSU.

“Guys like to look at them, but girls like to look at them, too,” said Milholm.

Victoria’s Secret catalogues, as well as the company’s broadcast fashion shows and television and print ad campaigns, have been condemned by some who say the company’s advertising plays a part in fueling a broader assault on women and their body image.

Nichols said Victoria’s Secret is simply catering to the mainstream, 20-something woman.

“Our position is to really understand the values and interests of the majority of women in their mid-20s,” Nichols said in an interview after her keynote speech. “We’re focusing on the majority. Obviously there are people with different points of view, and I respect those.”

Milholm said “very few women” fit the “profile” of a Secret model, but that doesn’t stop her from shopping Victoria’s Secret.

“I do shop there, but it’s because I think it’s a quality product, not because Tyra Banks wears it,” Milholm said, referencing one of the company’s biggest stars.

Besides creating controversy, the ads have helped triple the price of the average Victoria’s Secret bra, Nichols said. A bra that sold for about $12 before the company’s advertising campaign began now sells for $35 to $50, Nichols said.

“That seems kind of high, but when you look in your wallet that week, it’s an inexpensive self-treat,” Nichols said. “You have to spend money to make money. That’s the power of the brand.”

Nichols, who got her bachelor’s degree in political science and her master’s degree in history at the University of California-Los Angeles, joined Victoria’s Secret in 1986 as a vice president of general merchandising. By 1991, she was president and CEO.

Leslie Wexner, the chairman and CEO of Limited Brands Inc., bought Victoria’s Secret in 1982 for $1 million. Limited Brands includes Victoria’s Secret, Bath & Body Works, Express, Express Men’s, Lerner New York, Limited Stores, White Barn Candle Co., Henri Bendel, Abercrombie & Fitch and Limited Too.

“The investors have done very well on his investment,” said Rick Johnson, an associate professor in the Finance and Real Estate Department at CSU’s business college and a longtime friend of Nichols.

Johnson married Nichols’ college roommate.

Asked where else she’d look if she didn’t shop Victoria’s Secret, Milholm hesitated.

“I don’t think there’s an answer to that question,” Milholm said. “They almost have a monopoly.”

Kevin Darst can be reached at 303-776-2244, Ext. 405, or by e-mail at kdarst@times-call.com.