Victoria's Secret Fashion Show returns after five-year hiatus - but not as you know it

“The Tour” features collections from four different designers from around the globe, including these nature-inspired crocheted dresses by Colombian designer Melissa Valdes.
“The Tour” features collections from four different designers from around the globe, including these nature-inspired crocheted dresses by Colombian designer Melissa Valdes. Photo credit: Sofia Malamute / Courtesy Victoria's Secret

By Jacqui Palumbo of CNN

The Victoria's Secret Fashion Show is back, but the formula you know is long gone.

For more than 20 years, the annual cultural phenomenon saw a who's who of supermodels don over-the-top lingerie and angel wings to strut down a runway to performances by the likes of Justin Timberlake, Lady Gaga, Jay-Z and Kanye West. That's now been replaced by a feature-length documentary called The Tour '23, which premiered Tuesday on Prime Video.

The documentary comes after a five-year hiatus for the fashion show, seemingly due to plummeting viewership and myriad controversies - from a former executive's comments on trans models, to growing critiques of the brand's narrow view of sex appeal, to an explosive documentary detailing the company's historic links to disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein. 

So, what can you expect from The Tour? The comeback film is not a single runway show, a lá Rihanna's Savage X Fenty, but instead spotlights four collections from independent designer-artists based in Lagos, Bogotá, London and Tokyo. Each presentation takes place in an airy Barcelona villa, where host Gigi Hadid guides viewers between segments. VS all-stars like Naomi Campbell and Adriana Lima strut in ensembles alongside a diverse cast of models including Adut Akech, Winnie Harlow, Quannah ChasinghorsePaloma Elsesser, Hailey Bieber and Lila Moss, to name a few.

Preceding the showcases are short films introducing the 20 women creatives - including the designers and filmmakers - who together make up "the VS20." They include Piscis Canizales, a Colombian dancer and activist who went viral for voguing in front of heavily armed police at a protest in 2021, and KOM_I, a Japanese singer formerly of cult electronic J-Pop band Wednesday Campanella.

The Tour is intended to be "the ultimate expression of the Victoria's Secret brand transformation," according to a press statement from the company's head creative director, Raúl Martinez. It offers a more expansive, global take on femininity than the lingerie label is known for, with one designer, Lagos-based Bubu Ogisi, blending divine inspiration from Yoruba and Igbo mythologies, and another, Jen-Fang Shueh of Tokyo label Jenny Fax, exploring the corporeal realities of reaching middle age. (The collections will not be sold by Victoria's Secret, though some products inspired by The Tour will be made available online.)

London-based designer Supriya Lele was inspired by ancient Indian sculpture and a dash of punk fashion.
London-based designer Supriya Lele was inspired by ancient Indian sculpture and a dash of punk fashion. Photo credit: Courtesy Victoria's Secret

Ongoing course-correction 

Beyond its new film, Victoria's Secret is touting new funding initiatives for women artists and entrepreneurs. The brand also appears to be responding to longstanding criticism that its fashion show has, over the years, been culturally insensitive - putting Karlie Kloss in a Native American headdresses in 2012, for one - and has reinforced impossible body ideals.

One designer, Michaela Stark, accentuates the curves of bellies and love handles in her lingerie ensembles rather than concealing them. Stark says in The Tour that she agreed to contribute to the film in order to tackle the body dysmorphia she felt from watching past Victoria's Secret shows.

"In high school… It was a big thing. But it was also that culture around it, of not wanting to eat after you saw it," she said in the documentary, just before putting plus-size models in archival Victoria's Secret runway looks.

But, through no fault of the talented artists Victoria's Secret assembled, The Tour feels disjointed. Rather than an event with a capital E, like the original fashion show, its short films only offer quick moments, subdued runways and storytelling that doesn't stay on any topic long enough to penetrate its surface. 

The production certainly doesn't lack for star power, with interludes by Doja Cat and Afro-Colombian singer Goyo, interspersed with miscellaneous vignettes: interview snippets, music videos, footage of dance-activism, behind-the-scenes of artmaking and design, poetic audio from writers and offbeat performance art.

The film does not clearly articulate why this particular group of artists was brought together as the VS20 - beyond The Tour serving as platform for unique women's stories, as a spokesperson told CNN - nor is it clear what they have to do with the bedazzled corsets and leather two-piece ensembles from the Victoria's Secret Collection that are confusingly modelled as an intermission between the other presentations.

The Tour is clearly meant to remake and reestablish VS's identity, but what is that, exactly? As the company retired its "Angels," rolled out its new "VS Collective" ambassadors, including Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Megan Rapinoe, and reunited famous faces like Campbell and Lima for splashy campaigns, the direction of its lingerie has arguably been an unmemorable afterthought.

The "new" VS may be exploring healthier, more inclusive ideas around femininity and sexiness, but whether the label has truly found itself though soul-searching ventures like The Tour remains to be seen.