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The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show: A New Look for a New Era

The last time Victoria’s Secret had a fashion show was 2018.

For more than 20 years, the show had been an annual event, an extravaganza of babes in thongland, like “Barbie” through the lens of Paul Verhoeven. Broadcast in more than 100 countries to millions of viewers, it got evermore absurdist until the #MeToo movement and social change finally brought the curtain down along with the profits, leaving the company wrestling with just how out of step with women’s sense of self it had become.

The company retired the signature angels in their push-up bras and panties toting around ginormous 30-pound wings and replaced them with the VS collective: a group of 10 women of notable accomplishments and notably diverse body types. It announced that it wanted to be “the world’s leading advocate for women.” And then, on Wednesday, Victoria’s Secret finally brought back the show.

Sort of.

There was a powder pink carpet with a marquee outside the Manhattan Center on 34th Street in Manhattan, with Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Lourdes Leon, Alix Earle and assorted models in skimpy outfits posing for paparazzi. There were gawkers outside wielding smartphones, and champagne inside, where all was bathed in a soft pink light. There was Naomi Campbell in a gold chain-mail minidress and Gigi Hadid in sunshine jersey, elevated above the crowd on V.I.P. balconies. There was Doechii, serenading the room and twerking in a lilac corset and matching thigh-high boots. There was even a glittering pair of wings. So far, so familiar.

But there was no runway. Ms. Campbell, it turned out, was there to recite a poem by the Nigerian writer and artist Eloghosa Osunde. Doechii shared the stage with Goyo, a singer from Bogotá, Colombia, who entered for her set wearing a crop top and skirt made from a cobweb of curving, glittering crochet by the Bogotá designer Melissa Valdés. The wings were positioned in a special circular room, outside of which snaked a line of guests waiting to take selfies, as if to document a relic from another age.

And Ms. Hadid was holding a microphone to introduce the evening’s main event: a 12-minute trailer for a one-and-a-half-hour film that is intended to be the final piece of the VS reinvention pie.

“The Victoria’s Secret World Tour,” which will stream on Amazon Prime on Sept. 26, is a putting-their-platform-where-their-mouth-is movie conceived to showcase the work of “a new generation of creatives” (all female, of course) from four major cities — Lagos, Nigeria; London; Bogotá; and Tokyo — the better to convince the world that this really is a new Victoria’s Secret.

“To finally say, ‘This is it, this is who we are,’” said Raul Martinez, the brand’s chief creative director. “We haven’t forgotten our past, but we’re also speaking to the present. To take our platform, understand the power of that, but show up with a different narrative.”

Which is what, exactly?

A mishmash of good intentions, enormous investment, a year and a half of work and multiple parts that will indubitably introduce new talents to an audience who might otherwise never have heard of them. But also a mess. And not necessarily a hot one.

To be fair, that was probably part of the point. “Hot” is an association the new Victoria’s Secret would rather stay far away from. Mostly.

Grounded by five different mini fashion shows by five different designers from around the world whose collections were almost all brought to Spain and filmed in the Corberó building, a masterpiece of Brutalist concrete arches in Barcelona, the flick in its full incarnation features a diverse cast of models — Adut Akech, Lila Moss Hack, Honey Dijon, Julia Fox and Yseult among them — as well as some former angels making a return to earth, like Adriana Lima and Candice Swanepoel.

Ms. Hadid plays a silk-robe-clad M.C. trying to help make sense of what is going on, offering up such observations as, “It’s been five long and lingerieless years since my last Victoria’s Secret show.” Doja Cat guest-stars as the requisite musical artist, as well as the only cast member in classically “sexy” undies.

But the fashion and musical segments are interspersed with short documentaries about projects from the VS 20, yet another group of women: five from each featured city, including one designer (who made the clothes in the fashion shows from the Barcelona set), one filmmaker (who made each city’s documentary) and three other “creatives,” like painters or poets or musicians, all of whom were handed a blank check by Victoria’s Secret to do whatever they wanted.

Which, it turns out, often had little to do with Victoria’s Secret in particular and more with what it means to be a woman and the meaning of the body in all its imperfect glory. And, like the clothes in the fashion shows, which range from gossamer silver knits by the London designer Supriya Lele to explosive raffia-fringed pieces sourced from across Africa by Bubu Ogisi, a designer in Lagos, the projects are not being mass produced. The art won’t be used by Victoria’s Secret for any purpose beyond the film. In other words, it won’t be commercialized, thus underscoring the company’s altruistic desire to give the women as big a platform as possible while receiving nothing in return.

Except, of course, Victoria’s Secret is receiving something from its relationships with its artists: the various stamps of approval from individuals who may otherwise never have given much thought to a lingerie brand known for making women into popsies.

(The only clothes that will eventually appear in stores will be versions of the fifth collection featured in the “Tour” and made by Victoria’s Secret itself. Heavy on the bustiers and corsetry, with the occasional leather bra top and gold crystal hot pants, it is still free of the ridiculous accessorizing — balloons! elf boots! dumbbells! — that used to characterize the show.)

When asked in interviews before the film’s unveiling if they were surprised when Victoria’s Secret reached out to them, some of the featured women laughed and said yes. Ari Wegner, the cinematographer who shot the Barcelona segment and whose most recent pre-Victoria’s Secret gig was the Jane Campion movie “The Power of the Dog,” said that the brand was just not one “that spoke to me at all growing up.” Ms. Ogisi, the Nigerian designer, said she was so skeptical when she got the first emails that she didn’t even respond until she started getting messages from friends saying Victoria’s Secret was trying to reach her.

The implication of these women’s involvement being: If they believe Victoria’s Secret has changed, and they all said they did, it must really have changed.

The problem is, in elevating so many different voices, in trying so earnestly to be all things to all these different women — all of whom were present on Wednesday at the unveiling, cheering one another on as the segments appeared on film — the “Tour” ends up being nothing in particular.

It’s not enough, in the end, for a brand to simply say it stands for “women.” It has to offer up a coherent point of view on women and what it thinks women need. Especially if what it makes is underwear, that most intimate of garments. Especially if it has the sort of baggage Victoria’s Secret is toting. (Besides, the entirety of women’s fashion should, at least in theory, stand for “women.”)

That may be why the most intriguing parts of the film come courtesy of Jenny Fax, the designer for the Tokyo segment, and the London artist Michaela Stark, a creator of corsetry that forces confrontation with body parts most of us are conditioned to hide. Both of them directly confront the history of Victoria’s Secret and then make it into something new.

Ms. Fax, for example, created a cast of her own middle-aged form, with all its fleshy rolls, and from there molded shift dresses in her image out of thermoplastic polyurethane for her models to wear. She mixed in pastiches of old Victoria’s Secret lingerie: giant lacy bras and chiffon nighties collaged together into colorful versions of an otherwise banal housedress. Ms. Stark delved into the actual Victoria’s Secret archives and had a play session with the wings and other infantilizing accessories of the past, only to reclaim them and recontextualize them as part of her own art: She put them on bodies the former Victoria’s Secret would never have let in the door.

Together their work tells a story about confronting these old mores and prejudices, the ones the company was originally complicit in creating, in the most ironically positive way. In their hands, underwear becomes a statement of liberation. That’s an identity Victoria’s Secret could work with.

Indeed, to coincide with the preview party, Victoria’s Secret posted a new campaign on Instagram featuring many of the models in the movie living life on the streets of New York — walking around, getting their nails done, standing outside the dry cleaner — while wearing vintage wings. It’s awfully fun to watch.

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