In the mid-1970s, a man named Roy Raymond walked into a department store to buy his wife some lingerie. The entire situation made him feel extremely uncomfortable.
All he could find were hideous floral-print nightgowns. Not to mention, the saleswoman who came over to help treated him like a pervert.
This journey into the women’s underwear section wasn’t entirely worthless, however.
In fact, it inspired the idea behind one of the most recognizable and popular brands on the planet: Victoria’s Secret.
The Story Behind Victoria’s Secret
Following his disastrous visit to the department store, Raymond had an epiphany. He spoke with other male friends and came to the realization that there was a huge gap in the women’s underwear market.
There wasn’t a single place where a man could buy lingerie and not be made to feel like a deviant.
Raymond wanted to change that.
His idea was to open up a classy lingerie place where men would feel comfortable shopping. It couldn’t have come at a more perfect time.
In the 1950s and ’60s, women’s underwear was not designed to be sexy. It was all about affordability, practicality and reliability. Sensual lingerie was not commonplace.
In reference to this era, Carlyle Adler of Newsweek highlights:
Department store lingerie was dowdy, referred to as ‘foundation garments,’ and the fancier items were saved for special occasions, like one’s honeymoon.
More modern unmentionables — lacy thongs and padded push-up bras — were available alongside feathered boas and provocative pirate costumes.
Victoria’s Secret completely changed the game when Raymond founded it in 1977.
He named it “Victoria’s Secret” because it perfectly encapsulated the inspiration behind the business.
As Naomi Barr notes for Huffington Post: “He chose the name ‘Victoria’ to evoke the propriety and respectability associated with the Victorian era; outwardly refined, Victoria’s ‘secrets’ were hidden beneath.”
Thus, it was always meant to be a tasteful shop where sexuality didn’t have to be such a secret and underwear could be fun.
Raymond’s idea was revolutionary. In its first year, Victoria’s Secret earned $500,000.
Businesses Are Like Empires, You Change With The Times Or Fade Into Dust
Success in business is all about finding a hole in the market and attacking it with vigor. Roy Raymond was able to found a small empire because he understood this.
Yet, as history has shown, even the most powerful empire will fall if it isn’t able to build on past successes and recognize necessary changes.
In order for a business to be successful in its early years, it has to establish a niche for itself. In the long-run, however, being too niche can lead to collapse. The last thing you want to do is box yourself in.
By 1982, Victoria’s Secret was making more than $4 million per year. At the same time, it was nearing bankruptcy. Something was missing, but Raymond couldn’t put his finger on it.
Around the same time, a man named Leslie Wexner walked into a Victoria’s Secret for the first time. Wexner was a businessman himself, also in retail, and quickly recognized what was wrong with Raymond’s business.
Simply put, he saw that the business really only catered to men and was failing to attract a significant following amongst women because of it. Both the catalog and the shop were geared toward male customers.
It’s true that Victoria’s Secret was initially founded for men, but Raymond lacked the insight to realize how much this would limit his business in the long-run.
As Naomi Barr states, “Wexner surmised that women were about as uncomfortable in Victoria’s Secret as Raymond had been in that flourescent-lit department store.”
In other words, Raymond had a great idea, but didn’t know how to expand upon it. He wasn’t able to look beyond the limits of his own perspectives and see what the consumer desired.
Ultimately, Wexner saw Victoria’s Secret’s potential and bought the business from Raymond for $1 million in 1982. He took Raymond’s initial idea and built a vast empire, creating a business loved by men and women alike.
He completely revamped the catalogue, hiring gorgeous and elegant models to grace the pages. Concurrently, Wexner made the stores more modern, lit-up and vibrant. In essence, he created a situation in which men loved to look at the catalogue and women loved to shop at the stores.
Wexner succeeded in making lingerie mainstream.
By 1995, Victoria’s Secret was worth $1.9 billion and had 670 stores across the country.
Today, Wexner’s business model has led Victoria’s Secret to become a global success. Last year, it was named the most popular retail brand in the world.
Just last night, the success and splendor of the company was put on display at the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show.
At the moment, Wexner is worth around $7 billion. Needless to say, purchasing Roy Raymond’s business was an extremely prudent decision.
The Tragic Ending To Roy Raymond’s Story
After Raymond sold Victoria’s Secret to Leslie Wexner, he started a children’s retail store. It went bankrupt in 1986. Not long after, Raymond and his wife ended up getting a divorce.
Tragically, in 1993, Roy Raymond killed himself by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
As Naomi Barr puts it:
Roy Raymond’s genius was recognizing the need to remove shame from the process of buying unmentionables.
But… his story reads like a cautionary tale of how a brilliant opportunity can be seized and yet missed.
In other words, don’t give up on a good idea when times get tough, particularly if you’ve already experienced success with it. In nature and in business, adaptation is key to survival.
It’s incredibly sad that Raymond ended up killing himself. We can never really know why he did this, but it’s fair to say that he probably had regrets surrounding Victoria’s Secret.
This is not to say that the billions of dollars the company now possesses would have prevented him from making that fatal choice. In the end, money doesn’t buy happiness, but giving up on your dreams can be deadly.
Sometimes it’s much easier to accept failure and move on from it than it is to live with regret.