Les Wexner (L) and Stella Maxwell
Les Wexner (L) and Stella Maxwell
Image: Getty

There was a time when Les Wexner, a shopkeeper in dowdy Columbus, Ohio, would slip out from his clothing store to sit down for a burger at lunch. He was en route to becoming a billionaire, the man who would revolutionise women’s underwear with Victoria’s Secret and end up as the longest-serving chief executive in the Fortune 500. But he did not know that back then, and sensed that something in his life was missing.

It was the 1970s and Wexner was opening more and more stores but feeling unfulfilled. People would assure him that he was a big success. “You have no idea,” he would reply. To quell the angst, Wexner decided he needed a purpose beyond work. He began carving out a few hours each week for extracurricular projects. But that meant sacrificing time somewhere else.

So Wexner trained himself to eat less. He stopped going out to lunch. “I had a dog,” he says, explaining his inspiration. “I fed the dog once a day.”

Wexner has aged into an elfin 80-year-old and he tells me the story to assuage any disappointment. I have just walked into a black glass box that is his suburban HQ in Columbus; through a sun-filled atrium overhung by the Stars and Stripes; past an Einstein quote on the wall about curiosity; into a beech-coloured meeting room a few steps from his office, where he arrives through a set of double doors. Rather than ruing my failure to persuade him to meet at a restaurant for our meal, I should be grateful that we’re getting any food at all. “But for you saying you wanted to have lunch, we’d be having a cup of coffee and I’d be eating a power bar,” he says.

Wexner is the mastermind of a lascivious empire, a descendant of Russian immigrants who has made a $6bn fortune by hawking sexiness and sensuality to women. Victoria’s Secret is a byword for thrusting push-up bras, lace-fronted G-strings, kinky strapping and sheer one-piece teddies. Most of its customers are between half and a quarter of Wexner’s age.

The chain is the flagship of L Brands, the business he founded as The Limited in 1963. It now owns more than 3,000 stores worldwide and is valued at nearly $11bn, its stable made up of Bath & Body Works, Henri Bendel accessories and Canadian underwear retailer La Senza. But it is through Victoria’s Secret that Wexner brought racy lingerie to the masses. He acquired the brand for $1m in 1982 when it was a six-store chain on the verge of bankruptcy, the only place Wexner had ever seen lingerie on sale in the US outside a department store.

The decor of the first San Francisco store he visited was “brothel Victorian”, all red velvet sofas and Tiffany chandeliers.

Today its outlets are a cornucopia of pink and black, pumped full of sweet scent, oozing seduction. Subtle it is not.

When I dropped into a store on my way to see Wexner, I stumbled on a heap of lacy panties with the rear cut out in a heart shape. An employee told me I was in the “very sexy section”. I asked her the name of the product line. “Very Sexy,” she repeated.

The brand is reinforced by its ostent­atious annual fashion show, where models from Naomi Campbell to Gisele Bündchen to Adriana Lima have paraded in Wexner’s wares, sporting angel wings and carnival costumes. Donald Trump has been a regular attendee. It’s the perfect set-up for a retail version of the late Hugh Hefner, the silk pyjama’d Playboy founder who proudly bedded hundreds of young women who posed for his magazine.

You can easily write a double entendre for the Victoria’s Secret boss: “The man with a hand in more women’s underwear than any other.” But that is not Wexner. He is the anti-Hefner. He is not much interested in the catwalk show and has never been on a fashion shoot. “The business of the business interests me,” he says. “Not that part.” His tastes are plain, his instincts commercial. If he has a wandering eye, it is for anomalies in the company accounts.

The key to survival, Wexner says, is to reinvent yourself as your shoppers evolve. ‘When the customer zigs, you zig’

Unlike Wexner’s stores, the meeting room contains no images of in-your-face cleavage. Instead there is a collage of photos of his four children. Propped against the wall are boards from recent presentations about customer loyalty schemes and the nearby Easton open-air shopping complex, which was conceived by Wexner, a staunch and often lonely defender of bricks-and-mortar retail.

We are to sit on stools at a high table where two place mats have been positioned on opposite sides. When Wexner arrives, he rotates his mat ninety degrees so it is at the end next to mine, changing our positions from head-on to rubbing elbows.

The key to survival, Wexner says, is to reinvent yourself as your shoppers evolve. ‘When the customer zigs, you zig’

The fashion impresario is wearing a dark tie and an off-white shirt with a button-down collar and saggy sleeves. Over the top is a kind of warehouse foreman’s zip-up vest — sleeveless, loose, blue, synthetic. His hair is pure white, his skin a creased reddy-brown. Wexner is chatty and reflective without being warm or clubby. His gestures seem unpoliced. When he tells stories from the past, he often plants both elbows on the table and rests his chin in the palms of his hands. At his most animated he waves his arms around, jangling a red charm bracelet on his right wrist. (“My wife is superstitious,” he explains.)

I have no idea what we are going to eat until his assistant Donna appears, her grey curls complemented by pearls and a cream chequered jacket. She’s carrying two meaty salads in porcelain bowls. “I don’t know if we asked if you were a vegetarian,” Wexner says. They didn’t, but I’m not. “Phew,” says Donna. She disappears to fetch a plate of cheese and butter cookies, plus a glass of water for me and an iced tea for Wexner. I decide that requesting an iced tea of my own might be disruptive, so I eye his enviously.

The salad is somewhat incoherent: charred beef, boiled egg, tomato, red and yellow peppers, and black olives. Wexner guesses it was made by his cook at home, who has chopped it into tiny pieces fit for a toothless rabbit. It comes with plastic pots of olive oil, balsamic vinegar and grated parmesan that I drizzle on my food. Wexner doesn’t touch the condiments, but whisks his fork around the bowl to mix things up.

Since his existential crisis, Wexner has devoted part of his time and fortune to philanthropy, funding leadership training and the Wexner Center for the Arts and Wexner Medical Center at Ohio State University, his alma mater. If he has extravagant tastes in anything, it’s boats. He owns a 96-metre superyacht called Limitless, which he proudly declares to be the biggest US-flagged boat on the high seas. He uses it to holiday on the island of Capri. Hearing this inspires visions in my mind of Donna appearing with a glass of chilled Italian white; visions soon quashed by Wexner’s story about a friend who once dragged him to the Four Seasons hotel in Manhattan for a “social” lunch. They were surrounded by people drinking alcohol. “I said: ‘What do these people do?’” Wexner recalls. “How do they work?”

The typical lifespan of a fashion business, Wexner says, is 15 years. Most retail chains, whatever they sell, don’t survive beyond 20 or 30 years. Yet Wexner has been in charge for 55 years. Behind him in the Fortune 500 longevity stakes is Warren Buffett, the billionaire investor who has run Berkshire Hathaway for a mere 53.

But he is facing his stiffest trial yet. Amazon, which has conquered a series of retail categories, is now getting into underwear. Online-only lingerie specialists are trying to steal Victoria’s Secret customers. In early 2016 Wexner took direct charge of the chain when its chief executive resigned, adding to his responsibilities as head of its parent company. He told me the brand had got “old”; as a first step, he streamlined the operation. Some 20 per cent of its North American business is online, but the stores Wexner is so committed to have been in poor health, with like-for-like sales falling in 15 months out of 24 since he took over.

As the billionaire races through his salad, scooping it into his mouth with a fork, I ask him what he’s learnt about women by selling them intimate apparel. His answer meanders, touching on the versatility of the toga and the blandness of Silicon Valley’s dress code.

His eventual point is that most people want to express their individuality, which has a lot to do with sexuality, which means lingerie is loaded with powerful “emotional content” for women. I ask for an example and he recalls reading a story a quarter of a century ago about Marks and Spencer selling thong bikinis in the UK. “They’ve got them in all sizes. I mean, 60-inch waists,” he told his staff at the time, urging them to stock up. “Oh no, that’s trash,” they replied. “We’ll get picketed.” But eventually they relented — and thong sales boomed. The definition of what’s appropriate is always shifting, Wexner says.

I bring up the Bombshell bra, a padded push-up that a store assistant told me doubles a woman’s cup size. What does that tell us? “You wouldn’t have to be James Bond or Dick Tracy or the head of the FBI or a writer for the FT to know in the world that breast augmentation is a popular thing,” he says. “I don’t cross-dress,” he adds, before the thought has crossed my mind, then notes that bras, first and foremost, have a functional purpose. “Then when you get beyond that. Why lace? Why silk? Why push-up? Why these characteristics? It has something to do with the shape of the figure. Women want to project a figure.”

I raise an argument inspired by the #MeToo movement: that male bad behaviour has been fostered in part by the fashion industry’s objectification of women. “I think that’s just complete nonsense,” he says. If Lululemon is selling bum-hugging skintight yoga pants, “it’s because that’s what women want to buy”. Victoria’s Secret’s stores are not for men and it’s fine by him if they make men feel out of place.

“We see guys in our store for about three hours on Valentine’s day and the day before Christmas,” he says. “The associates in the stores are 99.9 per cent women. The customers are women. The merchants in Victoria are all women. The business has been headed by a woman. The marketing director is a woman. These aren’t women that are exploitative.”

Wexner declares the salad to be “pretty good”, though adds: “there’s too much meat”. I’m still shovelling greens long after he’s finished. Donna returns to remove his bowl and he moves on to the cheese, peeling red skin off slices of Gouda and breaking them in two.

How is it that a Midwestern man like him came to know what women want? He seems to share some gee-whiz wonderment at the outcome himself. He ums and ahs and eventually suggests that it’s something to do with his curiosity about human behaviour, foreign countries and other companies’ products. “I’m not creative in that if you give me a blank piece of paper, I’ll give you back a blank piece of paper,” he says. “I have to have inputs. I just absorb stuff and somehow just put stuff together.”

I talk about the predictive power of data and algorithms (one of Amazon’s great assets) but he pooh-poohs their relevance. The response is similarly dismissive when I ask Wexner — who did not marry his lawyer wife Abigail until he was 55 — whether he sourced lingerie ideas from the women he dated. “N-n-nooo,” he says. “You can’t ask. Fashion is about latent demand. You can’t research it. If I say, ‘what colour are you going to buy next fall?’, no one is going to say, ‘I think purple’s going to be a great colour’.”

Wexner’s father came to America as a teenager; his mother was the first generation of her family born in the US. They were retailers who ground out a living as the owners of Leslie’s, a lone shop named after their son. After Wexner graduated from college, his father asked him to mind the store for a week so that his parents could take a holiday.

Wexner ended up perusing the accounts and discovered something his parents didn’t know: they were making no money on sales of big-ticket coats and dresses; all their profit came from low-priced items such as shorts and skirts. It was the revelation that eventually inspired Wexner to open his own high-margin store, but only after several years of conflict with his father, who insisted that his son’s analysis was wrong. “He said, ‘you don’t understand’,” Wexner recalls. In the end he acquired his parents’ business to save it from failure.

It is a recurring theme. People tell Wexner he doesn’t get it, but he turns out to be ahead of the game. I wonder whether the roles are now being reversed, as the man raised on bricks-and-mortar underestimates just how much e-commerce is upending his world.

Between us we have emptied the cheese plate and I have moved on to the cookies, which, unfortunately for someone who has finished his glass of water, soak up all the moisture in my mouth. Wexner breaks off tiny portions to nibble. He says the death of shops has been greatly exaggerated. Sure, 9,000 US stores closed last year by some estimates. Sure, habits are changing.

People used to wile away four hours at the mall and visit 20 stores. Now they skip the mediocre shops and make a beeline for just one or two, Wexner says. But humans are still “pack animals” who like to mingle. And where they go, they spend more. Amazon is great for buying commodity products when you know exactly what you want. But fashion stores are about stumbling upon “things you haven’t seen before”, Wexner says. The doom-mongers are looking at average sales across all shops. “I think they’re missing the wheat from the chaff,” he says.

He pushes his stool back from the table in preparation to leave. Hurrying to get in one more question, I ask him how much longer he’ll carry on working. He tells another story about his father. Once, when Wexner had hit the big time, his dad took him for a walk and told him people would eventually start asking Les about retirement. He said his son was not built for that. “Don’t plan on it, because when you plan on it you’ll begin to die,” the father said. Wexner tells me he has no intention of preparing for his own demise.

“Maybe people humour me, but I like what I’m doing. I think I’m effective at it. I don’t dread going to work,” he says. And with that he stands up, heads out of the double doors, and back to his lingerie.

This article was originally published by The Financial Times.
Copyright The Financial Times 2018.

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