A Global Effort

Five hours before the first fashion show taping, supermodels from 17 countries have arrived at personal makeup stations to become draped with arms holding hairdryers, compact mirrors, eye pencils, foundation brushes, cotton balls, stick microphones and snacks.

Victoria's Secret has spectacle down to a science.

Inside the Fontainebleau's newly refurbished fourth-floor prep room, paint is barely dry, yet makeup artists, hairdressers, personal assistants, tailors, friends and media handlers who shield and then encourage attention are not deterred. Outside, construction workers hang track lights in the lobby and build a day spa as production crews set up a temporary show theater in a portable six-story tent.

Three days before the show tapes, nothing looks ready. Two days later, the ribbons are cut and people are leisurely walking to the show after a complimentary prime rib dinner and drinks.

This is what $10 million, the show's approximate price tag, buys in the entertainment world: a hornet's nest of specialized labor to transport an event unlike anything in fashion anywhere in the world.

It's easy to forget that this show is about selling underwear.

On hand are people to prepare outfits, sets, makeup, hairdos, costumes, musical numbers and, of course, the for-sale products that appear on the runway wrapped in wild, decorative packages. There's even someone on hand to comb hair extensions on a mannequin head, guard the jeweled Fantasy Bra and man a bronzing station behind a thick black curtain.

"This show is more couture than any show we've done," says Monica Mitro, an executive producer of the show, getting her hair and makeup done backstage. "Each outfit is literally handmade for the girls. Putting all this talent and all these people together is really a global effort this year."

Feathers come from Paris, corsets from England. Swarovski-crystal inlays and armbands are manicured from Australia, and the infamous wings are handmade by renowned designers. Company executives work from Columbus, but most of the hands-on creative and design work happens in New York City. Everything converges in the chosen city.

Largely because of this streamlined machine and the high-profile models who punctuate it, Victoria's Secret grosses higher than any lingerie competitor. It's one of the most recognizable brands across the globe, its stranglehold on sexy rarely questioned.

But even sexy is a tough sell when every index tracking consumer confidence says things are very, very bad and will get worse before they get better.

In 1995, the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show's debut, selling high-end unmentionables was easy. That has changed. Show planning began late in 2007, when gloom was merely a radar blip. But during crunch time for this year's event, consumer confidence fell to an all-time low and retail sales dropped in October by the largest margin on record.

"Historically, looking at post-recession periods, you had people wanting to show off their wealth," says Dan Stanek, executive vice president of TNS Retail Forward, a Columbus-based retail-management consultant. "We see now the trend completely reversing. Now the attention is back to basics."

Cars, furniture and other big-ticket items will be hit hardest by tightened wallets, but industry analysts predict any company will pray to break the black by New Year's Day. Every price tag will suffer. Every tinseled window display will sag.

This is the legacy of the worst economic downturn in a generation: Not even the bejeweled thongs perched delicately on history's most luscious behinds are immune to strife.

"Certainly, everyone wants a little treat if they can afford it," Stanek adds. "But customers are giving up anything that seems discretionary. They want things that they see as justified or that will benefit in the long term."

Victoria's Secret hasn't ignored the frugal climate, and will offer gift sets in everything from lip gloss to bras during the holiday season. Any good brand is nothing if not highly adaptable, and its Black Friday ammo will be stocked in a variety of shapes, sizes and price points.

Senior executive Ed Razek believes the brand is set up well to weather the storm.

"I think that the Victoria's Secret product should theoretically do well in this kind of economy or in a prosperous economy," he says. "We're talking about things that are affordable perks."

But no one throws a glamorous runway show for lip gloss or hand lotion.

Victoria's Secret celebrates sex appeal, and the brand has confidence in the healing power of allure. They live and die by it - selling the self-esteem inherent in a risque pair of panties (oh, honey!) and a push-up bra. Even as bad times get worse, they head to Miami Beach, flood the Rat Pack's old haunt with pink klieg lights and throw a party.

The world, they hope, will join them.

... NEXT >>