Les is More

Les Wexner announced he was stepping down from the empire he created. But not with bands playing and banners flying. Rather with sad shrugs and whispers
Posted March 3, 2020

I was going to blog about something else this month. Then came the announcement that Les Wexner was selling and mostly stepping away from the L Brands organization that he had begun creating nearly 60 years ago. Attention must be paid.

It was, for most of its history, an incredible retail story: the rise of a single store into a nationwide chain into an international empire of brands. It was the engine behind the booming mall culture of the ’80s and ’90s, with The Limited, Express and Limited Too stores, and all of the other brands in the family, dominating center court.

And then it was the spirit behind the anti-mall, when Wexner’s development of Easton Town Center, a neighborhood of stores in the Columbus, Ohio, area, with sidewalks and storefronts, trees and landscaping, bandshells and restaurant patios, kicked off the whole lifestyle trend that replaced the suffocating enclosed mall experience in the 2000s.

Wexner also spawned a legion of acolytes who went around the industry spreading the gospel. The world of store design, branding and merchandising has been peppered with people who came out of The Limited stable in Columbus, people who went on to consulting firms or independent design firms or who brought the disciplines and imagination of The Limited to other retail organizations.

They were uniform in their devotion to Wexner. They talked about him as demanding, unyielding, opinionated and mercurial, but only in the most respectful ways. Some of those stories were recounted in detail, others with a shake of the head, a smile, a shrug of the shoulders and, simply, “That was Les!” It was the legend of an outstanding merchant, an aggressive rule-breaker and chance-taker, a visionary of minute details, a disciplined mind so confident in his ability to see what only he could see, mystified why others weren’t seeing it.

In the 1980s, long before I knew what a visual merchandiser was, my Saturdays were devoted to driving my daughter to the Livingston Mall in New Jersey, so she could shop and hang with her friends at The Limited or Express.

A decade later, when I was editor of another store design magazine, we used to give a monthly prize to a staff person who had excelled. Almost without fail, my staff of 20-something young women would ask for a gift certificate to one of The Limited stores.

The story has become legend, how a single Limited store in a shopping center in Upper Arlington, Ohio, opened in 1963 with money borrowed from family, led to an extraordinary retail empire that at one point included The Limited, Express, Limited Too, Bath & Body Works, Henri Bendel, New York & Co., Abercrombie & Fitch, Lane Bryant and, of course, Victoria’s Secret.

I say “of course, Victoria’s Secret” because, at the end, that seemed to be what Wexner was most identified with. In part because of lazy journalism that didn’t bother exploring the whole Wexner history. In part because, at the end, Victoria’s Secret was the primary L brand left standing. And in part because of the extraordinary set of twists and turns that repositioned Wexner from a razor-sharp pathfinder in the public’s mind to an addled, confused and regrettable old man.

There was that peculiar relationship with Jeffrey Epstein. Even with all the reporting about Epstein that dominated the summer of 2019, the details of the Epstein-Wexner axis remained somewhat cloudy. We learned what Wexner had done, turning over his entire portfolio to this former New York City high school teacher turned sexual predator. But why??

And there were the backstage stories about the Victoria’s Secret culture. Which seem astonishingly predictable, given that the brand, run mostly by men, was built entirely on suggestive female allure. Supermodels vied to become “Angels,” a part of the runway shows, catalogs and marketing vehicles that would catapult them to fame and fortune. “#MeToo,” motion picture executives. “#YouToo?” Victoria’s Secret executives.

It’s not that Wexner was tied directly to the seamy aspects of either scandal, but it did throw shade on him – a shadow large enough to blot out the sun. A month or two ago, writing a blog about innovative merchants of retail’s recent past, my original Case A exemplar was going to be Les Wexner. But I reconsidered. Too many negative headlines had cost him mention for the truly extraordinary achievements he had had. Wexner is 82. He had earned a respected emeritus standing. Right now, he’s not getting it.

Lee Peterson of WD Partners, one of those quiz kids schooled in the Wexner classroom, who used to regale me with stories about the maddening intelligence of the man he had worked closely with, told The New York Times about “30 years of brilliance crashing to a halt.

“What a tragic ending to a really brilliant story.”

Says it all. Tragic, indeed. When the whole thing will be added up some day, though, Les was certainly more.

As a journalist, writer, editor and commentator, Steve Kaufman has been watching the store design industry for 20-plus years. He has seen the business cycle through retailtainment, minimalism, category killers, big boxes, pop-ups, custom stores, global roll-outs, international sourcing, interactive kiosks, the emergence of China, the various definitions of “branding” and Amazon.com. He has reported on the rise of brand concept shops, the demise of brand concept shops and the resurgence of brand concept shops. He has been an eyewitness to the reality that nothing stays the same, except the retailer-shopper relationship.