Models call on Victoria's Secret CEO to lead in combating sexual misconduct in fashion industry

While recent allegations of sexual assault and misconduct "may not have been aimed at Victoria's Secret directly, it is clear that your company has a crucial role to play in remedying the situation," the models said.
Image: Barbara Palvin, Yasmin Wijnaldum, Winnie Harlow, Gigi Hadid, Kendall Jenner and Alexina Graham walk the runway at the 2018 Victoria's Secret Fashion Show in New York.
Barbara Palvin, Yasmin Wijnaldum, Winnie Harlow, Gigi Hadid, Kendall Jenner and Alexina Graham walk the runway at the 2018 Victoria's Secret Fashion Show in New York.Dimitrios Kambouris / Getty Images for Victoria's Secret file

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By Elisha Fieldstadt

More than 100 models have signed a letter addressed to the CEO of Victoria's Secret urging the lingerie giant to take a leadership role in protecting the safety and well-being of models and aspiring models in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against some men in the industry.

"In the past few weeks, we have heard numerous allegations of sexual assault, alleged rape, and sex trafficking of models and aspiring models," the letter said. "While these allegations may not have been aimed at Victoria's Secret directly, it is clear that your company has a crucial role to play in remedying the situation."

The open letter is addressed to Victoria's Secret CEO John Mehas and signed by the Model Alliance, the Times Up organization and dozens of models including Christy Turlington, Gemma Ward and Iskra Lawrence.

The letter specifically refers to allegations of sexual misconduct against three photographers. "It is deeply disturbing that these men appear to have leveraged their working relationships with Victoria’s Secret to lure and abuse vulnerable girls," the letter said.

It also mentions recent news coverage about the connection between Leslie Wexner, the CEO of L Brands, which owns Victoria's Secret, and Jeffrey Epstein, a wealthy financier in jail in New York City awaiting trial on sex-trafficking charges.

Wexner employed Epstein as a personal finance manager until 2007 when the latter was accused of paying girls as young as 14 for sex.

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The L Brands chief released a letter Wednesday saying Epstein "misappropriated vast sums of money" from him and his family.

"To be clear, I never would have imagined that a person I employed more than a decade ago could have caused so much pain. I condemn his abhorrent behavior in the strongest possible terms and am sickened by the revelations I have read over the past weeks," Wexler's letter said.

Epstein's attorney did not return requests for comment from CNBC on Wednesday. NBC News reached out to his attorneys Thursday but did not immediately hear back.

The letter signed by the models said Wexner's connection to Epstein and the recent sexual misconduct allegations against men working in the modeling industry are "gut-wrenching."

It invited Victoria's Secret to join the Respect Program, which was developed by the Model Alliance to hold companies accountable for enforcing a code of conduct "that protects everyone’s safety on the job, and reduces models’ vulnerability to mistreatment."

"Victoria’s Secret has the opportunity to be a leader, to use its power and influence to bring about the changes that are urgently needed in our industry," the letter said. "If Victoria’s Secret were to take a stand against these abuses and commit to meaningful change by joining the RESPECT Program, this would go a long way in helping our industry chart a new path forward."

A Victoria's Secret spokesperson told NBC News that the company has been in conversations with the Model Alliance "for some time."

"We are always concerned about the welfare of our models and want to continue to have dialogue with the Model Alliance and others to accomplish meaningful progress in the industry," the spokesperson said in a statement.

Victoria's Secret faced backlash last year when Ed Razek, the chief marketing officer for L Brands, told Vogue that "no one had any interest" in a television special for plus-size women that aired in 2000. He also said he didn't think "transsexuals" should be included in the annual televised Victoria's Secret fashion shows "because the show is a fantasy."

He later apologized in a statement, saying, "We absolutely would cast a transgender model for the show," and while none had ever made the cut, "it was never about gender."

The company has since hired its first openly transgender model, Valentina Sampaio, to model for its brand PINK in an upcoming campaign, the Victoria's Secret spokesperson said.