Monica Mitro - Victoria’s Secret Agent

Victoria’s known for her secrets. Most of them remain safely guarded within the confines of her home, which just happens to be one of the most successful fashion companies in the world – Limited Brands, Inc. But, believe it or not, there are a few things that don’t remain clandestine to the general public.

One such admission is that Victoria’s Secret was a key factor to its parent company’s insurmountable 9.4 billion dollar sales pull for last year. Another truth they aren’t afraid to reveal is that their home base is right here in our own backyard.

Perhaps, the biggest key to the company’s success is that Victoria always knows when to be furtive and when to put it all out there for the world to see. For way over a decade, Victoria’s Secret has continued to lace out a designer niche unlike any other. Mailboxes around the globe are overflowing with catalogues of some of the sexiest (and distinctive) lingerie modeled by the likes of Tyra Banks and Gisele Bundchen. Their annual fashion shows are so distinctive that they have an entire warehouse to store the hundreds of hand-made, designer collections formerly worn on the runway by Heidi Klum, Claudia Schiffer, Molly Sims and Naomi Campbell.

Victoria’s Secret transformed the act of buying “necessities” into a luxurious experience. Consumers know they will find a shopping environment that is both entertaining as well as invigorating. Always being able to find sexy, fashion-forward lingerie like the IPEX Bra and key designer merchandise by Dolce & Gabbana, Chantal Thomass and Betsey Johnson Intimates is the icing on the shopping cake. With over 1,100 stores nationwide, $1.1 billion in e-commerce and a catalogue business that continues to skyrocket, it’s no wonder that Victoria’s treasure chest of secrets has remained so safely guarded.

Within all secret treasures, there can be found a few choice gems: crowning jewels that have seen everything, for their value transcends time. One of Victoria’s prize jewels is undoubtedly Monica Mitro, executive vice-president of Victoria’s Secret’s Public Relations Department and executive producer for the company’s aforementioned larger-than-life fashion shows.

The Power of Promotion

Monica Mitro is always on the move. She works out of both the New York and Columbus offices of Victoria’s Secret, has apartments in both cities and is constantly on a plane to somewhere. When we finally caught up with Mitro, we found ourselves in Las Vegas, NV, where the PR mogul was putting her finishing touches on The Victoria's Secret Fashion Show Exhibit: Ten Years of Sexy at the Forum Shops at Caesars.

Know her or not, Mitro is easy to spot in any crowd; her eclectic style and hallowed confidence are dead-giveaways. She’s a class act, no matter how you consider her, and remains approachable despite her enormous acclaim. “Monica’s very professional and works very hard,” says long-time Victoria’s Secret model Gisele Bundchen. “I think Monica is very strong and she knows what she wants. I like people who say it like it is and she’s like that. I respect that.”

Learning this, we were ready to sit down and find out exactly how Mitro, a native of Cleveland, got where she is today. The story alone sounds like a movie script. With 12 years under her belt with the company, she has seen it all and has been a key part in its evolution. She admits that she got where she is by not necessarily following a traditional path, and that was what kept her motivated and driven, day after day.

How did you first get involved with Victoria’s Secret?

I have a degree in Art Administration from Ohio State, and after that, I was working as a freelancer and doing art events and fundraisers and working for different artist and photographers. It’s a weird story, but I was at an event and someone approached me and said, “You have really great legs, you should model.” I was like, “Yea, that’s great.” I was also playing the cello. So I was freelancing, playing the cello and freelancing in the art world. Then I started modeling. I started making a better living at the modeling and I knew I couldn’t do both, so I thought I’d give modeling a try and went to Europe and try the modeling thing and see if it works out.

Why come back to Columbus?

Because Limited was based here with Limited and Express and I knew a lot of people who worked there. I had a background in business and in the arts so I got to know a lot of people who worked for the business. There was a person who was a spokesperson for a lingerie company and she was doing little mini fashion shows and introducing all the different brands. The Victoria’s Secret executives at the time thought we should be doing something like that and thought I would be the perfect person for it. I wrote a proposal to do a city-by-city tour for the new product at the time, The Miracle Bra. The Wonder Bra was getting a lot of press at the time, but The Miracle Bra really wasn’t doing anything because there wasn’t a PR Department at the time. I presented the idea of doing in-store seminars on the Miracle Bra like I was doing for the Limited, but this time about the secrets behind the Miracle Bra and doing radio and TV shows. I think the original promotion was six cities. Every city that I went into the sales skyrocketed. It was the best advertisement because it was real people. After the six cities, they booked me for another six cities. I ended up doing 24 cities. For the first time, the Victoria’s Secrets doors were open to the press.

You basically built the department from the ground up.

For me it was a huge success story, because all the things I did in my background helped me into being the best PR professional I could be. I didn’t have traditional PR training, but the good thing is, I didn’t look at it from a traditional point of view. To me, it was always how people look at movies. If you are going to make a big movie, how are you going to promote it and let people know about it. I’ve never taken editors to lunch or done the traditional things. I have two people who work in Columbus and four in New York. When you look at other PR departments, there might be a huge office. It’s a story I love to tell young girls who are trying to figure out their careers, because you don’t have to have a traditional background for anything. You can create your own role. It was a lot of years of work and it’s still a lot of work, but it’s always been exciting and energetic.

A Vivid Retrospective

As luck would have it, our little stint in Las Vegas not only gave us the chance to see Mitro at work, but it also allowed us to witness just how powerful the Victoria’s Secret brand could be. Hundreds of people lined up to see Super Model Gisele announce the opening of The Victoria's Secret Fashion Show Exhibit: Ten Years of Sexy. During its month-long stint in Sin City, it also became a hot spot for tourists and Victoria’s Secret fans alike. The show was deemed such a success that Victoria’s Secret executives including Grace Nichols, Victoria's Secret Stores President and Chief Executive Officer, thought the show should hit the tour circuit. One of those stops will be a week long gig right here in Columbus at Easton Town Center this October.

Mitro, who has played an integral part in all of Victoria’s Secret’s 11 fashion shows, was a key contributor to the exhibit as well. In the months prior to the exhibit she worked with her team to sort through the hundreds of outfits from previous fashion shows and selected those that best captured the eras and themes of each show. In the end, a selection of 35 ensembles previously worn on the runway by Naomi, Claudia, Tyra, Heidi and of course Gisele made the cut. A replica of the jewel-encrusted Fantasy Bra worn by Tyra in the 1999 show is included, as are the famous 12-foot Angel wings worn by Heidi in the 2003 show.

What do you find so distinctive about the exhibit?

It shows the history of our brand because it’s lingerie that we started with and how it kind of grew over the years. What’s amazing is the evolution of the brand from year to year. The first year, we were basically told by Les Wexner that we need to do a fashion show. I had never done a fashion show, and I was head of PR. I partnered with Ed Razek, chief creative executive for Victoria’s Secret and the two of us put together a show in five weeks. When we look back at how naive we were then and how scared to death we were because it’s a good brand and it could look cheap or cheesy. It’s also lingerie and we were scared of what people would think. Either it was too much or too sexy. We never want to objectify women. We have to be appealing to women first, because 95% of our customers are women, but appeal to men, too. We did our first show and the press was tremendous.

The Fashion Show itself seems to get bigger and better with each year.

Several years after that we did our shows during men’s fashion week. We always find a way to get to the press that was already there. The men’s designers were always upset with us because it was men’s fashion week and all of the press and crews were at the Victoria’s Secret fashion show because everyone wanted to see it. It just became this iconic evolution of the brand to what are we going to do the next year and the next year and each year we’ve topped what we did the year before. In 1999 we crashed the web and then we raised 3.5 million dollars at the show at the Cannes Film Festival.

What kind of effect do you think Victoria’s Secret has had on the fashion world?

I think we’ve completely changed the way women think about their underwear, because it used to be a necessity and we’ve turned it into fashion. They’ll buy things that they may not need, but do because it’s beautiful and it’s fashion. This whole thing where innerwear becomes outerwear and camisoles are worn outside and you view bras through see-through things. We’ve showed a certain kind of pampering lifestyle. Our items are the closest thing to her skin and it’s the first thing she puts on. It’s a treat for themselves and maybe for the person who they might be with; but women dress for themselves, too. I think Victoria’s Secret brought lingerie into the forefront of fashion by offering accessibility and affordability.

Do you feel that kind of shopping experience empowers women because they have those choices?

I’m sure there are some women who feel empowerment from underwear, but I think it provides accessibility and fashion and sexy lingerie choices. In America, it’s almost become this right of passage for girls to go with their mom or their girlfriends to buy their first bras. It starts when they are young and we maintain them as a customer throughout many years of their life. Our target is 18-24 but we know there are others shopping in our stores.

How has working for Victoria’s Secret affected your own life?

It’s really exciting for me, because I got to be a part of the evolution of the brand. I’ve been a big part of making our brand accessible to women and letting them see a piece of the life. They want to see the behind-the-scenes of the models’ life and the making of the catalog. I’ve also partnered with the marketing department to make our brand hip and cool. The merchants and designers have created great lingerie, and without that, I wouldn’t have had anything to promote. It’s about taking these great pieces and letting people know about them. For me, I’m extremely proud of where the brand has gone.

The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show will air on CBS later this year and the The Victoria's Secret Fashion Show Exhibit: Ten Years of Sexy, curated by Valerie Steele, Director of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, will be on display October 12th thru October 17th at Easton Town Center.