As 47 models strutted down the catwalk at the Victoria’s Secret fashion show in New York, billionaire Les Wexner was flying high.

It was 2015 and his L Brands Inc. -- which started with a single shop in Ohio five decades earlier -- had just soared to a record market value of $29 billion, driven by a lingerie empire and Fantasy Bra vision of female beauty.

Back in Columbus, his name atop the Wexner Medical Center towered over the city. A few blocks east, Picassos lined the walls of his namesake art gallery. A short drive north was New Albany, the town he more or less built single-handedly.

Then the bottom began to fall out.

Changing consumer sentiments hammered his kingdom and lopped more than $20 billion off its market value, fueled by MeToo-driven criticism of Victoria’s Secret’s hyper-sexualized image. And the 82-year-old Wexner’s ties to sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, who for years served as his money manager, clouded his image as a beloved community man and philanthropist.

On Thursday, L Brands announced that it will be chopped up. Bath & Body Works will be turned into a standalone public company. Victoria’s Secret, the crown jewel that for decades defined the women’s lingerie segment but now is increasingly at odds with the definition of beauty, will be sold to private equity firm Sycamore Partners, with L Brands keeping a minority stake.

The sale will end one of the most remarkable runs in American retail history. No person has led a major U.S. company longer than Wexner, who founded L Brands in 1963 with a $5,000 loan from his aunt. Over almost six decades, he built it into a retail and fashion giant through a series of acquisitions, ranging from plus-size specialist Lane Bryant to the exclusive Henri Bendel.

But it became a victim of shifting tastes, the relentless reinvention of retailing and, not least, scandal, sexism and worse inside the Wexner kingdom.

“He’s truly a legend in the world of retail,” said John D. Morris, a senior brand apparel analyst at D.A. Davidson who grew up in Columbus. “You look at the challenges he’s running into with the businesses, but let’s look back at what he’s done.”

Losing Ground
The deal to take Victoria’s Secret out of the glare of public markets follows a plan laid out by the parent company in September for a turnaround of the brand, which brought in more than half of the firm’s revenue in recent years. At the heart of the plan, executives said, was a revamp of the marketing to be more inclusive.

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