Farewell to Agent Provocateur?

News of the sale of Agent Provocateur to Mike Ashley, the founder and chief executive of Sports Direct, hit the headlines this week and I realised this was probably, finally, the end. When I started my MA back in 2012, I wrote my first essay on the 21st century Agent Provocateur woman (turning it into a two part guest post for feminist pop culture blog Bad Reputation: 1. Agent Provocateur, Discourse and Performativity and 2. The Myth of the Agent Provocateur Woman) and that’s when I began to realise that the brand I loved had died when the founders sold AP to private equity firm 3i in 2007. Towards the end of my MA, I wrote another essay on ‘The Parisian Fantasy of Agent Provocateur’ and felt that this was a good time to share an excerpt.

British lingerie brand Agent Provocateur is perhaps as well known for its image as it is for its luxury products. Set up in 1994 by Joseph Corré – the son of Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren – and his then wife Serena Rees, Agent Provocateur aimed to appeal to women on a physical, visual and intellectual level. From the very beginning, the brand has encouraged women to be a part of something more than simply selecting undergarments with which to adorn their bodies. This is perhaps because its founders did not set out to become designers:

When we first started Agent Provocateur, we […] had a concept about creating an environment that was exotic, intimate and luxurious, that had a sense of fashion adventure, comfort, colour and glamour along with an element of fantasy; a place where people would feel comfortable enough to indulge their erotic side. The idea created a special kind of frame, and all we had to do was to find products that we liked to fill it. (Corré and Rees, 1999: 78)

The couple had trouble finding lingerie that fitted their concept of fashion, glamour and fantasy, so turned to designing their own in order to realise their vision. Inspired by women’s undergarments from the 1950s, and also visions of femininity taken from art and popular culture – cheesecake pin-ups, striptease, fetish photography, erotic fantasy, mainstream and arthouse films, through to punk – Corré and Rees created a type of quality lingerie that they believed had not been seen before. The Agent Provocateur woman that they designed for was a sexually empowered pin-up girl for the 1990s:

She is a woman who can think for herself, make choices and is in control. We celebrate many aspects of the feminine – beauty, arousal, strength, honesty and knowledge – and use these qualities to design concept-based lingerie that literally creates an agent provocateur out of the woman who wears it. (1999: 43)

Kylie Minogue in an Agent Provocateur cinema advert, via YouTubeHowever, due to clever use of video and online marketing over the last two decades, it is often the overall concept of the Agent Provocateur brand which sticks in the mind of the consumer more than the lingerie itself. The decision to screen a short film entitled Proof, featuring Kylie Minogue, in cinemas in 2001 allowed them to show a more explicit advert than would have been allowed on television to a highly selected and captive audience. This advert, and subsequent videos made by the brand, has been uploaded and viewed many thousands of times on YouTube. The use of social media – from video sharing site YouTube, through to social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram – has allowed Agent Provocateur fans to connect with the brand in a manner more reminiscent of a two-way conversation (Lea-Greenwood, 2013). This proliferation of ways in which to share Agent Provocateur’s promotional content means that, whether or not a woman owns any products they sell or even if she has never touched an item of lingerie bearing their label, she will probably have opinions on the brand and what it stands for.

[My essay focused on a promotional booklet from 2007, entitled L’Appartement, which was available free of charge from Agent Provocateur boutiques and concessions. The cover tells of a story about ‘a tomboy’s burning passion’ which follows her ‘from reform school to the streets of Paris’. It begins with an illustration of a Parisian skyline alongside three letters from our tomboy to someone who seems to be an ex-lover. She writes about her obsession with a woman she watches from her window, and wanting to rescue this un-named woman from what she perceives to be a dull marriage. After the third letter, the booklet continues to tell the story using illustrations alongside fashion photographs, shot on location in a luxurious apartment. My analysis concluded…]

A spread from L'Appartement by Agent ProvocateurThis story strongly contributes to the belief that Agent Provocateur is a luxury brand. The women are running away together with only a small suitcase full of lingerie and shoes, indicating that they plan to live a life of leisure and have no need to earn money to support themselves. Even if, as the text suggests, this elopement is not expected to be a permanent arrangement, the fact that this woman could drop everything to run away with Georgette hints at a life lived with very little responsibility. This shows the reader the type of woman the brand wants to associate itself with, whilst allowing for the enjoyment of the fantasy of the erotic ‘fairy tale’. It is welcoming rather than alienating.

Setting the story in Paris reinforces Agent Provocateur’s claims to be a fashion-led erotic lingerie brand. Widely known as the city of love and also as one of the most important fashion capitals in the world, the lingerie is inevitably viewed as more fashionable and more erotic simply because of its association with Paris. Setting the story around Valentine’s Day suggests that, although these are garments designed with sex and sexuality in mind, the Agent Provocateur woman is having sex because she is in love. However, no assumptions regarding any perceived moral implications or judgement can be made without first comparing this story to other promotional material from the company at around the same time.

A spread from L'Appartement by Agent ProvocateurThe glamour of the femme or ‘lipstick lesbian’ is very much in evidence in L’Appartement, and could perhaps be seen as a desire to embrace the appeal of the representations of confident, stylish gay women in the television show The L Word, which ran on US network Showtime from 2004 to 2009. The back of the booklet lists seven Agent Provocateur stockists in North America, with a further two US boutiques listed as ‘coming soon’. At the time, there were eleven stockists in the UK, where The L Word was also screened on the satellite channel Living. However, if Agent Provocateur’s core customer base is heterosexual women – and their male partners, as gift giving is encouraged – then this feminine depiction of a same sex coupling would appeal as both daring yet accessible.

Although the gender play that is implied in the letters at the beginning was sadly not followed up on later in the story, the characteristics of the tomboy – referred to in the text on the cover – do remain evident throughout and align perfectly with the concept of the Agent Provocateur woman. She is self-confident, and very much in control of her own life and choices. We are shown in L’Appartement is that Georgette teaches her lover to take control of her life via the gift of Agent Provocateur lingerie and the implication is that, by buying the same lingerie, any woman can do the same. In this way, the story both emphasises the core values of the brand and illustrates the desirability of its products.

Butler, J. (2006 [1990]) Gender Trouble. London: Routledge Classics.
Corré, J. and Rees, S. (1999) Agent Provocateur: A Celebration of Femininity. London: Carlton.
Halberstam, J. (1998) Female Masculinity. Durham: Duke University Press.
Karaminas, V. (2013) ‘Born This Way: Lesbian Style Since the Eighties’ in Steele, V. ed. (2013) A Queer History of Fashion. New Haven: Yale University Press, pp.193-217.
Lea-Greenwood, G. (2013) Fashion Marketing Communications. Chichester: Wiley.
Lewis, R. & Rolley, K. (1996) ‘Ad(dressing) the dyke: lesbian looks and lesbians looking’ in Horne, P. & Lewis, R. eds. Outlooks: Lesbian and Gay Sexualities and Visual Cultures. London: Routledge, pp.178-190.
Rocamora, A. (2009) Fashioning the City: Paris, Fashion and the Media. London: I. B. Taurus.
Wilson, E. (2013) ‘What does a Lesbian Look Like?’ in Steele, V. ed. A Queer History of Fashion. New Haven: Yale University Press, pp.167-191.

Top photo via Boys will be B.O.I’s, second image via Sydney Morning Herald, image of Kylie via YouTube, and all other images by lipsticklori.

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