Agent Provocateur’s chief executive is raising sales by convincing women that they need not be intimidated by the lingerie retailer’s sassy and sexy attitude.
What would it take to bring a former footwear supplier, enjoying the perks of a Barbados home, out of semi-retirement? The chance to run one of the sexiest lingerie retailers in the world, of course.
That was the case for Garry Hogarth, who was drafted in as chief executive of Agent Provocateur when the business was bought by private equity firm 3i in November 2007. He had been consulting for the brand since late 2006.
“I was spending quite a bit of time abroad but getting a bit bored,” he admits. “Then Joe Corr頨Agent Provocateur’s creative director) was looking for someone to help reorganise the business. We couldn’t improve on the marketing and the brand but I could help on production – it’s what I’d done all my life.”
Hogarth began his career as a supplier, setting up accessories supply business Fast Forward in 1988. In 1999 he sold Fast Forward to Lambert Howarth, a larger footwear supply group, where he subsequently became chief executive in 2000.
He resigned in June 2006 after a row with shareholders over a multi-million pound share sale. Two months later, the business issued a profit warning.
“I remember getting a text from a friend of mine, saying ‘congratulations on being a controversial entrepreneur’. I didn’t know what he was talking about. So he told me to read the business pages in the Daily Telegraph,” he laughs.
Hogarth insists he didn’t know about the impending profit warning after selling his shares. “It was impossible to have known. I can’t remember what led to it, but I think an order placed with Marks & Spencer, our biggest customer, was delayed or cancelled,” he explains.
As a result, Hogarth decided the supply business was no longer for him, and maintains that it is still a difficult business to be in. “That model is finished as more people are going direct. The loyalty is not there,” he says. “I decided I would only go back to work if the right brand came up. And Agent Provocateur was a brand that excited me.”
Hogarth is not the only one. Agent Provocateur is an internationally renowned brand, famed for its sex appeal and provocative campaigns starring the likes of models Helena Christensen and Kate Moss, singer Kylie Minogue and actress Maggie Gyllenhaal. There is arguably no other brand like it. But for all its fame and admiration, Agent Provocateur turns over a relatively small 13 million per year. For the year to March 31 2007, pre-tax profits stood at just over 1m, up from a loss of 207,831 the previous year.
“People perceive Agent Provocateur to be bigger than it is,” says the director of a rival lingerie brand. “Its creators have built a successful brand and now the challenge is to build the business into that brand. Which is the right way to do it. Agent Provocateur is a very clearly defined business with strong marketing and PR. It is positioned exactly where it should be.”
Fortunately for 3i, Hogarth is the man to grow the brand’s value to match its public perception, a feat already in the making. “We’ve made a lot of changes over the past year and the situation has become a lot clearer since the buyout,” says Hogarth. “The manufacturing is much stronger now, after we worked through the whole supply base. When you have a small company that grows to a certain size, suppliers can’t cope with the volume. As Agent Provocateur grew, we struggled to work with its original suppliers. We have some really great factories now, our biggest is in Morocco. But the key thing is that all our fabrics are still sourced primarily from France and Italy.”
Hogarth strengthened the team behind the brand, focusing specifically on the technical side. “There wasn’t a great technical team when I joined and bras are technical products, with a lot of ‘bits’ to them,” he says. “Now, there are women in the team who have been in the industry for a long time – when there was manufacturing in the UK – and who have the authority to say to Joe, ‘you can’t do it like that but you can do it this way’. Joe then trusts them to do it and the factories work it out. It might be that before we were trying to do things that were impossible.”
With a strong technical team in place, Hogarth has been busy encroaching on the fit market, one which has dominated the lingerie industry over the past couple of years and an area that Agent Provocateur has not been known for. The average bra size in the UK has become around 36D, with more and more brands extending their collections to incorporate larger sizes.
“Joe has always been focused on having a credible lingerie collection and spring 09 has a number of styles going up to an F cup,” says Hogarth. “The interesting thing with Agent Provocateur is the perception [that some people have] of the brand, people who are still intimidated by it, who think it’s too sexy and say ‘gosh, I could never look like that’.”
Even Hogarth’s mother was shocked when he announced he’d taken the job at Agent Provocateur and showed her one of its campaigns. “Oh, this doesn’t look very comfortable,” he mimics in a Scottish accent. “But in reality, if you go to the stores there are plenty of styles that are wearable. It’s a message we need to get across.”
Hogarth is right. The latest marketing campaign, titled Pirate Provocateur, which features model Helena Christensen as a pirate seducing a drunken captain, is sexy and provocative, but on closer inspection the product is comparatively tame. Yes, Christensen is wearing thigh-high boots and there is the odd nipple tassel on display, but the mainstay of the spring 09 collection is beautiful lingerie, with strong design and quality credentials. “I don’t want to dumb it down and take away Agent Provocateur’s sexy, edgy side,” insists Hogarth. No doubt much to the relief of his retail partners.
Agent Provocateur does not wholesale its lingerie collection, but has 12 stores in the UK, including concessions in luxury department stores Harrods and Selfridges. “When Agent Provocateur launched, it broke down barriers and it still won’t compromise on its standards for fear of offending people,” says Helen Atwood, lingerie buying manager at Selfridges in London, which is Agent Provocateur’s biggest-selling store by value.
“Agent Provocateur does well for us and its fit is very good,” continues Atwood. “It’s a conceptual brand that requires a [big enough space in our store]. Because some product is quite risqu鬍 the space is also intimate.”
Atwood welcomes Agent Provocateur’s move into bigger cup sizes, explaining that today’s larger cup offer is limited, but she is concerned that as the brand grows, so will its distribution.
She needn’t worry. Hogarth’s decision to slow Agent Provocateur’s UK retail expansion and focus on international markets, together with his refusal to wholesale the brand, is canny, ensuring Agent Provocateur retains its exclusivity and place in the luxury market.
“We’ve been asked many times to do a diffusion range but I’m not interested in that. We’ve been asked to wholesale but I’m not interested in that either,” insists Hogarth. “The fact that you can only buy Agent Provocateur in our shops keeps the exclusive nature of it. And buying a bra is an experience. We wouldn’t want to be in a department store on a rack of bras.
“When you go into an Agent Provocateur shop, you get the whole experience: boudoir, luxury, exciting and a bit of a naughty sort of deal. We offer a great service too, where everything is wrapped in ribbon. We want people to come out having bought something special and having had a great experience.”
Not even the Westfield London shopping centre in White City, west London, which opened last month with a luxury section called The Village, was enough to tempt Hogarth. Despite potential neighbours such as Louis Vuitton, Prada and Gucci, Hogarth wasn’t convinced by the centre’s luxury aspirations.
“Luxury-wise I don’t see it,” he says. “There are a lot of wealthy people in Holland Park in west London, but if you’re looking to buy Chanel, for example, would you want to park with thousands of other people? No. You’ll go to Bond Street. I live in Totteridge in north London and I have to pass Brent Cross shopping centre to drive into town. I would almost pay not to do that.”
While there are no new UK stores in the pipeline, Hogarth has been busy opening shops abroad, taking the total to 45 stores in countries across North America, Europe, Asia, Russia and the Middle East.
“We have 12 shops in the UK and that’s probably enough. We’re looking at extending in Eastern Europe to cities such as Kiev and Saint Petersburg, and in Asia. We’re in [department store] Lane Crawford in Hong Kong but we’re looking for our first Asian franchise partner,” says Hogarth.
“In Hong Kong, the question of fit came up because of the shape and size of Hong Kong’s women, but it turns out that more than 55% of Agent Provocateur sales there are to local shoppers, so it’s encouraging. What we would do though when we go into Asia is start from a 30 back size, whereas we currently start at 32.”
Outside lingerie, Hogarth is playing on his strengths in the footwear market to grow Agent Provocateur’s product ranges. In 2007, the company signed a licensing agreement for footwear with Kurt Geiger, but Hogarth hasn’t been pleased with the results and will take the design in-house for autumn 09.
“It was a little too commercial and Agent Provocateur needs to be really different,” he says. “The idea now is to have iconic pieces, like the perfect thigh-high boot, rather than a large collection.
“We won’t wholesale either, like we did with Kurt Geiger. I’ve been out to Florence to visit some footwear factories that we can do some really cool things with. It has to be really special.”
Hogarth will make sure of it. He admits to having invested a considerable amount of his own cash into the business and is all too aware that 3i wants a return on its investment. “3i is very supportive and Agent Provocateur will obviously be sold at some point. With what we’ve done so far, the potential of the brand in years to come is great. And we all believe that.”
Which is your favourite retailer?
I like Jeffrey in the Meatpacking District of New York. The jacket I’m wearing today is from there. I shop more in New York than in the UK as I travel over there a lot and never get much time in the UK. I also like [US department store] Barneys and Diesel, especially Diesel shoes, which I’m also wearing today.
Who is your fashion mentor?
I have two or three. But Richard Brainin, who was my business partner at Fast Forward, is an extraordinary guy.
What would you be doing if you weren’t doing this job?
I love playing tennis, so probably playing in a tennis tour.
Apart from lingerie, what gift would you buy for a woman?
Jewellery from Tiffany & Co.
What is the best thing about working for Agent Provocateur?
It’s nice to work in a company that is totally creative. Agent Provocateur’s collections are vintage-inspired but we don’t follow trends. In fact, if something is on trend [creative director] Joe Corr頷ill probably not follow it. When I worked as a supplier, we had to take a lot of direction from what designers and brands were doing and interpret them. But here we’re not interested in that.
Who do you consider to be Agent Provocateur’s closest competitor?
Anyone in lingerie is a rival, but there’s not really a direct competitor. [US label] Kiki De Montparnasse is a bit similar, but it’s a very small brand. La Perla has its place in the market but it has a different feel to us.
Why are Agent Provocateur’s marketing campaigns so successful?
We always try to do something that’s a little different, but it’s definitely sexy, luxurious and tongue-in-cheek too. Joe and the team also star in the campaigns.
2007 Chief executive, Agent Provocateur
2006 Consultant, Agent Provocateur
2000 Chief executive, Lambert Howarth
1999 Sells Fast Forward to Lambert Howarth
1988 Sets up accessories supplier Fast Forward