Agent Provocateur’s leadership team is repositioning the lingerie brand for the modern consumer.
Delicate pink peonies sit on a glass coffee table in the centre of Agent Provocateur’s east London showroom, surrounded by a leopard print sofa and chairs, a selection of racy underwear, and a leather whip. The room epitomises the premium lingerie brand: unashamedly sexy and edgy, with a touch of elegance.
The business has been through a lot since it was launched by Dame Vivienne Westwood’s son, Joe Corré, and his then wife, Serena Rees, in 1994. In March 2017, after a troubled period in the hands of private equity firm 3i Group, it collapsed into administration and was bought by Four Holdings, a company Sports Direct has a minority stake in and the parent company to distributor Four Marketing, for £31m.
Agent Provocateur’s commercial director, Sandra Mertens-Lustig, and Four Marketing’s women’s divisional manager, Kerry Neill, subsequently took the helm as joint managing directors, running the business alongside longstanding creative director Sarah Shotton.
We had worked so hard to get a certain structure in the supply chain, and the whole supply chain collapsed
Two years on, they have put the brand on a sounder financial footing – they decline to give figures, but confirm it is on track to become profitable “in the near future” – opened a raft of stores, revived its wholesale business, and last month launched a sensual new marketing campaign featuring Instagram star Caroline Vreeland.
Sitting together on the leopard print sofa and chairs, Mertens-Lustig, Neill and Shotton are sharp, funny, and refreshingly candid about what went wrong at Agent Provocateur – or “AP”, as they affectionately refer to it.
In late 2016, the business restructured after 3i admitted that weak trading and an “accounting issue” had caused it to write down the value of its stake by £39m. Agent Provocateur remains tight-lipped about the details of the accounting error.
“It was sold to me very much as a growth project,” recalls Mertens-Lustig, who joined from Chinese fashion group Metersbonwe as commercial director in 2015, when Agent Provocateur was still owned by 3i. “We found out seven months later that the books were not being maintained the way they should have been, and we were going to face a very distressed situation.”
Mertens-Lustig and the then CEO, Fabrizio Malverdi, who had taken over from former boss Garry Hogarth in April 2016, were instructed by 3i to prepare Agent Provocateur’s assets for sale.
“It was a very stressful time. It was distressing for the teams and for me personally, because we had worked so hard to get a certain structure in the supply chain, and the whole supply chain collapsed,” says Mertens-Lustig.
When you’re producing lingerie at this [premium] level, the manufacturing supply chain is a delicate eco-system
The administration allowed the business to shed £22m of debt. It closed 72 of its 110 global stores and concessions. Malverdi departed, and within a few months the staff headcount almost halved from about 130 to 70.
Unsecured creditors were due to recover just 2.9p back for every pound they were owed, although Drapers understands some suppliers received nothing. One former supplier, Welsh lingerie manufacturer AJM Sewing, blamed the loss of “key contracts” for its voluntary liquidation in 2018. It is thought Agent Provocateur was one its largest clients.
“I think what people often forget is that when you’re producing lingerie at this [premium] level, the manufacturing supply chain is a delicate eco-system,” says Mertens-Lustig. “We felt a sense of huge responsibility. For some of the factories, we were the biggest customer. We had to try to bring these factories with us into the next chapter, and help as much as we could with the debt management. People don’t realise what happens with an asset sell and the impact it has on the entire network.
“We renegotiated deals with the ones that were at the base of everything we do, but we lost some along the way. It took us about 18 months to get ourselves back to the point of having choice in terms of manufacturing across categories.”
The team will not divulge how much product is manufactured in the UK today, saying only that the brand works with the “top pool of producers” globally.
One UK-based former supplier tells Drapers: “Agent Provocateur is a great British iconic and anarchic brand. A lot of suppliers had a rough experience during the administration process, but I am sure the new management will have been proactive in the healing process.”
Most of Agent Provocateur’s sales come from lingerie, but the swimwear, accessories, sleepwear and ready-to-wear categories are growing. Retail prices for the core collection range from £75 to £995 for bras, £25 to £495 for briefs, and £195 to £1,995 for nightwear (wholesale prices were not provided).
Shotton and her team have been working on bringing the brand’s DNA back. Bestselling styles for spring 19 include the vampy Demelza (£145 for the bra, £110 for the matching briefs and £165 for suspenders), which combines an ultra-fine tulle with crisscrossing rouleaux silk bindings and lace by French design house Sophie Hallette.
We stand for sex. We stand for women or men feeling whatever they need to in our product
Of the brand’s creative direction, Shotton says: “We call it ‘filthy elegant’. It’s got a bit of an edge, but not too far: sophisticated, with a bit of kink.”
However, she admits it has been challenging to get the messaging right for today’s consumer. In the 1990s, its in-your-face sexiness struck a note with the ladette culture, but as culture changed, it lost its way.
“It had a certain magic, a sense of mystery, provocation, and coolness,” says Corré, who sold the brand to 3i in 2007. “But I think it lost its soul [in subsequent years]. There seemed to be lots of versions [of the brand], and each one took it off somewhere else.”
“There’s been an interesting shift over the past 20 years,” observes Shotton, who joined Agent Provocateur in 1999 after studying fashion at Central Saint Martins in London. “In the 1990s it was a bit wilder. Today we think more about our bodies. The hedonistic times are over, and everyone’s into keeping fit and taking care of themselves.”
Agent Provocateur was shooting its autumn 17 campaign with film director Anton Corbijn when the #MeToo movement started in response to sexual abuse allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.
“That was an interesting time because people were quite afraid. Underwear brands became very, very safe,” says Shotton. “But if we took away the part of AP’s DNA that is about sexual liberation, we would lose who we are.”
“The #MeToo movement has had a massive and far-reaching effect,” says Anthony McGrath, higher education programme lead at the Fashion Retail Academy, who teaches a course on fashion marketing.
“My advice for [Agent Provocateur] at the moment is: play down the sexual factor and turn up the ‘sista’ element. Huge numbers of women buy beautiful underwear for themselves, not just [to please] their partner.”
To that end, Agent Provocateur’s spring 19 campaign, Pump It Up, features women in the dance studio wearing its lingerie. It is sexy, but Shotton argues that it is also inclusive.
We had a priority list: reopen stores, and do everything we could to try to bring the business back to life as quickly as possible
“We used diverse women and when you’ve got 30 girls dancing in that way, it takes any seediness away. It is about sisterhood.”
The latest campaign, Icons, launched on 15 July and stars Caroline Vreeland, whose Instagram feed is populated with photos of her body.
“Everyone’s got AP in them somewhere, but she’s super-AP,” says Shotton. ”She’s got an amazing body, very curvy and she’s got great talent.”
While Shotton has been repositioning Agent Provocateur for the modern consumer, Mertens-Lustig and Neill have been focused on “unlocking” parts of the company that were lost or frozen when it collapsed.
It now has 53 stores and concessions globally: 39 directly operated and the remainder franchised. Of the 13 countries in which it operates, the US is the largest market, followed by the UK.
“We had a priority list: reopen stores, and do everything we could to try to bring the business back to life as quickly as possible,” says Neill. “We had to react very quickly to decide which stores we felt were right for us, both from a brand perspective and in terms of profitability.”
“We have been able to expand our portfolio in a small way since 2017,” says Neill. “We’ve been able to expand or relocate certain stores like Bal Harbour [in Florida], which we knew we wanted to be in because it is one of the best shopping destinations in the US.”
The team is in the process of revamping its stores to make them lighter than the previous shopfits, rolling out the pink and gold concept from the east London showroom. It launched the new look in its Harrods concession in March 2018.
“When you go to some of our stores, they are not necessarily reflective of who we are as a brand,” says Mertens-Lustig. “There was no investment done [by 3i] over the whole period that they owned the brand. We have five different concepts, and some of them look very dated.”
Neill says franchise is “a big area of opportunity”. It has secured a franchise partner in China – the team will not say who – where it is has been sold via ecommerce platform Tmall since November 2018, as well as operating three concessions in department store Lane Crawford.
Ecommerce is another “very big focus”, and an upgrade to a new version of software platform Magento is due to complete in March.
“We’re very excited about that because the current site does limit us in terms of omnichannel and the user experience,” says Mertens-Lustig.
The business had no wholesale accounts at the time of its collapse, but the new leadership team is investing in this side of the business. It has appointed a wholesale team, and in the UK it is now stocked by Net-a-Porter, Browns and will launch on Farfetch in this autumn.
Mertens-Lustig reveals that there was previously a “resistance” to wholesaling the core Agent Provocateur brand.
“That’s why they created the diffusion line L’Agent [in 2013], because they felt that that was a better line to wholesale,” she explains. L’Agent was discontinued in 2018.
To try to pick what to bring into the future and what to leave behind was difficult
“We’ve had a very different approach and, for the last year, we’ve been working to structure Agent Provocateur to make it possible to wholesale properly [by appointing a dedicated team]. There’s been a really great uptake both in lingerie and swimwear. This spring we secured amazing doors like Browns, and we will be joining Farfetch soon.”
Between repositioning the brand to appeal to the modern consumer, reopening and revamping stores, replatforming the website, and breathing life into its wholesale business, the leadership team has been kept busy. One thing is clear, though: they have a firm view of where to take the brand.
“To try to pick what to bring into the future and what to leave behind was difficult,” says Mertens-Lustig. “We had to go into start-up mode, and say: what do we stand for?
“We stand for sex. We stand for women or men feeling whatever they need to in our product. This brand will always cause a level of controversy and we just need to feel comfortable with that.”