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3i Buys Agent Provocateur, Brand Gears Up for Growth

Agent Provocateur is planning an international retail rollout concentrated in the U.S. and Asia with a fresh cash injection from new investors 3i.

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LONDON — Agent Provocateur is planning an international retail rollout concentrated in the U.S. and Asia with a fresh cash injection from new investors 3i.

On Thursday, 3i said it had acquired a majority stake in the high-end lingerie company for an estimated 60 million pounds, or $123 million at current exchange.

“The company has a fantastic reputation and is already well established in Europe…[and] we believe there is enormous potential for the business to grow,” said Jennifer Dunstan, of 3i partner buyouts.

Joseph Corre and Serena Rees, who founded the racy lingerie brand 13 years ago, will continue to hold minority stakes in the company. Corre, who is Vivienne Westwood’s son, will stay on as creative director of Agent Provocateur. A spokeswoman for the company said Rees will leave “to pursue new opportunities.” The two founded the company when they were married, but have since split.

The investment fund has appointed Stuart Rose, chairman of The Hamleys Group and a former deputy chairman of The Body Shop, as chairman of the brand. (He is not related to Stuart Rose, chief executive of Marks & Spencer plc). Garry Hogarth, a former consultant at the firm, has been named ceo.

“For the past 14 years, we’ve grown very organically,” Corre told WWD. “We then got to the size and scale where we needed to springboard. Because of 3i’s size, they’re able to have more flexibility with their investments, and they have a strong [international] network, that can help us in a practical way.”

Corre added that territories such as Japan were high on the company’s expansion agenda. “The whole psyche has changed there in the past 14 years — lingerie used to be sold there by people doing private home sales,” he said.

Since Agent Provocateur opened its first boudoir-inspired store in London’s Soho in 1994, filled with silk and lace lingerie, garter belts and silk stockings, it’s become a byword for risqué glamour. Kate Moss, Kylie Minogue, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Catherine Bailey have all appeared in its advertising campaigns. The company currently has 35 stand-alone stores and shop-in-shop units in the U.K., the U.S., Asia, Europe and the Middle East. According to industry sources, the brand’s sales in its latest fiscal year to 2007 were about 25 million pounds, or $51 million.

“It’s quite a small brand that’s been punching above its weight,” said George Wallace, ceo of retail analysts MHE Retail. “In terms of the scale of the company, it’s not that big, but the image and awareness of the brand are massive. It’s a very valuable brand that’s a long way from realizing its potential.”

Wallace added that 3i’s “financial resources and potential strategic input” made the two companies a good match.

Meanwhile, Maureen Hinton, lead analyst at Verdict Research, said that Rees’ departure wouldn’t adversely affect the brand. “I don’t think it’s an issue,” said Hinton. “Apart from those in the know, the brand isn’t really associated with a designer.”

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