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Risque Business

Agent Provocateur lives up to its name with lingerie that’s breaking down even staid Britain’s barriers.<br><br><br><br>Success isn’t softening Agent Provocateur. If anything, the U.K.-based purveyor of high-end lacy, racy knickers...

Agent Provocateur lives up to its name with lingerie that’s breaking down even staid Britain’s barriers.

Success isn’t softening Agent Provocateur. If anything, the U.K.-based purveyor of high-end lacy, racy knickers and Swarovski-studded handcuffs aggressively lives up to its name. In the eight years since Joseph Corre and Serena Rees launched their firm with a boutique in London’s Soho neighborhood, they have set out to provoke the public, the media, their retailing neighbors and the innerwear industry.

While it hasn’t hurt having famous fans — Madonna being one — it’s AP’s erotically charged imagery that has helped fuel copious column inches in the British press. Delivering chic with a wink and a nudge, the images fill hardbound catalog books and traffic-stopping window displays. The whiff of scandal surrounding the company intensified last winter, when the London and Sydney tabloids reported on an alleged ban in Great Britain of a TV spot starring pop singer Kylie Minogue, clad head-to-toe in AP and riding a velvet mechanical bull. Forget that TV is outside the budget of a company of AP’s size. (Rees declined to provide sales volumes for AP’s three subsidiaries: Agent Provocateur Ltd., the original label comprising lingerie and accessories; Agent Provocateur Inc., its American wing, and Agent Provocateur Parfum.) Or that the ad actually saw a restricted run in London-area cinemas, playing only to 17-and-up crowds. The rumor scored headlines.

And those headlines, of course, fueled sales. Now, Corre and Rees, who married two years ago, are marveling over business at their newest store, in The City, London’s luxury-shop-heavy financial district. “We’re already taking in more than the other two London shops [in Soho and Knightsbridge], and it’s a tiny jewel box of a store,” muses Rees. Corre estimates the door will take in an average of $3,750 per square foot annually, compared with the $1,500 at the other units.

Two years ago, AP opened its only store outside London, on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles. The firm is setting up shop in New York, too. An in-store boutique opens in Henri Bendel in September and later this fall in SoHo. The Bendel boutique marks the first time the accessories and mostly French-made lingerie will be carried outside the company’s signature stores and Web site, the latter generating a quarter of the company’s business.

“We don’t have any intention of having a store on every high street. But there’s room for more AP stores worldwide,” says Corre, who no doubt picked up a thing or two from his parents, punk icon Malcolm McLaren and designer Vivienne Westwood, who was responsible for the saucy pink uniforms AP saleswomen wear with black fishnets and maribou mules.

Indeed, the company has already targeted the masses with a line sold at British department-store stalwart Marks & Spencer, under the name “Salon Rose.” (Ironically enough, one early AP ad boasted “more S&M, less M&S.”) The line, which Corre says turns some $20 million in annual sales, features a range of panties and bras in silks and levered lace. “Salon Rose” strays from M&S’s typically staid fare, with skimpier cuts and flashier hues, like turquoise, fuchsia and salmon. Prices are a good 50 percent above comparable items from Marks & Spencer’s own house label. But then again, that’s a bargain by AP standards.

The line’s bits of lace and silk don’t come cheap: Bras retail from $55 to $230, panties from $30 to $195. Precieux, the house line of jeweled crops and other baubles, runs from $46 to $700. For fall, the signature fragrance, which bowed in 2000 and reportedly has annual retail sales exceeding $5 million through just under 1,000 doors globally, will expand to “Bubble Luscious” for bath ($39 for 400 ml) and into new scents, via votive candles with names such as “Strip” and “Tease” ($39 or $59 for a set of six).

Says Rees, “We’re just at that time where we’re set to really go.”