LONDON — Agent Provocateur is drawing a line under the past and sketching out a fresh plan for the future under new owners Four Holdings, which bought the luxury lingerie brand out of bankruptcy last year.
For the first time, it’s all women who are in charge: AP’s longtime creative director Sarah Shotton, and joint managing directors Sandra Mertens-Lustig and Kerry Neill.
Their plan is to spiff up store interiors and look at new markets, consolidate the offer under a single Agent Provocateur label and appeal to a wider audience. They also plan to return to a retail-only model.
On Friday, AP plans to reveal a new, and very funny, campaign film shot by Anton Corbijn that reflects the new mood of the company, while a footwear collection co-created by Shotton and hot accessories designer Dora Teymur is in the works for fall.
During a joint interview at the brand’s headquarters in London’s Clerkenwell neighborhood, the three women said they were eager to set the new strategies in motion. In 2016, AP found itself stuck in limbo following the discovery of serious balance sheet irregularities that had made the company appear more successful than it was.
After months of confusion, uncertainty and layoffs, AP was placed briefly into bankruptcy protection before its then-owner 3i and former chief executive officer Fabrizio Malverdi found a buyer in Four Holdings, the fashion brand and showroom owner that counts the controversial British retailer Mike Ashley among its shareholders.
Shotton said the team has a new sense of purpose, and wants to send a message that AP is back and ready to dress the world in sexy knickers.
“We’re coming into the light, and we want to be the best lingerie brand in the world,” said Shotton. “We are about sexual empowerment and helping women feel good about themselves and their bodies. And, dare I say it, I’m designing for everyday comfort and sexiness, making sure that whatever you’re into there is something at AP for you.”
The new store design reflects the optimism at the brand: Interiors will morph from moody boudoir shades to pink, with Seventies-inspired fixtures and themed changing rooms.
“It’s still very sexy but much more feminine and approachable. We are about pink — but modern,” she said. “Some people are still terrified about walking through the doors. We want to say, ‘Don’t be afraid — it’s liberating once you get in there.’”
The first store to go pink will be AP’s shops-in-shop at Harrods, while the new design will eventually roll out to the brand’s 52 stores, a mix of wholly-owned, franchised and wholesale units, in 16 countries. The next units in line for refurbishment are Bal Harbour, Miami; Mercer Street in Manhattan, and Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles.
Shotton said AP continues to think of itself as a luxury fashion brand, and like many other brands in the category, it is uniting its collections under one AP label, and broadening the entry-level offer to lure back past customers and capture a new generation.
She also wants to channel the original, provocative spirit of the brand, which was founded in 1994 by Vivienne Westwood’s son Joseph Corré and his then-wife Serena Rees. The couple opened a boudoir-inspired store in London’s Soho, stocking it with come-hither lingerie, with the staff dressed in sexy French maid uniforms.
The opening of that store unleashed a new wave of upscale — and very sexy — lingerie brands in a market that had been dominated by expensive, tasteful labels such as La Perla or cheap and tacky ones like Ann Summers.
AP always had a strong celebrity following and continues to get some serious support from the stage-and-screen set: Last summer at Glastonbury, singer Dua Lipa appeared on stage dressed in a pink fishnet AP bra, panties — and bright green track suit bottoms — while Beyoncé famously announced her pregnancy on Instagram last year, dressed in a burgundy AP tulle bra adorned with pink bows.
AP has also done away with its L’Agent diffusion line, which was fronted by sisters Penélope Cruz and Mónica Cruz Sánchez and which was sold through retailers including Net-a-porter. Entry prices for AP have come down, and are now 75 pounds for a bra, while a bra, panty and suspender set is less than 150 pounds. “Everyone just wanted the main line. We didn’t need to do a diffusion line,” said Shotton.
Mertens-Lustig, who had been working with Shotton on strategy before the sale, said there was a “tremendous opportunity to re-engage a whole group of people who thought AP was too expensive or too risqué. There’s a broadness and a functionality to the brand. It’s not just for special occasions, but for every day.”
She said the entry price products have all become best sellers and volume drivers, although the company is still committed to creating very high-end, technically challenging designs, too. The brand also thinks like a fashion one, with Shotton designing seasonal collections and new products dropping every six weeks.
Sleepwear, ready to wear and crossover pieces such as pajama suits and kimonos will become a bigger part of the offer going forward. Neill, who joined AP last year from Four Holdings, said the brand plans to launch a new swimwear line to be sold at wholesale later this year, which will be the only category it will wholesale. AP already does some swimwear, with the Mazzy bikini and the slashed Dakotta swimsuit among the bestsellers.
Asked how they view the lingerie landscape now that two major players, La Perla and Wolford, have been sold to the private equity firm Sapinda Holding and Fosun, respectively, the AP team said they’re confident they’ll win.
“It’s a highly fragmented category. But where we play there are very few brands with our footprint and our presence. Outside of La Perla there isn’t really anyone out there,” said Mertens-Lustig, while Shotton said it’s an exciting time to be in business.
Shotton also pointed out that even as the company was imploding from the financial scandal, the collections were selling. “We were shifting a lot of product, the press was unreal and Beyoncé was wearing the bra, although it was soul-destroying to read the [business] press every day,” she said.
Although Neill and Mertens-Lustig declined to give projections or comment on the brand’s performance, they said sales have been growing, and the company will be looking to return to markets that AP never fully exploited, including China and the Far East. “Everything we do now is about the integrity of the brand — and pushing it forward in the right way,” said Neill.
Although the terms of deal were never disclosed, industry sources said Four Holdings paid 27.5 million pounds for Agent Provocateur.
The brand is also pushing ahead with its fragrance business, which is licensed to Interparfums, and Shotton said there are new scents in the works.
In September, the brand will unveil a footwear collection that Shotton has co-created with Teymur, founder of the Dorateymur label. It is a collection of basics including marabou mules, boots, stilettos and other styles. It will be exclusive to AP stores.
Shotton also said she wants to start doing runway shows and special events once again. “Our shows were all about empowerment and strong women. They were immersive, interactive and theatrical. We have to do them again,” she said.
Corbijn’s new film sums up AP’s current playful, can-do mood. Featuring Barbara Palvin, the Hungarian model who was the 2016 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue’s Rookie of the Year, it plays on the idea of getting dressed rather than undressed. “The sense of humor has always been there,” said Neill. “We don’t take ourselves too seriously.”