Risque business

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 May, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 May, 2005, 12:00am

Known as much for their titillating underwear as their risquestunts and celebrity fans, Serena Rees and Joseph Corre re an intimidating duo. Correis virtually punk royalty, the progeny of fashion legend Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, the pop culture impresario and one-time Sex Pistols manager. Rees, a former advertising executive and booking agent, is renowned for her curvy figure and deep, mysterious eyes. The pair are in Hong Kong to finalise plans for a concession, due to open this month, in the IFC Mall Lane Crawford lingerie department. As I approach the store's Martini Bar, I imagine them lounging in leather and lace, sipping vermouth. So it's a surprise to find him in a wrinkled beige suit and floral print shirt. She arrives minutes later, after doing her own make-up in the public bathroom, wearing a funky, cropped chocolate-coloured suit.

It's cocktail hour on a Friday. Still expecting the embodiment of their erotic brand image, and perhaps even a pet gimp under the table, I'm caught off guard when he settles for water while she orders a fresh juice. Corre says to Rees: 'Since you're feeling perky, you can answer all the questions.' She responds, 'Oh you're not feeling very perky? You need some watermelon juice.'

These are the founders of a brand whose window displays have included a phallic Christmas tree spurting snow from its tip. These are the people who made the peep-hole bra a best-seller from wild Las Vegas to conservative Dubai. Their 2001 advertisement, featuring Kylie Minogue riding a mechanical bull in only her black lace underwear, was so raunchy it was banned from TV. 'Once we started, we had so much media attention really quickly over just one store,' says Corre, suddenly perky. 'It just takes a few to get into it and everyone starts following.' It also helps when those few include celebrities ranging from Marilyn Manson to J.K. Rowling.

Rees and Corre, who met at a London nightclub, originally set out to create an erotic department store catering to a sexy rather than smutty lifestyle. It was a risky move at a time when intimacy was still a taboo subject in British society. 'Although it might appear that people aren't interested in those sorts of things, everybody's interested in sex,' reasons Corre. 'Our policy has always been to be much more upfront and open about it. It's much healthier and much more interesting.' It's a strategy that has worked: the most popular Agent Provocateur items are always the kinkiest, regardless of location or demographic.

Sex and revolution are in Corre's genes. In the late 1970s, Westwood and McLaren had a fetish clothing store called Seditionaries (those who incite resistance to a lawful authority), which sounds suspiciously similar to Agent Provocateur (a person employed to incite individuals or groups). Now a success in his own right, does Corre tire of the comparisons with his parents? 'Not at all. I'm very proud of it,' Corre says earnestly. 'If I felt that what we did together wasn't very good and relied purely on the credibility of my parents, then I'd feel like a bit of a wanker, really.'

After extensive research, Rees and Corre chose to focus on lingerie. 'You couldn't find a beautiful selection of lingerie anywhere [in London],' says Rees. 'There were stores that sold your black, white or ivory foundation wear. And then there were the tacky sex shops hidden down dark alleys where you might find something bright and colourful, but it would be made out of nylon and you wouldn't enjoy wearing it.' Corre interjects: 'At the top end, you had things that were so ridiculously expensive they were out of reach and they couldn't really make them in proper size ranges.' It sounds a lot like Hong Kong today, and that's why they're here. 'That's what's interesting about Hong Kong, it's similar timing,' says Rees, smiling.

Agent Provocateur first opened in London's Soho district in 1994, selling lingerie from around the world and old stock from the 40s to 60s. But it wasn't what they'd envisioned. 'We wanted colourful, fashionable, sculptured things that actually had an effect in contouring the shape of the female form. Sexy things,' says Rees. Finally, they decided to make their own.

This is easier said than done. Corre, who had helped his mother build her fashion empire, was shocked by the difference between making outerwear and underwear. 'Getting your head around the number of sizes, or how many components went into making something, was incredibly difficult,' he says. British manufacturers simply weren't interested in thinking outside of the box, so the pair looked to France, where 'these little old ladies had been making lingerie for years, but weren't being utilised,' says Rees. Unwittingly, they had started a revolution that would

not only challenge the way lingerie was made, but also how it was sold and perceived.

Although Corre is often described as the ideas man and Rees is seen as the business woman, they insist there is no defined division of labour. 'On the creative things, we always work together. On others, we might separate because there just aren't enough hours in the day,' says Rees. Does sharing work and home life cause tensions? 'We do disagree,' she admits. 'But one of the reasons we think Agent Provocateur is so successful is you have the male perspective and a female point of view on what looks and feels good.' Interestingly, items preferred by Rees are usually most popular with female customers, while Corre's favourites are more often bought by men.

Producing in small quantities has allowed Agent Provocateur the freedom to introduce new pieces every two weeks, in addition to annual autumn, spring and St Valentine's Day collections.

'We don't work in seasons like other brands because we don't wholesale,' explains Corre. 'Even though many are now offering lingerie lines, they want to do S, M, L, not 24 sizes in a bra like we do. As a specialist, we feel this is a foundation garment that really needs to work.'

The artisanal approach has also helped them retain full control of the brand, a practice they have applied to expansion. 'If anything goes into our store it has to make sense. We wouldn't just start doing outerwear because we have a strong brand name,' says Rees. Fragrance, part of the art of seduction, certainly made sense, but Rees and Corre refused to license it to an outside perfumer. Instead, they founded another company and made their scent from scratch in 2000. In the same year, they were commissioned by Marks & Spencer to design the Salon Rose lingerie range for the mass market. Since then, they have surprised customers with fun new products such as a lip balm, a nipple refresher called Titillation and a music CD. More projects are in the pipeline. 'Within the next 12 to 18 months, we're going to start to work in new directions, which we can't really talk about now,' teases Corre.

The Hong Kong store will be the 13th in a list that includes, predictably, London, Los Angeles, New York and Las Vegas, and more obscure locations such as Dubai, Moscow, Dublin and Birmingham. On the surface, their move here seems driven by emotion more than strategy. 'It just felt right,' says Corre, when asked why they chose Hong Kong over the mainland or another Asian country. After some thought, he adds, 'The honest answer is that we were approached by Lane Crawford.'

Corre and Rees have learned to screen the multitude of offers that regularly come their way. 'We'd rather not open a store than open one badly,' says Corre. 'Many people talk a good fight, but we would never open a store without the support to give it the right product, staff and service.' Rees adds a shiny PR spin: 'Lane Crawford really understood what we were about and now, having visited this store, it's exciting. They have a passion for it like we do.'

Named one of Britain's top three Cool Brand Leaders for two consecutive years, Agent Provocateur's success is partly due to the personalised service and intimate retail experiences it has created. Although each of its stores is unique, all offer a sumptuous boudoir setting. The Hong Kong concession is still off limits, even to most Lane Crawford staff, but Rees reveals it is decorated in the signature colours of pink and black. 'We've done a lovely, abstract lace-print carpet, beautiful wallpaper, etched glass and mirror, and big velvet curtains with tassels.'

Pretty wallpaper is easy to import; sophisticated customer service is not. 'It's a very one-on-one service. We don't have one of every size hanging in the store,' says Rees, 'just one of each style and colour hanging up so customers can browse without feeling jumped upon the moment they enter the store.' How do they propose to introduce this approach to a notoriously pushy retail culture? This is Rees' first trip to Hong Kong and she has yet to go shopping, but she says: 'We have various training programmes that teach how to suit different people and what's appropriate for different occasions.'

Since the beginning, the pair have been prepared to learn from experience. The importance of discretion, for example, was taught to an overly helpful shop assistant, as Corre recounts. 'A husband came in and went to buy something as a present for his wife. One of the girls in the store said, 'Oh, don't buy that. Your wife already came in and bought it.' She didn't know that his wife had purchased it to go on a weekend with somebody else. Ever since then, we don't talk about what has been bought.' This is one reason why they never talk about celebrity clientele. 'Every-body needs protecting,' says Rees. 'We have a fantastic celebrity clientele, but if they choose to talk about it that's entirely up to them.'

Those celebrities include Kate Moss, Madonna, Jerry Hall, Nicole Kidman and Naomi Campbell, names that have helped to spread the Agent Prov-ocateur gospel. But before they gained such star-studded endorsements, Corre and Rees promoted the label through provocative window displays and creative publicity stunts. These included a protest outside London Fashion Week in 1995 with girls wearing Agent Provocateur and holding banners that demanded 'More S&M, less M&S!' 'The media picked up on it very quickly,' Corre says with a twinkle in his eyes. 'I think it made it very easy for mainstream media to show girls with not very much on.' Rees continues: 'It's [more] interesting to a much wider audience than just a fashion story. A finance guy might not read about fashion, but everyone is interested in sex.'

Rees and Corre have never been influenced by traditional marketing tactics. 'We didn't do a big marketing plan saying A plus B equals C. It's just

our vision. No one tells us what to do,' states Rees. They communicate with customers through their shops, their website (almost a virtual version of their original lifestyle concept) and special events designed to 'remain in people's minds'. Most recently, they staged a huge 10th anniversary party, with burlesque star Dita von Teese doing a striptease on the catwalk surrounded by London's party-razzi. Plans for a Hong Kong event, they promise, are in the works and von Teese is set to reprise her performance.

'It's the same approach for us to open a store here as anywhere else,' says Corre. 'We've never changed the way we present ourselves to a new market, and we've never adapted the way we sell.' Is there anywhere the Agent Provocateur concept wouldn't work? 'I don't know,' Corre says, surprised by the question. 'Baghdad? Or maybe that would be a good place.' Rees gives him an amused, disapproving look and says, 'We get offers from the most bizarre places. It's nice to know you've spread across the globe.'