Knickers to the crunch: Agent Provocateur plays it risky with its latest, darkly erotic ad

The lingerie company Agent Provocateur has never played it safe – could that be why it's bucked the economic downturn, Rhiannon Harries asks founder, Joe Corre

There are few fashion labels whose advertising campaigns are as eagerly anticipated as the collections they showcase, but Agent Provocateur is one of them. In the past 15 years, the brand that began as a niche Soho boutique selling high-quality, risqué underwear has become a global phenomenon, spawning innumerable copycats and dramatically altering the lingerie landscape.

In the same way that its sexy knickers have revolutionised the women's underwear market, its high-profile campaigns – featuring an A-list cast of models and celebrities in a variety of compromising positions – have been equally influential. From viral marketing and cinema ads starring Kate Moss and Kylie to packs of racy playing cards and hotel-style "Do Not Disturb" signs, its choice of media and stylised imagery have always been one step ahead of the mainstream.

Today sees the launch of its latest campaign, the final instalment in a series of lavish tableaux vivants shot by long-time collaborator Tim Bret-Day, which has already seen Helena Christensen, Daisy Lowe, Alice Dellal, the Geldof sisters and a host of models strip to some decidedly saucy smalls. For this ad, "The Call of the Sirens", it is the turn of the flame-haired British supermodel Karen Elson to model the forthcoming summer collection, a bright concoction of flirty 1970s styles, revamped tartan, toile de Jouy prints... and some very raunchy swimwear.

For Joe Corre, son of the designer Vivienne Westwood and co-founder of the brand with his then-wife Serena Rees, the decision to return to the classic format of a poster felt the natural choice. "Posters are one of the things that people always want from us," he explains. "Whenever we've done flyposting, people have prised them off the walls to collect them, so we wanted to use that format and do something really special. That's when I came up with this idea for Old Masters-style tableaux."

The resulting pictures are a blend of fine-art photography, the brand's signature dark eroticism and a healthy dose of humour. Corre himself appears in all the ads in various guises (in this case, he can be spotted, Where's Wally style, as a slain knight) and there are cameos from Jess, who works in Agent Provocateur's office, to Dave who works at Corre's east London boutique, Child of the Jago. "That mix of people is a cornerstone of Agent Provocateur," says Corre. "If you go into one of our shops at Christmas, you've got this queue with supermodels next to cabbies next to checkout girls. Someone's spending £1,000, someone's spending 20 quid. It's very democratic."

The elaborate visuals of the main image belie the speed with which the campaign was shot. "We were in this derelict swimming-pool in Battersea," laughs Bret-Day. "Everyone was in the water by the end. We had this boat that they told us we could put three girls in, but by the end we had seven of them in there – health and safety would have gone mad."

Both Bret-Day and Corre agree that it is the unconventional nature of the shoots which gives the shots their vitality. "We are used to doing 16 'hero' shots in a day – others do two and think they have done amazingly well," says Corre with typical bravado. "I can't bear all that faffing. If you keep messing around with details, you end up with something really mediocre. There are too many cooks and no ideas in the fashion industry."

Corre rarely looks at other fashion advertising, but if he did, he would see that Agent Provocateur's vampish glamour pervades many areas of it. Does he find all this imitation flattering, or irritating? "I worked with my mother for years, and the number of people who knocked off her work and built their careers on it, pretending to be a designer when they copied someone else's ideas... It doesn't annoy me, as such; I just wonder how they look in the mirror every morning."

Corre is happy to have found himself with more time to focus on doing what he likes to do in the past year. When Rees left the company a little over a year-and-a-half ago, he sold a majority stake in Agent Provocateur to a private-equity firm, a move which at the time seemed incongruous with the independent spirit of the label. "I never really wanted to sell, but when I split with Serena, that was the only solution. I'm still the biggest majority shareholder after 3i, which bought the stake. In a way, it has been great – before I was much more involved in financial and personnel issues. Now my time is better spent thinking in terms of direction and creative opportunities."

The only direction Agent Provocateur seems to be heading is up. Figures published last month revealed that sales had risen eight per cent on last year, bucking the general downturn in retail. "We are in good shape – it's a little odd," admits Corre, although his determination to maintain the brand's cachet may have something to do with it. "Lots of people panicked before Christmas and went into sale really early. Then they found they were still in the shit afterwards. I made sure we didn't do that – I don't like sales much. I try to price things at what they are worth – we use the best fabrics, the best factories."

Corre puts his philosophy for this most upmarket of brands down to a good, old- fashioned retail mind-set. "I like to offer quality for a good price," he laughs.

ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Life and Style
A nurse tends to a recovering patient on a general ward at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham
Fans take a selfie with Ed Miliband in Kempston, near Bedford, on Tuesday
election 2015
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Chuck Norris pictured in 1996
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

    £45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

    Ashdown Group: Editor-in-chief - Financial Services - City, London

    £60000 - £70000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

    Ashdown Group: Junior Application Support Analyst - Fluent German Speaker

    £25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A global leader operating...

    Ashdown Group: Accountant - London - £48,000 - 12 month FTC

    £40000 - £48000 per annum + bonus + benefits: Ashdown Group: International Acc...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power