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.

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