It was a risky - not to say risque - decision to open a shop selling naughty undies, but it worked for Joe Corre and Serena Rees. And Agent Provocateur has proved so popular, says Melanie Rickey, that a new store is about to open in Knightsbridge. A little more sophisticated, maybe. But just as saucy.
When Agent Provocateur first opened in December 1994, Joe Corre and Serena Rees had achieved just part of a much bigger dream. "We initially wanted to open an erotic department store," says Corre, "and lingerie would have been only a small part of it; there would have been furniture, books, clothes, art..." "And a bar. We had the licence, the premises, everything was ready to go," interrupts Rees, "but we were gazumped."

The big idea became a smaller and more realistic one. Why not sell saucy undies with a sense of humour? Why hide sex behind closed doors? Indeed, why not just put it in the window for all to see. At first people gawped at the shop's window display which featured tousle-haired mannequins in various states of undress, each posing provocatively across a velvet chaise- longue. Then as the press caught wind that Joe Corre was the son of Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McClaren, tentatively, at first, the customers began to come in. And a year later, thanks to huge press interest and the growing fashion for underwear as outerwear, sheer clothes and prettiness, they had to queue.

Inside the tiny shop was sexy lingerie sold in a way that was fun and giggle-behind-the-hand naughty. It was intentionally seedy, and although the shop did attract its fair share of voyeurs, these were Nineties voyeurs: young women, men, (some dressed in Macs), transvestites, celebrities and fashion junkies for whom suspenders, corsets, quarter-cup bras and marabou feather mules in all colours of the rainbow, were cool.

Corre is very serious about erotica. His home is a palace to it, his mum and dad were modern-day pioneers of it, and he has never shied away from explaining why he loves it. "I grew up with erotica around so I suppose it was normal to me," he says. His interest is certainly not contrived, it's genuine. Ask him if he saw a gap in the market for Agent Provocateur and he'll tell you it's not about marketing, not at all. In fact, he finds the whole business of marketing totally devoid of interest. "Why do what everyone else is doing? Everything that is marketed is boring. It's all the same. I'm only interested in what is sexy."

For "sexy" read Fifties pin-up, Lolita, Dominatrix, Las Vegas showgirl, Swedish au pair, Hot Gossip, Benny Hill's Angels, even Carry On Films. In fact every sexual stereotype invented this century has been recreated by Corre and his girlfriend and business partner Rees, through the underwear and erotic accessories they sell.

One year after its opening, Agent Provocateur had become not just the shop of the moment but a barometer of the times. In 1992 the world had been singing along to Madonna's single "Erotica"; in 1995 people had the chance to live it, at least in an abstract way. It became fashionable to talk about liking saucy undies. Instead of boasting "I buy three packs of white cotton G-strings from M&S", women would admit with a sly giggle, "It keeps me sane to know I'm wearing a sheer tulle pistachio knickers, bra and suspender set under my business suit." Both Corre and Rees are pleased with this change, which is even more evident now. As Corre says, "There should be no guilt attached to small pleasures. It's no big deal."

Corre's interest in small pleasures has created a successful business that continues to grow. Initially the shop sold English, French and Italian lingerie labels, and original Fifties underwear, but the need for a distinctive Agent Provocateur look culminated in the launch of their own-label underwear in spring 1995, which now accounts for 80 per cent of sales. There is also the jewellery range Precieux, co-designed with Erickson Beamon; themed raunchy bikinis; and the newly launched High Heel Heaven shoes. Last Christmas a mail-order catalogue was introduced, which so far has made in excess of pounds 120,000 in national and worldwide sales. A version of their Soho shop has even popped up within the Fiorucci store in Milan, and at Bon Marche in Paris. "It just about works,' says Corre, "but to really appreciate what we do you've got to experience it in the environment we create."

Next week there will be a completely new Agent Provocateur environment to experience as Corre and Rees open their second shop a stone's throw away from Sloane Street in Knightsbridge. Today it is still a building site, but next Monday it will be a boudoir par excellence. The Soho store is darkened and intentionally seedy looking. Knightsbridge, in contrast, will be bright, airy, precious and decorated in the style of 18th-century French boudoirs with pale green walls and chinoiserie motifs. The windows will feature scantily clad Geisha girl mannequins, which will undoubtedly attract attention as this shop is surrounded by far more respectable establishments than the Soho branch that is hemmed in by strip joints and sex shops.

For Corre and Rees this is a big, but necessary step. Their pet name for the new shop may be "Knickers to Knightsbridge", but the ready-made clientele among the Knightsbridge set who rarely leave SW1 to flex their gold cards will pounce on it with glee. Downstairs an extra-special boudoir room will be fully kitted out for VIP clients, of which there are many, ranging from supermodels to rock stars - "So we can give them privacy," says Rees.

Personal service is very much part of the deal at Agent Provocateur; customers, a 50:50 ratio of men and women who shop as couples, or individually, are encouraged to take as long as they require to choose and try on underwear. "Some can stay for two hours," continues Rees, "but we don't mind."

Last year the couple experienced their only major set-back when they launched a beauty contest to find Miss Agent Provocateur. "She was supposed to be curvy, sexy, bubbly, fun, and clever. But," admits Rees, "the winner was a total disaster, only out for herself." Rees now thinks Miss Agent Provocateur doesn't really exist, "Maybe in the boudoir, or maybe she's inside every woman." Who knows. "But it was a great excuse for a party," says Corre, with a twinkle in his eye, as he and Rees head off to check that the builders have finished their parquet floor.

Agent Provocateur opens its second shop on 1 December at 16 Pont Street, London SW1 (0171-235 0229).

The original store is at 6 Broadwick Street, London W1 (0171-439 0229). For mail-order enquiries call 0171-287 5001.

Left: leopard mules, available in pink or brown, pounds 95. Right: selection of the Alice in Wonderland-style playing cards which make up the Agent Provocateur mail-order catalogue

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