Sarah Shotton does not design with men in mind. “I really design for myself, and for women,” says the creative director of irreverent British lingerie brand Agent Provocateur, who knows a thing or two about making women feel fabulous. The flame-haired designer recalls trying to buy underwear when she was growing up, and how the experience shaped her understanding of the challenges that come with updating your lingerie drawer. “I couldn’t get underwear to fit me at a very young age,” she says. “I was very curvy and the only underwear you could get for my size at the time were really ugly, kind of granny bras.”
Shotton’s history with the label is a long but unlikely one. “I had never thought about designing underwear at all,” she says. “I studied [fashion design] at Central Saint Martins and I’d kind of got it in my head that I wanted to be a buyer, even though I was really not very good at maths.” It was only after a friend mentioned that Agent Provocateur was hiring that she started on the road that would eventually lead her to designing for one of the world’s most recognisable lingerie brands.
Since joining founding duo Joseph Corré and Serena Rees, then husband and wife, at the label in 1999, Shotton has worn many hats, working as a shop assistant, window dresser, merchandiser and – for the past seven years, following Corré’s departure – as creative director. She remains thankful for the decade of experience she gained before she was asked to step into her current role. “I started from the bottom, I understood the business, I’d been on the shop floor, I’d worked on the windows, I’d helped open the LA store,” Shotton says. “If I hadn’t worked on all of that, I wouldn’t have been able to do the job today. I’m really grateful for those 10 years.”
With her long tenure at the cult label, it may appear to have been a carefully cultivated rise through the ranks, but Shotton insists she never had a grand plan. “I was Joe’s right hand, I suppose, but I never thought it was ever going to happen.”
Agent Provocateur has gone through remarkable changes down the years, with production moving out of England to factories worldwide, and the company expanding into ready-to-wear and creating more in-house lines. Throughout this growth, one constant has been a total focus on giving women a fun and flirty shopping experience. “Because of all the problems that I’d had getting underwear for myself, I really felt for women, because it’s quite intimidating putting underwear on,” Shotton says. “At Agent Provocateur, it was a very ‘all the girls together’ sort of thing.”
This desire to make women feel comfortable resonates with the loyal (and growing) Agent Provocateur crowd: from the stores and the sales assistants clad in playful pink to the lingerie itself, the whole experience is designed to make anyone who steps into the shop feel welcome. “Once women get their foot in the door,” Shotton says, happily, “they’re hooked!”
Asked who the typical Agent Provocateur woman might be, Shotton is clear: it’s not about a person, it’s an attitude. “I’d like to think that the Agent Provocateur lady is any age, any shape, any personality,” she says. “When you go in and find a lingerie set that you’re in love with, and the shape that works for you, that makes you feel empowered when you put it on, then you become an ‘agent provocateur’.”
From the range of styles and accessories on the shelves, there’s certainly something for every kind of girl. With black lace stockings, bodysuits and bras, and nipple pasties that would make even the most adventurous blush, Agent Provocateur can’t be accused of taking itself too seriously. But that’s not to say that the products are only a bit of fun;new ideas are explored each season and quality manufacturing is the lifeblood of the brand’s success.
“I won’t use anything that I wouldn’t wear myself,” Shotton says. “We push boundaries. We make in Wales, in Morocco, in Italy, in China … we make where the expertise is. We just have to find places that understand the product. We use a lot of fabrics from Europe: Swiss embroidery, Italian silk, ready-to-wear laces. I don’t think there’s any other lingerie brand like Agent Provocateur. It’s not just a padded bra – we’re designing a whole look.”
The spring/summer 2017 collection offers bright and bold styles inspired by the ’70s and ’80s, from activewear worn by rock climbers of the day to the glam ferocity of the era’s Italian fashion powerhouse, Fiorucci. Overblown sequins and paillettes trim high-waist briefs, while a sheer power mesh overlaid with neon-bright cherry appliqués gives a saucy edge to full-cup bras. Asking Shotton to pick a favourite seems impossible. The Riva and Cherrie sets, the Cora dress and the Sofiia bra all get a mention, though the Sheyna playsuit may just edge ahead. “It’s a proper climbing playsuit,” she says of the piece that’s pretty much hot-pink straps, karabiner shackles and not much else. “It’s amazing! I love that. It’s quite kinky.”
So how do Shotton and her design team (“I couldn’t do it without them,” she insists) come up with the theme and campaign for each season? “It’s really personal,” she says. “We don’t follow trends; we don’t get prediction people in. It’s just more what I’m feeling at that time.” Once an idea takes shape, Shotton is at her desk, sketching. “I’m terrible with computers,” she continues. “I like to have a proper sketch, and I like to see how that bra is going to fit around the body. When you’re hand drawing something, you really have to think about where the line is going and how it’s going to fit. I’m picturing it going around the body.”
Designing for women of all ages and shapes is important to Shotton, and knicker sizes online range from XS to XL, with some bra styles running up to an F cup. “As women, we dress to our mood, and I think underwear is the same,” she explains. “There have been times when I haven’t been able to wear Agent Provocateur – when I was pregnant, when I was breastfeeding – and I had to wear other bras, but you just don’t feel the same.” Her experiences in and out of Agent Provocateur lingerie clearly shape her approach to designing and the bigger brand picture. “I’d like to get to the point when any kind of underwear that you want to buy, whether it’s a sports bra or a maternity bra, we would have everything,” she says. “I’d like it to be the place to go if you need any kind of underpinning.”
And with the newly extended ready-to-wear line going from strength to strength, Agent Provocateur isn’t resting on its laurels. Industry veteran Fabrizio Malverdi, formerly of Dior Homme, joined as CEO in the spring of 2016, noting that expansion into Asian markets would be a focus for the next few years. And thanks to that Instagram snap of Beyoncé sharing her recent baby news while sporting one of the brand’s bras, global domination may be closer than ever before.
What else is on the cards? “We were known for our parties and shows,” Shotton says. “I think we might get back to that – get the stores up to date, get the fun back. But my main focus” – she smiles – “is to make sure that there’s something for every type of woman.”