When intimates empire Agent Provocateur was launched in 1994, the lingerie market was split between the kinky and the matronly, with few undergarment options in between. Fueled by the Ladette movement and an era of sexual liberation, Agent Provocateur set out to fill this gap with a label rooted in theatricality and sensuality, with an undercurrent of female empowerment to boot. 25 years later, Agent Provocateur has become a cult brand. At the helm is creative director Sarah Shotton, a fiery redhead who has climbed up the ranks to become the woman in charge. To celebrate Agent Provocateur’s spring 2019 campaign, we sat down with Shotton to discuss the brand’s transformation, the influence of #MeToo on the lingerie industry, and why Agent Provocateur is more unapologetic than ever.
Where and how did your love of lingerie start?
When I was growing up as a teenager, curves were not cool. You had to be really skinny. I had a large chest growing up (double F) so I couldn’t get any sexy lingerie to fit me. I’d go to department stores to get a really nice bra and they would say, “Oh no, we don’t have that in your size.” They would give me these matron-like bras—”boulder holders,” we used to call them. My fascination with lingerie came from the fact that I couldn’t have access to it. I was heartbroken by this as a young woman, and it had a detrimental effect on me.
How has this experience influenced your work at Agent Provocateur?
During my first couple weeks working at Agent Provocateur, I spent my first paycheck on some lingerie—and it transformed my life. I immediately thought, “What have I been doing try to starve myself all this time? I have a great body, and there is lingerie that not only fits me, but makes me feel sexy and powerful.” Now I work extremely closely with the technical team on the fit of each piece we produce. Agent Provocateur fits on 34B, but also on a double D; we fit on a size 4, but also on a size 14. I want to make sure that no one goes through what I went through and that our designs fit women of varying bust sizes.
How has the brand evolved over the last two decades that you’ve been there?
In the 90’s, the humor was much more spanky-bottom and in the man’s gaze, and some of it was quite submissive. It was very sexual, which we still are today. This brand is absolutely about sex and liberating women, but the big change for me is that its about the woman’s—not the man’s—idea of what sexy is. In 2009, when I became creative director, I went back to the history of the brand,what made it so special and different. At its core, it’s a brand for the single woman. And I started to propel it forward by adding in elements other brands weren’t doing: strappy lingerie, underwear you could wear as outerwear, etc. I always want to keep a focus on fashion-forward and technically-challenging lingerie with elements of vintage.
How has the political climate of the last couple years, like the #MeToo movement, affected your role as a creative director?
People often ask me why I’ve been at Agent Provocateur for so many years, and I think the reason that this job has stayed so riveting is because we’ve had to change every couple of years based on the political and social climate. The main change for me during my time as creative director has been the #MeToo movement and the extremely important emphasis on diversity. I’ve been really grateful to be able to respond to these two things through my work with photographer Charlotte Wales. When we started working with Charlotte on last year’s Teyana Taylor campaign, we recommitted Agent Provocateur to being about the strength of the woman. The 90’s may have been about spanky-bottom, submissive humor, but with #MeToo that has gone out of the window. Unless of course, she’s doing the spanking and she’s the one in charge.
What is your main message with the Agent Provocateur’s SS ‘19 “Pump It Up” campaign?
After we did the campaign with Teyana, I really started to think about the role dance plays in a woman’s expression of her sexuality and femininity. I used to love exercise. Before I went to St. Martin’s for fashion design, I thought I wanted to be an aerobics instructor. For this year’s campaign, set to the iconic song “Pump Up the Jam,” by Technotronic, I wanted to celebrate the endorphins and the natural high of dancing‚—how good it feels to be making the most of your body and to love yourself and make the most of what you’ve got. Charlotte Wales and I hired an amazing troupe of 22 female professional dancers with strong, diverse body types. These women showed me that people come alive with dance, they lose their inhibitions when they dance. And I think putting on great-fitting underwear makes you feel the same way: Confident, strong, empowered.
But this campaign is also about being provocative. And we wanted it to be that way. That was intentional. It’s saying: “Be free. It’s up to you how you dress and how you move your body.”
What are some of your favorite pieces from the spring collection. I love the 80’s-inspired Marty Set, which uses color-blocking and is bright, fun, and easy to wear. It’s inspired by cult photographer Cheyco Leidmann’s hyper-real images. The Dora Set is a bit edgier and fashion-forward, and it features sheer tulle that is adventurous but can also be worn every day. I also love our ready-to-wear piece — the Jasper Jumpsuit. A statement piece in bold green, the design is stylish and can be worn day or night.
Where do you find inspiration?
Really everywhere. Mainly politics, galleries, traveling, happenings in society. I try to keep my eyes open all the time. I am really inspired by calm in my life — I’m a farmer’s daughter, so spending time in the countryside and in open spaces helps bring out the best in me.
Who is your style icon, and why?
I am fascinated by Kate Moss’ style. She is effortlessly chic and just so cool. Also, Julianne Moore, because she’s stylish and also a redhead and I’m a redhead, and us redheads have to stick together when it comes to fashion. I see what she’s wearing and then I can say, “I can wear yellow because she can wear yellow, even though people say we shouldn’t wear yellow.”
What is the best fashion advice you ever received?
Ironically enough, my mom always told me to “always wear a great fitting bra.” She always told me that a good bra could help with posture so that your clothes hang properly and support your boobs. Advice I’ve always listened to!
And the second is to invest in quality clothes. Ever since I was young, I’ve never liked fast fashion. I always saved and spent whatever money I had on one or two really nice pieces, like a special dress or coat, Vivienne Westwood or Jean Paul Gautier. It cost me a bit more money, but I still have those beautifully-crafted pieces today. And I’ve got a wardrobe of clothes that I’ve had for over 20 years.I still pull things out and go to work in outfits I’ve had since I was 17.
Favorite song to get ready to?
I love Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain,” The Cure’s “A Forest,” and Depeche Mode. I’m very eclectic with my music. It tends to be old music, but sometimes I like to mix it up with a little Nicki Minaj.
Currently on your shopping wishlist?
The Cate Dress from Vampire’s Wife. I can wear it with my trainers to go to work or I can dress it up with heels at night. I’m always either in trainers or heels. Which is a very London way to dress. Effortless style — a little disheveled with a touch of glamour.