The battle is hotting up in the £1.5bn lingerie market, as Agent Provocateur and Victoria's Secret take on the trusty favourite M&S
You can tell a great deal about a nation by a peek in the collective knicker drawer. Note, for instance, that while Marks & Spencer has found its market share in clothing eroded, underwear is one realm in which British women show a remarkable fidelity. M&S retains an impressive 27.4% of the lingerie market. Underwear is an emotional purchase, and that extends to five-packs of practical knickers cut to minimise VPL rather than maximise sex appeal. Women who have defected to value retailers for their kids' clothes and their winter woollies still buy knickers in M&S because they feel profoundly comfortable with the brand. Times may be hard, but there are certain things you just can't scrimp on: always buying your round, and wearing nice knickers in case you get run over. These are what your mum meant by Having Standards.
Knickers, being a cheap and cheering treat, tend to be recession-proof. Over the past four years clothing sales have been flat, but lingerie sales have risen slightly, by 0.6%. The UK underwear market is now worth £1.52bn, according to Drapers. Taking advantage of this opportunity, competition has hotted up this season with the arrival of two Victoria's Secret stores, including a Bond Street flagship. Agent Provocateur, the cult high-end British brand, has made two bold countermoves in response: this week it will stage its first fashion show in four years, while its own Mayfair flagship – just a few hundred yards away from Victoria's Secret – will open in time for Christmas. M&S, meanwhile, has kept itself firmly in the field with an upscale range launched under the name of the young supermodel Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, which became the store's fastest-selling lingerie range of all time when it hit stores in August.
The way lingerie is sold is a reflection of the sexual culture at that moment in time. It is because of this that Agent Provocateur can punch way above its weight in our popular culture. With underwear sets starting at around £100, it will always be a relatively niche product, but by tapping into the zeitgeist, it has created a brand that feels much bigger than it really is. Founded in 1994 by Joe Corre, son of Vivienne Westwood, and his then-wife Serena Rees, Agent Provocateur became a symbol of an aspirational, decadent London lifestyle. Bridget Jones namechecked the shop in her diary; Kate Moss appeared in a promotional video that crashed the website.
The politics of the lingerie market are complex. This is not a simple matter of berating the hypersexualisation of our culture. Agent Provocateur is a highly sexualised brand – never more so than now, when the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon has led to a boom in sales of what creative director Sarah Shotton cheerfully refers to as "the kinky stuff". (Apparently, the Whitney bra (£110) and knickers (£95), whose multiple elastic straps can be arranged in various permutations from the vaguely bondage-influenced to the properly rude, is flying off the shelves.)
Yet Shotton makes a case for the brand being a positive force for women. Its most recent promotional video starts with a young woman waiting at a bus stop when an elderly lady is mugged for her handbag. The young woman gives chase, and most of her clothes somehow fall off in the process, so that she chases and overpowers the mugger in her bra and knickers. It is silly, but funny, and the heroine is undoubtedly strong and feisty.
This week's Agent Provocateur catwalk show, Lingerie London, will raise funds for the Seven Bar Foundation, which funds microfinancing for women around the UK to start or grow their own businesses. When I suggested to Shotton that a work-based charity is not the most obvious link-up for a lingerie company, she was adamant that "this felt right because it's a charity about empowering women, giving them confidence. I feel strongly about this, because work was my big opportunity – it was through being at work that I got my chance."
Shotton's Agent Provocateur story is a beguiling one. Fourteen years ago, after studying fashion at Central Saint Martins, she took a job as an office junior at the brand, "which was kind of like an apprenticeship. I did everything, helping out with design or windows or admin or in the shop. That's how I learned." Shortly after joining the company, Shotton, a redhaired bombshell who resembles an English rose Christina Hendricks, tried on her first proper lingerie set, in turquoise tulle. "This was the 1990s, and everyone just wanted to be skinny, and I had these big boobs and bum. I tried this on and it made me feel so brilliant. I've never forgotten that." When Corre and Rees divorced, and the brand was sold, Shotton stayed on as creative director. She says she tries all the pieces on a size-8 and a size-16 model, to make sure everything that goes on sale works and looks good on both.
The Agent Provocateur brand may not have changed, but the sexual play-acting it has always experimented with perhaps takes on a rather different meaning in today's culture than it did when the company began nearly two decades ago. I suggest to Shotton, who is about to take maternity leave to have her first child, that women's sexuality in popular culture has taken a strange turn. "Sexy" has become less about something that women feel or do, and more about simply how they look.
"Oh, I totally, totally agree," nods Shotton. "I was talking to my partner about this, about how weird it is, all these young kids growing up thinking sexy is fake boobs and no body hair. Whereas what gives a woman sex appeal is confidence and energy. Wearing Agent Provocateur isn't supposed to be a display, it's supposed to be a secret that gives you confidence."
The face-off with Victoria's Secret is intriguing, because the brands could not be more different. Victoria's Secret is a commercial juggernaut. Such is the power of the company's payroll that half of the names on Forbes most recent list of the world's highest paid models were "Angels", as Victoria's Secret models are known. Some of the names on the list – for instance, South African 23-year-old Candice Swanepoel, the 10th-highest-paid model in the world – have almost no profile beyond their association with the brand.
When the Victoria's Secret Bond Street store opened there were rumours that upscale labels on the street didn't like the brand "lowering the tone", but there is nothing remotely titillating about the Victoria's Secret shopping experience. In 2011, 10 million viewers watched the brand's annual catwalk show on CBS, a programme that the company proudly points out is "the only one-hour network show dedicated to a single brand".
On the catwalk, the Angels wear tutus, headdresses and the elaborate feathered wings (hence the Angels name) as well as underwear. In contrast to the deliberately daring mood that pervades Agent Provocateur, the Victoria's Secret atmosphere is fiercely upbeat and wholesome, a Christmas shopping carnival parade.
There is nothing to take offence at in the Bond Street flagship – except, perhaps, an inexcusable amount of diamante. The shoppers are a mix of teenage girls with Topshop bags and tourists having their photos taken next to the wings. I have always found there to be something a little unnerving about the Victoria's Secret wings. Their staged and oddly infantilised sex-appeal remind me a little of Playboy bunny ears. And what do wings have to do with underwear, or with sex? Nothing, that I can see. But they have to do with being worshipped. And with glory. And with ideals of womanhood. And that's how you sell knickers.LingerieJess Cartner-Morleyguardian.co.uk © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds