Bras and Bankruptcy: What’s Going On At Agent Provocateur?

Catherine Clavering is the Founder of Kiss Me Deadly, a retro-inspired lingerie label for femme fatales.

Agent Provocateur 2006 - Kate Moss

Agent Provocateur 2006

Agent Provocateur is probably the most famous lingerie brand in the world, at least in the English-speaking parts of it. Since last year, however, lingerie industry insiders have been grabbing the popcorn to watch the latest installment in the ongoing drama “What’s happening at AP this week?”



Until recently though, the average shopper likely had no idea what was going on. Businesses are like swans – all serene gliding on the outside and frantic paddling underneath.

Many corporate changes never make it out of the business section. They may seem like abstract, financial terms at first, but ultimately mean major changes for you. Often, those changes are about what you can buy and where you can buy it from. Put another way, I’m here to explain how bankruptcy affects your lingerie.

Agent Provocateur 2007 - Maggie Gyllenhaal

Agent Provocateur 2007

Now, please understand this is in no way a comprehensive guide to all the legal and financial issues doubtlessly present at AP headquarters. I’m British, and I run a tiny company with tiny accounting and tiny regulations to follow. Plus no one knows exactly what went down to turn a profitable, popular lingerie brand into one that needed to be sold right away, but here’s a summary of what’s happened so far.

A (Very) Brief History of Agent Provocateur

Agent Provocateur 2008 - Season of the Witch

Agent Provocateur 2008

Agent Provocateur started out as an independent British brand, originally founded, funded and designed by Joseph Corr√©, the son of Vivienne Westwood and his now ex-wife Serena Rees. Over the years, he’s given amazing advice to other small, independent lingerie brands, which I found only slightly challenging due to my inexplicable lack of family cash or contacts.

The first AP store was in Soho, London, historically an area associated with the gay scene, sex work and nightclubs, but considerably more gentrified these days. Agent Provocateur brought in fashionable, colourful lingerie with a distinctly edgy, sexual vibe, yet explicitly woman-focused marketing.

Agent Provocateur 2008 - Pirates

Agent Provocateur 2008

The brand grew considerably, but when Corre and Rees divorced in 2007, it had to be sold (I imagine it’s quite hard to run a business with your ex-partner). Corre’s final 20% of the company was sold a few years later (which means that for all his recent objections, he has no legal say in what happens next).

80% of the brand was sold to 3i, a private equity firm. It’s not unusual for investors to throw lots of money into promising small companies, but they have high expectations. Usually, they want very rapid growth (doubling or tripling every year or so), and a high profit margin (so that they can get back the money they paid to help you grow, plus more money to have made it worth their while).

Agent Provocateur 2009

Agent Provocateur 2009

That means investment can be a mixed blessing. It’ll help you get much bigger if it works, but the price may be that you lose control of your own brand. On average, investors tend to shy away from businesses run by women, people with disabilities, people of color, and other marginalised groups. Make of that what you will.

In the case of Agent Provocateur, however, investment seemed like a massive success story!

Problems Emerge at Agent Provocateur

Agent Provocateur 2009 - Superheroes, Superheroines, Comic Books

Agent Provocateur 2009

Of course, no transition is seamless and there were some early issues at AP. Some people critiqued the shift in marketing (away from provocative and empowering towards more conventionally man-pleasing erotica). Notably, far fewer actresses and supermodels have been featured in their campaigns since the change in ownership.

Industry insiders tell a few tales of original, niche, specialty suppliers being replaced with larger, (often) cheaper suppliers. Obviously, the design aesthetic has changed to some degree as well – though that could just be the result of trends shifting anyway. However, a common criticism is that Agent Provocateur became more “safe” or “commercial” after acquisition, as opposed to innovative or creative.

That said, it’s hard for a business to argue with increasing sales and profit margins. Businesses, after all, ultimately exist to make money, not to change the world with iconic imagery or radical aesthetics.

Agent Provocateur 2010

Agent Provocateur 2010

3i expanded the number of physical stores, entering the US, Russia, Dubai, Hong Kong, Canada and Australia. They revamped and continuously updated the websites, expanded the ranges and types of products, and introduced a lower-priced diffusion range (L’Agent) and a super-expensive range (Soiree), both of which have been featured on The Lingerie Addict.

As a result, Agent Provocateur dominated lingerie marketing, becoming one of the best known lingerie brands in the world.

Agent Provocateur 2011

Agent Provocateur 2011

Until very recently, AP was a small brand in 3i’s portfolio, but they consistently reported sales growth and a solid profit margin. For context, profit margins vary wildly between different types and sizes of business. Big supermarkets often only make a 1-2% profit, but that will translate to many millions, while a small, family-owned business with the same margins might only scrape into the 4 figures.

Margins in lingerie are tough, affected by the wide range of products and sizes, having to make and hold large amounts of stock, and the relative complexity of the product compared to most peoples understanding of the work that goes into it. So, in January 2016, most of us were duly impressed by a sales rise of 16% even though the profit was down. They were still turning over 61.7 million, with profits of 4.6 million (that’s in Sterling/GBP, the British currency).

Agent Provocateur 2011

Agent Provocateur 2011

And then…things started to go peculiar. Around November 2016, Agent Provocateur said that there had been “an accountancy error.” They had, in fact, lost money, somewhere around the 30 or maybe 40 million mark.

This revelation raised some eyebrows to say the least. 40 million isn’t the sort of spare change you might misplace. Investigations are still ongoing, but in the meantime what happened between January 2016 and November 2016 is a mystery.

Things Go South. Quickly.

Profit margins and losses tend to be abstract concepts for most consumers…except now they’ve turned into real changes.

Agent Provocateur 2012

Agent Provocateur 2012

3i announced an immediate restructuring. They said spending on expensive (luxury) goods in “key markets” was down, and that opening more stores wasn’t working. Physical shops are notoriously like black holes for cash because of the huge and inflexible costs of rent, taxes, employees and the like.

Agent Provocateur 2012

From the outset, it was pretty obvious Agent Provocateur was going to have to change the product range, target other markets, and close stores.

By 2017, 3i announced that restructuring alone wasn’t be enough. The business needed cash. And once a business can’t pay its way, if the owners aren’t able to put in enough cash to keep it going, it has to go into insolvency or what you call bankruptcy.

Agent Provocateur Goes Bankrupt and Gets Bought

Agent Provocateur 2013

Agent Provocateur 2013

Many people expressed an interest in purchasing Agent Provocateur. I was rooting for Theo Paphitis myself, the former owner of British label La Senza and current owner of Boux Avenue. But then the situation rapidly resolved itself in an altogether unexpected way.

AP went into a prepack bankruptcy. They’re in theory great for keeping the business running (i.e. perfect for a company still selling bra sets on a daily basis), but it means someone gets ALL the assets, none of the debt, and doesn’t have to stick to any previous contracts.

Agent Provocateur 2014

Agent Provocateur 2014

It doesn’t help that the company which bought Agent Provocateur has close links with Sports Direct and their rather notorious owner. They actually had to release a press release pointing out that Sports Direct did not own AP, presumably because it was significantly damaging for the two to be linked.

Yet the bankruptcy was STILL more complicated than anyone thought, because it only involved the British-owned bits. The US unit is separate! However recently, the US arm filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

What Does the Agent Provocateur Bankruptcy Mean for You?

Agent Provocateur 2014

Agent Provocateur 2014

In short, you can expect changes. The company will likely keep SOME of the stores, but not all of them. There will be closures and job losses, so if you love your nearest AP and its staff, head over there soon.

Stores in countries like Australia and Canada have already gone. Locations in Denmark, The Netherlands, Spain, Slovenia, Belgium, Mexico, Korea and Malaysia have also disappeared from the website.

Agent Provocateur 2015

Agent Provocateur 2015

In addition, expect the product range to be rationalised. L’Agent may disappear and possibly other ranges or styles too. Don’t expect an item you loved to be back next season, because the company will be taking a very close look at what sold and at what price. We might also see changes to marketing strategy or imagery again, though I couldn’t begin to guess what.

Lately, there have also been reports of customers not receiving their orders. AP attributed these issues to courier errors, but people are understandably concerned the company’s financial upheavals may be an influence as well.

Agent Provocateur 2016

Agent Provocateur 2016

Finally, spare a thought for those behind the scenes. When a company goes bankrupt owing money, there are strict rules for who gets paid and when. In the last decade, I’ve seen innumerable suppliers and manufacturers go into bankruptcy after a big company does, because it’s like dominoes.

Agent Provocateur 2016

Agent Provocateur 2016

The tiny lace company that made one special thing for last season and was counting on payment…the specialist stockings people who expected an order and payment every month as usual…and (this is real) the Moroccan garment company who was owed over ¬£500,000 (roughly $634,000).

These suppliers are all “unsecured creditors” and they will get fractions of what they are owed and be lucky to survive at all. Please also spare a thought for former employees, who will now be out of work.

Agent Provocateur 2017

Agent Provocateur 2017

Whatever happens next, it’s sure to be interesting. But it’s also a good reminder to support the companies you approve of most – whether that’s in terms of design, marketing or working conditions. It’s complicated (and, quite honestly, researching bankruptcy was not the highlight of my week), but I hope I’ve managed to help explain what’s going on at one of the world’s most famous lingerie brands.

Agent Provocateur 2017

Agent Provocateur 2017

TLA Readers: if you had been in charge of Agent Provocateur for the last ten years, what would you have changed?

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Cora Harrington

Founder and Editor in Chief of The Lingerie Addict. I started TLA in a small studio apartment in 2008. Since then, it's become the leading lingerie blog in the world, and has been featured on the websites for Forbes, CNN, Time, Today, and Fox News. I believe lingerie is fashion too, and that every who wants it deserves gorgeous lingerie.

16 Comments on this post

  1. Martin says:

    It was an interesting article and I traveled to London a lot from 2005 to 2009 and AP as you call it kept the same space at Sellfrege’s (spelling) and the sales staff were always in garters, however as someone who had very good earnings, I felt that the lingerie was too expensive. You can’t expect to have totally cool photos with very expensive models and stylists and sell to a very small crowd. This looks more like a story of cooked books and the opportunity of the founders to sell it off to buyers that did not know how limited this market really is.

    • Robin M says:

      Agree with the idea that the accounting “books” may have been the biggest financial downfall.
      But Re: “A very small crowd”…it only exists where AP refused to grab hold of 1) global commerce (digital+ store melded together) and 2) the growing global luxury market. Operations & Strategy that are decades old are 100% hindrance to growth… the self-imposed segregation of inventory and customer sales to be within a specific country blocked the very freedom customers want (and receive elsewhere). 3rd point, mentioned below, cannibalizing the top tier AP lines with L’Agent. Overall global wealth is growing- albeit with more polarization between haves & have nots. But there are enough holidays and faux-holidays in a year to find ways to expand the AP trial of product & convert into regular customers. The PRODUCT however cannot lapse in quality or design and expect to grow the user base.

  2. Gary says:

    Very good article. Thanks!

  3. Robin M. says:

    Update: my AP box was delivered today (2 sale items), and no delivery issue.
    Sale ended this past weekend (approx July 15)…. thank goodness I don’t need a size exchange!

    Additional big comments to add:
    1) AP as a company has done a horrible job of using the customer data they have (e.g. all of your sales history, product & category likes). I have been a very good lifetime customer, even though finances have made it bumpy/uneven lifetime… but still long term Soiree customer.
    HUGE Marketing fail, as tapping your own core customers is much more profitable than ad budget spent looking for customers who don’t balk at price tags. Plus, once you have clean digital customer data, you can use it to fond other digital shoppers of a similar lifestyle & purchase habits.
    I’ve cross shopped via UK phone customer service (back when phones were answered!!!), USA online, UK AP boutique w/in dept store, the 2 local California stores, and via phone to the NYC homebase store. THAT is not enough customer data to make them want to market to me????? #MarketingFail #CompanyFail
    2) Segregation between countries (from customer data to literal inventory) has not at all helped deliver to a customer whenever/wherever she wants.
    3) Design “sharing” within the AP line. I was just on Net-a-Porter an realized the AP “Terri” (circa ?) is almost identical to the just off sale AP “Zindie”… same concept, but the fabric seems to have different texture. The Dioni I & II (as I called them to differentiate) were another example.
    Repeating the same design will not grow business at scale. I can count at least 5 color versions of the Lorna over the last few years (and same with the Margot).

    AP Industry leadership died years ago… creatively as well as their apparent “internal” business issues.
    As longtime customer, not happy to say all this about the company!

  4. Vicky says:

    Thank you for writing this piece. I found out that AP filed for bankruptcy when I called the Toronto store to place an order since the store closet to me was already closed. I got a hunch that the brand was not doing well financially when a sales representative told me about the introduction of their Icons line. She described them as products with price points that are more approachable, and that was not a good sign for a company that sells luxury lingerie. I don’t make bad money, but it is difficult to justify spending that much money on lingerie when you know there are sales regularly. I did find myself paying for full retail on a number of the Icon pieces, so I thought that strategy worked. However, I also noticed that those designs are not as elaborate as the usual AP pieces; they remind me of L’Agent pieces a lot. Although I can only speak for myself, I do think a lot of people are finding it difficult to justify luxury spending these days. Housing prices are on a steady rise. Most people I know can’t even justify paying for Victoria’s Secret items in full retail. I always wonder how many people out there actually shop at AP when there is not a sale since there are not a lot of traffic in the store when there is no sale. I also think AP does not invest enough in e-commerce. As much as I love shopping in a store front, I do enjoy the convenience of online shopping. My online shopping experience with AP has been less than desirable thus far. I do hope AP would survive this since I adore Sarah Shotton and the brand.

  5. Robin M. says:

    I have an AP order in progress (from current sale), and am keeping an eye out from the recent reviews where orders have not reached shoppers. I have loved purchases, coveted many designs and grew accustomed to the quality of Soiree items. I was sad to see the diffusion line start… as I worried without a whole 2nd layer of staff for the line, that the primary AP line would suffer.
    I do understand the scale & volume expected of L’Agent was supposed to broaden the market… the USA market (in my view) seems to be rather tame (in design), and L’A was I’m guessing intended to be a stair step for customers to move up a class into AP lingerie. BUT as USA market seems to be very cost conscious, L’A may have pulled customers from the higher end as well as not gaining at the high end.
    Many articles also compared prior years’ AP designs to more recent L’A designs… stealing concepts from your own lines makes for tough times in expecting high price points to sell (when the cheaper line looks very close).
    Of the L’A products I have tried on, I found the fit, construction and fabric to be lacking in quality… scratchy fabrics, balcony bras that seem to fit much larger cups than AP line. (note: I am 32A in most USA sizing, so the original AP was blessing that a woman could look/feel awesome without needing over inflated Hollywood boobs).
    I’m not sure what the “Accounting issues” really are/were, but mass exodus of management is never a good sign.
    ALL across the retail space, brands are being demolished by private equity- as a brand really cannot serve 2 masters well at same time. IF customers are #1 priority, then it cannot be expected that customers will shop high end at just right time to create stock/dividend growth. In some ways I equate PE to loan sharks- they get a company out of immediate debt defaults, but usually pile on the debt (interest, and new “restructuring” debt), so that what is owed is even more.
    I understand the business side of a brand wants to grow, grow grow… # stores globally is a big ego boost, as well as money. But from the customer standpoint, I often want a brand to focus on their forte… keep me enchanted with new designs and fun high level details (e.g. the zippered cups of the animal print Madalyn years ago) rather than adding a multitude of new product lines.
    It will be interesting to see which lingerie companies stay at the high end, and thrive in the global market.

    • Kawai says:

      I completely agree with focusing on a strong collection rather than churning out new products. I feel SS2017 has been AP’s weakest collection by far and I wonder how much of this is due to the pressure to produce new products for monthly drops instead of focusing on one strong seasonal theme. I suspect that it was Malverdi who drove this decision? M’s prior experience is in running LVMH-owned fashion houses where the response to fast fashion has been to adopt the strategy of offering new products throughout the year and shortening production/delivery schedules. I’m not sure this strategy is necessary for lingerie. Lingerie is (generally) not worn to be visible in public and aside from the VS show, there isn’t a highly visible lingerie equivalent of designer runway shows/fashion weeks so customers are not nearly as concerned with showing off the latest trends. Although I can see monthly drops improving foot traffic.

      Anyway, I see that Malverdi left AP in April so maybe we will see a return to the old seasonal calendar?…

      • Robin M. says:

        Thanks for the insight on monthly drops… I dont see the exact need in lingerie either, especially if they are wanting to keep the high end “AP” cache!! Best customers will come back time & again for quality and design… not because they threw out last month’s $375 panty (a fast fashion mentality).
        On the flip side- as a customer I have always been frustrated with the overall lingerie store timing mentality of holiday & wedding – this is valentines, this is what you wear for wedding, this is what you wear for Christmas.
        I guess I’m looking for both the high end quality (vs monthly drop of lower quality), and the freedom for being able to find lingerie for myself (my purpose) without being shown only cream/offwhite/babyblue/babypink because it’s month of May.

  6. S says:

    Fantastic piece, and you featured my most regretted non-purchase (Fenella! One day my ebay alert may turn up with something…).

    It’s so sad to see the brand get less inventive and less luxe over time. Your photo selections for recent years are on the kind side… it’s been weird finding nothing at all of interest even in the mega sales. I did actually buy something in the latest one (Willa, 2015 – and it’s lovely actually) but that’s probably it for me from this brand now.

  7. Fleur says:

    Ah, that’s why the store in Rotterdam is gone! I found out about a week ago…

  8. Kawai says:

    I think there are a lot of factors to consider. Sorry for posting a veritable essay below but I have LOVED AP for over a decade, and it has really cut me to see its decline. Pls note these are personal speculations.

    – AP never fell into the post-2008 trap of perpetual discounting like so many American retailers but their annual sales (which would slash prices up to 80%+) are so extreme they defy logic. Now they’re discounting stock from the current season… Also, because everyone knows about the sales, the poor SAs in Toronto would get FLOODED with customers. Quality of customer service really suffered during sales. In recent years, the TO locations would have knickers shoved into big, unsightly bins while women stood around pawing through them – not exactly a luxury shopping experience. I mean, I did a lot of pawing myself but it’s not exactly great for brand image.

    – If you read Glassdoor’s reviews, it seems like the Soho party culture from the Rees/Corre days stuck around in HQ? This culture might have worked in the early days but it’s incompatible with the safer, international luxury powerhouse AP tried to grow into.

    – I don’t know what their sales database was like but as a customer, it seemed disorganized. At one point I was assigned to an SA who would send me personal emails but then this got mixed up with the general email signup and then at one point, I just stopped receiving emails period. Around the time there was some staff turnover.

    – AP’s brand may be outsized, but it always had very limited market share.

    – 2016-2017: Bricks and mortar retail in general is suffering; apparel is being hit hard. I’m not sure about the situation in the UK, but in N. America, it’s being called the “Retail Apocalypse.”

    – 2016: Garry Hogarth, who lead the company as CEO in the decade following the divorce of Rees and Corre, left. This may have played a large factor. I noticed that following the change to Fabrizio Malverdi, AP redesigned their site (unnecessary cost? Kudos for having a dark-skinned WOC on the website though.). Marketing lost the brand’s sense of humour. AP also shifted to monthly drops instead of two seasonal ones, mimicking fast fashion norms. Maybe this shift required costly changes in supplier contracts and such.

    – 2016: I’d have to do more research to determine if Brexit affected operations/sales but it’s a serious factor to consider. If AP has EU suppliers for example (French leavers lace?) or manufactured anything in the EU, they are affected.

    – 2013-2015: Years of rapid international expansion which must have been incredibly expensive with a steep learning curve in newer/emerging markets like China and Prague. Some locations didn’t make sense to me. I never understood why AP would operate two locations literally a five minute walk from each other in Yorkville, which is basically the most expensive commercial real estate in Toronto. I always thought this was basically pitting the two Yorkville stores against each other in terms of hitting their KPIs. W Queen W would have been a better location – in sync with the brand’s image and I see some $$$$ retailers with a long tenure there. My guess is AP should have rolled out more slowly, did more research, made sure the figures made sense.

    – 2013: launch of L’Agent diffusion line. I personally think some L’Agent designs were too similar to AP’s products, which cut into the sense of “exclusivity” of their designs (an AP strength). Honestly, I was wondering if they were sharing patterns between brands. I also started noticing a decline in quality in AP goods. I’m guessing they’re using the same factories to make AP as L’Agent wear?

    Yes, I know I’m completely obsessed. I hope this comment is at least interesting/informative to TLA readers! Thank you for posting this and for the trip down memory lane…

    • Catherine says:

      The relationship of quality between Agent Provocateur and L’agent is something that’s greatly interested me too. I recently tried on a piece, the “Cherrie,” by AP, and was severely disappointed. This is a bra that I went to the store CERTAIN I would buy. The itchy, straight-up neon lace reminded me so much of a particular L’Agent style that I passed up due to low quality – it was incredibly adorable in the lookbooks but disappointing in person. I know AP’s styles are manufactured in different locations depending on the style of the bra (which in a lot of ways makes sense), but I wish I’d checked the tags on both of these to compare the origin of make. Sorry, a total diversion from your original point (and the original post), but I wonder if this decline in quality of the parent brand is somehow a way to level out the, as you said, logic-defying discounts during sale time, which I would be curious to know how much of these periods account for AP’s actual yearly sales.

      • Kawai says:

        Oh I don’t find this a diversion at all! AW2016 and SS2017 seem to be the collections that blur AP and L’Agent the most and I’m not surprized to hear about your experience with Cherrie. Not only in terms of quality but price point. The cheapest AP lines like Lorna and Felinda are close in price to L’Agent more expensive lines, making it difficult for the customer to differentiate the two. I suspect Robin M is right – that instead of L’Agent creating a pipeline of new AP customers or consumers seeing AP as a brand for younger shoppers to grow into – I’m guessing L’Agent took customers from AP, customers who wanted to buy similar designs at a lower price point and didn’t care about the retail “experience” offered by AP boutiques.

        And I’d also like to know how important the biannual sales were for AP’s annual revenues. The sales periods are going on much longer – this latest one has gone on for a month or so – which suggests to me that AP has become more and more reliant on these sales over the years. Also, AP used to restrict sales to items that were at least two seasons old (ie. you would have to wait *at least* one year for discounts on a current season). I think it was around 2015 or 2016 when they started discounting items on the “New In” pages? If you know new items will be discounted in a matter of months, why not just wait?

  9. Sarah says:

    Catherine,

    Thank you so much for such an informative piece. I had seen news about a few of the AP stores closing but I had no idea they were bankrupt and bought. It seems like a number of major brands are struggling these days. Always good to hear the inside scoop!

    • Catherine Clavering says:

      Thanks! I wasn’t sure anyone was really all that into the corporate details of these things but it seems like folks have been noticing changes and wondering why.

  10. Larry says:

    I have been a great fan of AP I only buy when the sale is on as $350 panties doesnt make any sense Except for one incident at a AP store where they forbade me to try on a bra (while in the dressing room with no other customers around) I have always been treated with respect as a gentlemen who loves to wear I find the L Agent brand less appealing mainly from the over saturation of the market which always led to deep discounts I hope AP survives as the quality and the eye candy of their products are very appealing and makes me open my wallet to them

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