Lingerie is typically filled with the stale tropes of push-up bras and edible underwear, which make the Britain-born Agent Provocateur a rarity in the modern age. With undergarments that feel legitimately risqué, the label commands sugar daddy premiums for pieces ranging from lace woven with delicate body jewelry to shameless black leather kink.
As Valentine’s Day approaches, we asked lead designer Sarah Shotton an impossibly complicated question: How do you design sexy? Her answer was a mix of gender psychology, feminist philosophy, field testing, and instinct. Here are her responses, condensed and edited for clarity:
"Our [office] is like the female Bond-type office. It’s a sexy place. There are mood boards everywhere. There’s creativity everywhere. Things are designed by women in this place. The company is practically all women. All feisty women. We feel very empowered.
"I create by instinct. Normally how I design is I come up with an idea in my head, 'Wow I’d love that.' I think of a character. I get inspired by women in film. I put it on paper, get a drawing out, and I normally have a good feeling from there.
"As soon as I see something made, it’s yes, or no. If you have to try to make something look good, there’s no point. It’s gotta be an instant thing: Is it sexy? Do I want to wear this?"
"I think a little bit like a man anyway, to be honest. I don’t know. I’ve always hung out with the boys. I think if you hang out with men enough, you get an idea. I mean c’mon, you can wear a white pair of knickers sometimes, and as long as they're cut a certain way and sheer a guy’s gonna like it.
"I kind of know what men like as well because I was on the shop floor for a long time. Men are into different things. You have men into lace, others into white knickers. We all test it as well. Everyone takes it home to the partners and tests it."
"It’s very instinctive for me, designing this brand. I wasn’t trained as a lingerie designer. I went to fashion school, and I’m self-trained in lingerie. I don't think in a lingerie design way, but in a fashion type way. I get a kick out of the technicians saying, 'That’s not possible,’ and I say, 'We have to get it to work. How can we get it to look like that?'
"Everything you see on that shop floor is newly designed each season. A lot of lingerie brands recolor—they keep the same shapes, and they recolor. We design a new collection each season, so what you see on the shop floor is something new."
"With lingerie, it’s not something you wear just in the bedroom, it’s something you wear every day. If you’re not wearing a good-fitting bra, the rest of your outfit is not going to hang properly. And if you’re not wearing a good-fitting bra, you won’t hold your shoulders properly. If you have large breasts, you’re hunching over all the time.
"Good-fitting lingerie can make you feel much better just by the way you hold yourself.
"A lot of work goes into getting the lingerie on to the shop floor. Sometimes [a garment] can take six to eight fittings before it gets approved, so it fits all these different shapes and sizes—from a 32B up to an E cup or F cup."
"We make sure that the range of AP makes women feel confident, because if they feel confident, that’s the sexiest thing. It can blow men’s minds for women to say, 'Look at what I’m wearing.' I guess we’re always looking at lingerie through that lens.
"We know instantly how to make things work with your shape. We can make things out of elastic that make women’s bodies look amazing. That’s a factor for us, asking, is this making your legs look longer? Your waist look smaller?
"Lingerie does make you feel empowered. It’s your little secret. You can choose to show someone your lingerie, and it can be your [shared] little secret. There’s something really nice going into work and knowing you’re wearing a naughty pair of knickers under your skirt or trousers, and it makes you feel good.
"I had some babies, and I had to wear, like, maternity bras and stretch cotton [underwear] at one point, and I felt really sluggish and not very good about myself. You put on something that fits you well, and it gives you a skip in your step.
"A lot of feminists are like, but what are you talking about? Sometimes it is for the bedroom, but not all the time. We don’t just sell lingerie for bunking in; it’s also to wear every day. It’s made me feel really empowered."
"At AP, there’s gotta be a touch of like, 'Is this going a little bit too far?' We use a lot of fabrics that look rubbery. We have to push it. Sometimes we wonder, 'Has this gone too far? Is this sleazy?' But we know when it’s too much. We have to be on that line a little bit. We have to push things, because if we don't, we become like everyone else.
"There have been lines I’ve put out there where we get into a lot of arguments with certain people in the company, and they’re like, 'No I don’t get it.' But that’s how we cause trends, with people internally being like, 'I just don’t get it—Sarah, are people really going to wear this like a bra?' And it’s like, yes, trust me. You take a gamble and it goes manic and everyone wants it."