By Helia Ebrahimi
The First Lady is better known for shopping at more modestly priced High Street brands. But along with the the Queen of Qatar, Sheikha Mozah, she closed off part of Madison Avenue to spend time in the luxury lingerie shop. Their purchases contributed to a market-spanking 12.5pc lift in sales.
Agent Provocateur, which is styled on vintage Hollywood glamour, sells handmade Calais lace corsets that sell for up to £900, which could ruffle the feathers of more than just President Obama in an election year. Garry Hogarth, Agent Provocateur’s chief executive, refused to be drawn on the stores’ closely kept “secret client list”. But he admitted the brand had attracted a high number of “unexpected famous names” – especially in the US, where sales have overtaken the UK.
On the back of this growth Agent Provacatuer, which is owned by listed private equity firm 3i, is launching an aggressive expansion strategy with more than 20 new shops opening globally in 2012. Last minute purchases of lace corsetry and satin bras pushed Christmas trading across the eight weeks from November 27 up 8.1pc on a like-for-like basis and 15.2pc overall.
In the last 43 weeks, trading has been up 12.5pc on a like-for-like basis and 21.6pc overall, outstripping most of its retail rivals. The company’s lack of competition, celebrity status and up-market clientele have insulated it from problems endured by most rival retailers. In October, the company said full-year sales were up to £26.6m, with earnings rising to £3.3m from £1.2m the previous year.
“This is a real luxury brand,” says Mr Hogarth. “But now it is also being run with a strong business discipline. That has meant a lot of changes to the finance team, merchandising and production and planning. It also means negotiating on every rental contract – which is more than possible in this market.”
3i’s £69m purchase of the company at the height of the 2007 buy-out bubble left the private equity firm holding all the debt. Insiders say this costly misstep has ironically allowed the business to survive across two very difficult years of trading. Now, the company’s recovery is outpacing even 3i’s projections.
“The glamour of the AP brand is really powerful – it has a luxurious quality, that means people have a sense of walking away with a special purchase even when they are buying a pair of knickers,” says Mr Hogarth.
Creative director Sarah Shotton has said that it was her collection of vintage Playboy magazines that made her “want to re-introduce the sensuality and flirtation of the 70s into our campaigns”.