Serena Rees made Agent Provocateur, the lingerie label she cofounded, a nineties to—literally—naughties Shangri-La of boudoir dressing. Here she talks about the new love in her life, LesGirlsLesBoys, and how this era-defining, sexually fluid, bed-to-street, new concept brand is not just about a new twist in knickers.
Interview KARL PLEWKA
Beauty Papers: Tell me how your new brand LesGirlsLesBoys came about.
Serena Rees: After I’d sold Agent Provocateur, way back in 2007, I was approached by everybody you could possibly think of to go and head up their brands, buy their brands, or do a new thing. I just thought, “No, I’ve done that.” And I didn’t think I’d ever make another pair of knickers in my life, but here I am. However, the main reason I did it was I just looked at what was going on with brands like Agent Provocateur, Victoria’s Secret, whoever. I looked at what was going on on social media. I looked at how these young kids, the millennials and Gen Xers that I had around my kitchen table, because they are my daughter’s friends, and listening to how they are, and what they think, and how they interact with each other, and it just occurred to me that this over-sexualized, unreachable aesthetic for bodies was really hard for these kids, it’s making them sick and this cannot continue in the way that it has. Something has got to change. I think, in a way, this (LegGirlsLesBoys) is a response to that. It’s bringing it back and saying, “Listen, it’s a new kind of sexy, because the most sexy you can possibly be is to be you”, rather than trying to be a, I don’t want to say this word, a Kardashian or a whatever. It’s like, “Be you. Be down with who you are. It doesn’t matter about your sexuality. It doesn’t matter if you’re gay, or you’re straight, or you don’t know what you are, or you’re everything, or you’re nothing”
BP: So would you say your new brand is era-defining?
SR: I think for this generation it’s that time, socially and politically, for change, as we are seeing this everywhere, especially with the whole gender divide and what’s going on in the workplace and everything. I just think it’s a timing thing that’s right. It’s the complete antithesis of what I’ve done before. I think what we did at Agent Provocateur way back in the ‘90s, was that we were kind of saying, “Hey, listen, it’s okay to be sexy. Be in charge of your own sexuality. Show it if you want to, but don’t if you don’t. It’s your power, and use it as you will.”
BP: But did you feel people abused this power?
SR: Yes, because then what happened was people started showing a bit, and then it got a bit more, and a bit more, and it’s grown in that 25 years, to where we are right now, and it can’t go any further than that, and it needs to be pulled back. You can see the negatives of what that’s done to the next generation, and how they feel, and the anxiety they feel, and all these mental health issues and stuff that they’re now happy to talk about, because that’s how they share. Which is great because it also opens up a conversation.
BP: So politics aside, what were the other significant factors in the creation of LesGirlsLesBoys?
SR: The other important thing was that it was accessible. That it wasn’t high-end, crazy luxury prices. You can just have it every day. That was the idea, and I wanted it to be born digitally. I wanted it to be a digital brand, but when really amazing department stores, like Selfridges and Nostrums come knocking on your door, you’d be a fool to say no. And although retail, bricks and mortar, is a difficult thing these days, I still love a shop, and I love a retail experience. I’m not going to shut the door.
BP: One of my first thoughts about this product is that it feels great. It’s got a real feeling of luxury. Therefore do you feel that it’s as easy to sell it through a digital platform as it would be in a physical sense?
SR: No, it’s not that easy. It’s not as easy as one would like. I find it frustrating, because I’m a visual person, so if something looks great I want it, but also, I like to touch and feel the fabric. Once you know the brand, it’s okay. There are habits in the way people buy underwear, especially boys. It seems like the majority of the world—in countries where people are buying underwear—that boys buy packs of three pants in size medium, regardless of whether they’re a medium or not.
BP: That’s what I do. Because there’s no choice.
SR: Yeah. And it’s annoying. But we have to make that too, because that’s what stores want. Equally, they know they like it. Or even their moms still buy it for them, because every Christmas, she knows he wants another pack of Calvin Klein’s and that’s what they get. It’s like, pants and socks. Then girls are different, and they buy differently. But I want to change that, and that will take time. I do like retail. There needs to be retail. Retail’s not dead. I really don’t believe it is.
Be you. Be down with who you are. It doesn't matter about your sexuality. It doesn't matter if you're gay, or you're straight, or you don't know what you are, or you're everything, or you’re nothing
BP: When I tried on your under pants on for the first time, I was like, “Oh my God, these are exactly what I’ve been wanting,” because they’re low cut and they just look, well, sexy. Men’s underpants are not an easy thing to pull off. So how do you approach the design of something like that?
SR: I suppose working with the underwear is very much what LesGirlsLesBoys is about. There are items that they can swap, there are items that come in fabrics for both girls and boys. For example, girls will wear some of the boys’ shorts, and vice versa. But bras are bras. Who wears them? It doesn’t matter. Who cares? But a bra is made for a female anatomy, and that’s it. The majority of the boys’ pants are made for a boy’s anatomy. With girls’ underwear there are a gazillion different cuts and shapes you can make, and with boys, there aren’t as many. It doesn’t work, so you have to just work within those parameters, especially in the beginning, because when you launch a brand you cannot have every single shape, style, colour that you want, and so it’s quite limited, so you’re quite narrow in the width of what you can have, because you’ve got to develop it. Underwear takes a lot of development. If we want to have really great prices for our customers, we have to buy large quantities, it’s the age old problem of a new brand. You can only do so much to start with, and slowly, we just start to introduce more and more, and try to change peoples’ ways a bit, and give them more choice and more opportunity. Basically, at the end of the day, men buy what they buy.
BP: LesGirlsLesBoys is obviously a lot simpler in design than Agent Provocateur was. Would you say that the design process, or the approach to the design of a simpler garment, is just as difficult as something which is quite complex and constructed, like an underwired bra?
SR: We do make underwired bras, and really, really good ones, which are great quality, and we sell them at an amazing price. Actually, it’s the same quality, if not better, than high end brands. We do still do that, because that’s construction and you have to have that, but we also do softer things. They need to look good on all sizes, and you’re working in a different way, and so there’s a lot of technical issues there, in the same way that there is for something that looks more complex. It’s just as complex, even more so, making a sports bra or something. That’s all pretty complicated. Then it’s about fabrics. It’s choosing fabrics that you know feel good, that feel good next to the skin. It’s intimate, and you want it to feel good.
BP: Since you started, what’s been more successful, the underwear or the more sporty pieces?
SR: In the beginning, you have to guess, with your buy, with everything you’re doing and that includes the percentage of underwear to what we call, ‘bed to street’—so there’s actual true underwear, then there’s T-Shirts, and sweats, and vests, and things. So the percentages ran true to what we actually thought was going to happen, and actually, men’s versus women’s is also in line with where we thought it was going to be, but men’s I’ve felt is a bit more tricky. We just need more male customers, if I’m honest.
BP: So the women’s sales have proved a lot stronger?
SR: Yeah, but we always knew it was going to be, but we want to bring those boys up. We’re where we thought we’d be, which is extraordinary. We’re ahead of ourselves in some ways, but we’re where we thought we’d be, and we’ll just grow. We’ve just launched our second season, so we’ve only been going since September 2017. That’s seven months. And we’re just launching our spring/summer collection, and we’re going to launch swim soon.
BP: Swim? Oh, great. For men and women?
SR: Yes. Not in a huge, enormous, all singing, all dancing way, but in a good way. In a really good way. I shouldn’t really talk about it though, because we’re not there yet.
BP: Can we mention it?
SR: We can mention it, but we shouldn’t go into depth. We’ll talk about that again. I’m really excited about swimwear, because I’ve watched how these kids are, over a period of time, growing up in my house. All my daughter Cora’s friends that come by. All the people that used to stay over, and then they’d all get up in the morning and you’d hear about the night before. Who was hanging with who, and watching how they hang out, whether it be on a holiday, or at home, or before they’re going out, or getting ready, or when they got back. If I’d hung out in bed with a guy after a party in my underwear when I was their age, I would definitely have shagged him. These guys, no, it’s not always about that.
BP: Sex? It’s weird, isn’t it? It’a a whole different thing now.
SR: Yes. They’ll hang out in bed and be in bed and it’s like, “Oh, who’s that guy you’ve got up there?” “Oh, he’s just so and so.” It’s really different, and I love the way that it didn’t matter about sexuality. The girls with straight boys or gay boys. Even straight boys will hang out with gay boys. Everybody will hang out with everyone, and I really love that, and I thought that was really interesting.
BP: It’s so much more inclusive?
SR: Yeah. Then they swap all their stuff, I love that, and I just watched that happening and developing over a number of years, and I thought, “Oh. I’ll just watch what goes on around me”, which is what we do all the time, really, but we’re not really aware of it, and it all goes in, and you’re always thinking and always seeing, and then you compute it and then it comes out, and then that’s what we’re doing. I’m trying to involve them as well, because I think it’s really important to not have just us established people that know what we’re doing, and you do need some of that, of course, but to have some other voice, and other ideas, and input.
Bras are bras. Who wears them? It doesn't matter. Who cares? But a bra is made for a female anatomy, and that's it.
BP: I’ve noticed that in previous interviews you talk about diversity, and I think a lot of people, at the moment, think about ‘diversity’ as being racially inclusive but you’re taking about it being more about, well, everything.
SR: Diversity’s a real buzz word, isn’t it? But yeah, it is. It is about just them being them, and they don’t even know what that is sometimes, so it’s even diverse for them, because they will go through, what am I? Who am I? What am I feeling about that person or about sex? It’s about connections. A different kind of relationship, rather than like, you love your friend. You love your best friend. You love your gay best friend. You love your boyfriend. You love your girlfriend. You love your whoever. It’s about those kind of connections. Or somebody comes into your world and they’re a new friend and it’s not necessarily sexual, but it could be, which is also good.
BP: And I hope LeGirlsLesBoys includes people my age too? (laughs)
SR: Yeah. Well, we all wear it. I’m wearing it. Everybody wears it. The thing is, we expected younger people to want to aspire to what the older kids were having, but actually, what’s happened more than anything, the growth on either side of that parameter has been the older customer, because they recognize the quality. They get it. They get what we’re talking about, whereas the other kids are just in it. But we’re getting it, and it’s like, actually, we don’t want to be in a trussed up thing that’s about full on sex. It’s like, we want to feel good, we want to look good, and it doesn’t have to be so. It’s the same with our clothing, what people are wearing now compared to what we wore in the ’80s or ’90s, or whatever. Now everyone’s in their trainers and whatever
BP: Talking of trainers, I read someone described the girls’ knickers as having a ‘sporty Corinne Day feeling’, and I thought, “”Corinne would be really happy about that association.” I was wondering if she was on the design room mood boards?”
SR: Corinne was totally on the mood boards, but also, do you know what? I remember in the early days of Agent Provocateur and I used to work in the shop, and she used to come in, and AP was so ‘anti’ what she was about. But actually, she would go through this pot of bits and bobs and find the ‘Corinne’ pieces every time. She loved rummaging in there, and would pull out loads of different things. Then recently, just looking at all her images on Instagram I thought, “Oh my God. That’s so spot on to who we are and what we are now”. I loved it that she found her way in my environment, because I think, actually, my environment wasn’t really where it was meant to be.
Things go in a direction and they’ just take off. But I liked her, at that time, in the early ’90s, it was her take, or my take, or somebody else’s take on it. It had room to be other things, but then it got into this brand that had been going on forever, and it was that, and that’s what it was, and that’s what it will remain. It doesn’t move, and it doesn’t change. I like the way how different people, what they mix it with, how they do it. What they want to show. What they don’t want to show. I like that.
It is about just them being them, and they don't even know what that is sometimes, so it's even diverse for them, because they will go through, what am I? Who am I? What am I feeling about that person or about sex? It's about connections.
BP: I wanted to ask you, on a personal level, we’ve known each other for a long time and when I think of you, it’s funny, I always think about your perfume. It always makes me think of you. There’s not many women I know that I think of in that way. What would you say is more important, the right bra and knickers, or the right scent?
SR: That’s difficult. Wow. I have to say the right bra and knickers, I’m afraid. Let me think about it, because there’s also, maybe, if you wear the right underwear, then your own natural pheromones will come out, and then you’re going to be the right smell anyway, and make yourself attractive to whoever you want to be attractive to, perhaps.
BP: I love perfume, but I’m like a fragrance whore.
SR: I’m very loyal. I am a very loyal person. I keep my friends for a long time. How long have we known each other?
BP: Nearly 30 years.
SR: Yeah. We might not see each other every day, but it’s like yesterday when we do see each other. I’m loyal and committed to my friendships, my relationships, my whoever, and my fragrance, and probably the way I dress. I’ve probably been wearing a wide-legged trouser for I don’t know how long. I’ve probably been wearing Westwood shoes for I don’t know how long either.
BP: We do get a bit of uniform with age, don’t we? And I think that’s good, because we know ourselves more as we get older.
SR: Yeah. I know my shape. I know what works for it. It’s not really going to change, unless I go to Barry’s Boot Camp every day, and then maybe.
BP: I’ll go with you if you want.
SR: I went once in New York and it was hilarious. Christy Turlington was next to me. I was just like, “Oh. I want that body. She looks amazing.” She looked incredible. She was strong as anything. Yeah. I am. I think it’s a loyal thing. But I’m really excited, because I want to work on fragrance again in a new way. Also, this fragrance I wear, by the way, I did make it (for Agent Provocateur)
BP: Have you stockpiled it?
SR: I have got a stockpile.
BP: I can’t imagine you without it, Serena.
SR: I know. Well, I do want to work on beauty and fragrance, but in a new way.
BP: Great! So can you talk about what your expansion will entail?
SR: We want to obviously grow this brand. It’s a completely different kind of challenge, and a different way of working, which I find does really excite me and energizes me. I like to learn new things, and I’m learning a lot, because it’s so different, what I’m doing, and the way in which we’re doing it, and the time in which we’re doing it. And so, yeah, I think there are many other areas that we can go into that are relevant, and not just for the sake of doing it, that will come in time. But don’t run before you can walk. I want this to be a dynamic company, and I want it to do well, and I want to be able to get this message out globally. We’re already in quite a lot of countries. Well, the thing is, when you’re online, you’re available all over the world, practically. I think we ship to 54 countries, or something ridiculous. I don’t know. Loads. Yeah, I’m excited about growing other areas.
BP: You’ve said that the brand is about fluid sexual identities rather than gender fluid. What do you mean by that?
SR: There are items that can be worn by all sexes, and they can be shared. I suppose the fluidity is about whatever your sexuality is one day or not, whether you are whatever gender you are, or you’re not, or what you want to be seen as, or you’re not. That’s the fluidity of it. It’s also the fluidity of those love, friendships, connections that I was talking about earlier. They’re not permanent. They’re not all the time. They change. That’s the fluidity of it. It’s like a freedom. It’s just do what you want when you want, and depending on how you feel.
BP: I think you’ve done the same thing now that you did with AP, because with AP, when you opened the shop you couldn’t find the right things, so that made you design your own line. This is exactly what you’re doing now, right. Because there’s a hole…
SR: Exactly. I have a wide range of friends and people that I connect with, so I’ve got all of Cora’s friends, and their friends, and I’ve got all the people I’ve worked with my whole life in the fashion world. I’ve got some older friends, younger, and then somewhere in between all of that. They all go, “Oh, God. I can’t find … Where do you buy your underwear now? Blah, blah.” And boys. It’s just hard, and you have to search it out, which is exactly the reason Agent Provocateur happened, because we wanted these things to exist, and they only existed in our imagination. You or I might have been able to find the perfect short, or the perfect Y-front, or the perfect whatever because we would go all over the world. We’d go to every store. We’d find it. And we didn’t even have the Internet, but we would find it. But not many people have that skill. And it was like that again. It was like, “Well where the hell do I go? There’s a bit here, and a bit there, and I might buy something in Paris.”
I suppose the fluidity is about whatever your sexuality is one day or not, whether you are whatever gender you are, or you're not, or what you want to be seen as, or you're not. That's the fluidity of it.
BP: The recent issue of Beauty Papers is themed around vanity and it’s become clear to me that people have very different opinions on this subject. I just wanted to ask you, is there a connection between what you’re doing and vanity?
SR: That’s difficult. I think it is definitely about the individual, because somethings, people think about that, and some people don’t think about it at all. Some people are so totally unaware that it has no connection whatsoever, and then people that are very aware who totally have a connection. Neither is good, nor bad. It doesn’t matter. Actually, maybe certain things make you more aware of that, perhaps. So, yes and no. It’s not really answering your question. I hate it when I ask people a question and they don’t answer yes or no.
BP: Well, it’s funny, because I think I experienced some vanity recently in Goa. I actually pulled down my shorts and showed everybody my LesGirlsLesBoys underpants, because I was so proud of how I looked in them.
SR: This is what we need everybody to do. That’s what I meant by you might put something on and you’re surprised, and you actually go, “Oh. Actually, that’s not bad.” I do this thing where I have an opposite vanity thing, that I think, “Oh yeah, I kind of look all right. It’s fine.” Half past four, go out, and then you see a photo and you think, “Oh my God. I thought I looked passable”
BP: Obviously, this always goes back to the thing where people forget that your underwear makes you feel better.
SR: It does.
BP: Whether that’s vanity or whether that’s style who knows? Or comfort? I don’t know, but when you’re wearing great underwear it makes you feel great, no doubt.
SR: It’s because it’s the thing closest to you. Closest to your skin. And then you’ve got other clothes on top. And also, a great something on top makes you feel great, but actually, the under bits are like the foundation to everything. And whether that foundation be proper foundation garments like corsets and that sort of thing that people were wearing way back when, to what people are wearing now. Because now, our foundation, we don’t really want to feel it too much. It’s got to fit with the clothing that we are wearing now. I think black lacey still works. It’s always going to work in some way, but I want it to be a bit more … a little more low key, rather than parading around the bedroom in a pair of heels and a lacy bra.
BP: I feel like we’ve moved on.
SR: We’ve totally moved on.
BP: I guess I have to finish off by asking you this, how vain are you?
SR: I don’t think I’m that vain, but that probably says it all, doesn’t it? I very rarely look in the mirror. I do in the morning, obviously, before I go out, but that is about it. I’m not one of those people that walks down the street looking at my reflection in the window of a store, like a lot of people I know. I have a lot of vain friends. Of course, we all care, but I don’t worry about it too much. I think, like I said, it’s kind of passable, and then you see a picture, and then, probably, people think you’re really vain, because you’re making such a fuss about how ugly and disgusting you look.
BP: I think you’re really photogenic. Do you not think you are?
SR: No, not at all.
BP: I hate pictures of myself but I really am NOT photogenic. I said to somebody one day, “Oh God, I just don’t look like this. I’m so un-photogenic.” She said, “I think it looks really like you,” and I replied, “Oh, thanks a lot.”
SR: Yeah. But that’s what worries me. You say I’m photogenic. That means you think the pictures look all right. I think they look shocking, and if that’s what I look like I’m very upset (laughs)