INTERVIEW: Agent Provocateur CEO Garry Hogarth

Agent Provocateur chief executive Gary Hogarth talks to Kat Slowe about the company’s plans for rapid expansion, its new venture into bedding and why he prefers working for a brand.

“She likes to describe it as luxuriously naughty,” Agent Provocateur chief executive Garry Hogarth says of creative director Sarah Shotton’s design mentality.

“It’s by women for women. When Shotton took over from Joseph, she created designs to make women feel confident, sexy and comfortable rather than concentrating on what blokes fancy.”

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And, it is not just design that is progressing since former creative designer Joseph Corre – who notoriously refused an MBE back in 2007 – sold the business to private equity business 3i.

The sale famously took place after Corre, the son of British designer Vivienne Westwood, divorced wife and co-founder Serena Rees. It was after this change in ownership took place that Hogarth was brought on board to take the helm and a new strategy for expansion was born.

Hogarth informs us that he is planning to double the number of Agent Provocateur stores around the world over the next five years at an average rate of around 11 a year.

The company will be primarily concentrating on the US, Chinese and Russian markets. A sixth store will open in Moscow, this July, with further outlets predicted to roll out in the city and across the region in the ensuing months.

Agent Provocateur also has plans to open its first store in Amsterdam, Holland, before the end of 2011.

Hogarth says: “We have 55 outlets at the moment and the plan over the next four to five years is to double that. And that’s a combination of stores and franchises… From this year, America is now our biggest market and we have a number of new stores in the pipeline.”

Hogarth will be visiting Japan and Singapore this month to check out potential franchise partners in the countries.

“We have got some potential franchise partners that want to work with us there,” he says. “Because we always franchise stores in that sort of area, rather than operate them ourselves. It is a bit complicated.”

The Middle East will also see the launch of a series of new outlets. Agent Provocateur’s distributor in the Middle East currently operates four shops in the area, with another store opening early next year in Kuwait.

“We just opened in Beirut about two weeks ago,” Hogarth says. “It is a pretty cool place, Beirut, actually. It is very French and stylish, and most of the luxury brands are there. I recently met with our Middle Eastern distributor in Kuwait and he is busy exploring the multiple opportunities for expansion in the region.”

The company’s plans for rapid expansion played a significant part in the appointment of its new non-executive chairman Chris Woodhouse. Woodhouse is a director of Debenhams and chairman of Gondola Group Limited, the holding company for a series of restaurant brands including Pizza Express, ASK, Zizzi and Byron.

He was introduced to Agent Provocateur through 3i’s Business Leaders Network, a pool of ‘high calibre business leaders’ who work closely with 3i and its portfolio companies across the world. The new non-executive chairman takes over the role from Kim Winser, who left Agent Provocateur in January, this year, under a cloud of controversy.

“He’s really good,” Hogarth says. “He comes from a position as finance director of Debenhams, but he has been involved within various buy outs with Homebase, Halfords and then Debenhams, so he is very strong strategically and, financially, I think he will really help with working out all the numbers.

“Kim Winser came in and really helped us re-position the brand, and get more press, and marketing, and things. We pretty much did that and we have strong marketing, and now I sort of think we are back in the place that we should be.”

And expansion is not the only project that Agent Provocateur is currently embarking on. It will be announcing a new face of the brand, this August, on the launch of its Autumn Winter campaign. Hogarth refuses to reveal the identity of the model, but claims that she is a recognised name and that the images – shot last month – are sizzling hot.

“They are smouldering,” he says. “The person we have picked is really spot-on for the brand, so hopefully everyone will be pleased and excited about it.”

According to the chief executive, after the model saw the first images, she announced that she was unsatisfied with how she appeared and requested that they could be shot again. Against his better judgement, the photographer re-shot the photos and the pictures came out even better than before.

“They were hot!” Hogarth says. “I asked her what she had done differently and she told me ‘I was thinking of a naughty, sexual fantasy.’”

While Agent Provocateur may be becoming more female orientated, sex and the bedroom remain at the heart of the brand’s offering. Nothing makes this clearer than the brand’s latest product, set to hit stores this September.

The company will be introducing bedding to its portfolio of lingerie, perfume and sunglasses. The new luxury item, which comes in off white, clarets, charcoal grey and prints, is aimed at luxury department stores such as Selfridges and quality independent stores.

“It is excellent quality and that is the key, really,” Hogarth adds, “because it is quite hard to find amazing bedding.

“We are looking at various products that we think fit in with the brand and it didn’t have to be bedding at this point, but we just found the right partner to work with.”

The freedom to explore new avenues is key to Hogarth, who effectively has always been his own boss and, up until this year, never even had a CV.

And Agent Provocateur reflects the autonomy of its chief executive, not looking to any other designers of fashion labels for inspiration, but instead working purely on what it considers will be liked by its customers, independent of trends.

Hogarth says: “We are not interested in what any other lingerie company or fashion label is doing… We just do what we want to do – it is pure design.”

The ability to do this stems from Agent Provocateur’s position as a retail brand. Unlike many other companies, which operate solely as a brand or a retailer, Agent Provocateur is in control of the whole process, from picking the fabrics through to product design, organising the manufacturing and ultimately selling.

Though his current position is the first time that Hogarth has worked for a brand, he claims to greatly enjoy the process and is relieved to no longer be in the supply side of the industry, which he says has become increasingly difficult in the past few years. As the founder of a company that used to supply the high street and M&S in the eighties and nineties, Hogarth is well aware of the challenges that the market presents.

“I think the retailers are getting tougher,” he says. “I am sure some people still make money, but I think the margins are tighter and it is a lot more difficult. I am pleased to get out of it. I think that was the heyday for that sort of business, but I wouldn’t want to be in it today. I think it is much better to be with a brand.”

It is little surprise that Hogarth feels this way. With a growth in underlying profits last year of 45 percent to £1.2m, Agent Provocateur has been defying the economic downturn and the next five years look to see this figure soar even higher.

Luckily, as the agent driving this success, it seems unlikely that Hogarth will be needing a CV anytime soon.

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