Lusting for Lingerie

LOS ANGELES—"This is only their third time making an appearance in public—aren't they divine?" my friend gushed as he wrapped his arm around his fiancée's tiny waist. She lifted her dress up, way above the knee, to reveal luxurious, black silk stockings. They stopped at the top of her shapely thigh, met by the straps of a satin garter belt. The fasteners clasped the stocking tops with deliberate, almost forceful affection, like Bogie grabbing Bacall for a passionate kiss. I admired the seamed hose and commended my pal on his taste. He nodded, gave me a knowing glance, and said with quiet assurance, "Agent Provocateur."

The bawdy brainchild of Joseph Corre (son of world-famous fashionista Vivienne Westwood and former Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren) and his wife, Serena Rees, Agent Provocateur is a lingerie company like no other. The twosome opened the flagship store in London in 1994, a mail-order business in 1996, a second London location in 1997, and its first American sister in Los Angeles in 2000. (Rumor has it New York is next!) They've made quite a splash in London with explicitly erotic window displays, naughty promotional events, and eye-catching slogans like "A gentleman is expected to rise when a lady enters the room."

Erection-hunting entrepreneurs Corre and Rees have even loftier goals for their bras and panties, namely to "provide inspiration for desires that have been repressed by years of white-cotton conservatism." The store's philosophy is so British in concept, clearly flying in the face of English puritanical ideas about sexuality. While remnants of sexual repression are alive and well in America, can Agent Provocateur carve out a place for itself in a country with a Victoria's Secret in every mall? And especially in Los Angeles, home of infamous places like Frederick's of Hollywood, Trashy Lingerie, and the best stripperwear stores in the world?

An unabashed lingerie junkie, I had fingered Agent Provocateur's decadent catalog (which comes in the form of pinup playing cards) and cruised www.agentprovocateur.com, but never saw the store in the flesh. When I drove by the Melrose Avenue shop and saw a parking spot right in front, it seemed like fate. To the naked eye, the display window looks like any other lingerie peddler (what was risqué in London wouldn't cause the same stir in this sin city), but step inside and you are in for a wholly unique trip. Since I hadn't planned to visit Agent Provocateur (I would have gotten a manicure and wax at the very least), I arrived feeling way too underdressed in my undercover reporter outfit—Old Navy sweatpants and a "Kiss My Ass" T-shirt.

Despite my attire, when I walked in, I was greeted like Julia Roberts on a shopping spree. Two gorgeous saleswomen completely focused on me, and they were wearing high heels, seamed stockings, and Agent Provocateur's trademark pink dresses—haute couture versions of '50s pink waitress uniforms—designed by Vivienne Westwood (thanks, Mom!). Their uniforms were unbuttoned to reveal the merchandise (of the store, that is), and each woman was, well, showing the undergarments at their best.

I fondled a few pieces of underwear, pausing over a black bustier with purple accents, but it was out of my reach at more than $350. (That's in the mid range.) On the opposite wall there seemed to be more affordable treats: a $95 bra, $55 panties. In addition to expensive undergarments, there was an entire display of top-of-the-line jewelry not-so-subtly inspired by dominance and submission: matching sets of cufflike bracelets (really wrist restraints) and choker necklaces (a/k/a collars) complete with rhinestone-studded locks, and handcrafted chains to clip them together. Some were made of Swarovski crystal, and all were priced at the equivalent of people's monthly salaries. There were even diamanté-handled riding crops—kink couture at its very best.

I chose a French red tulle push-up bra with black embroidery and satin bows, matching thong, and garter belt, and one of the blonds quickly leaped to find my size. She led me to the dressing room, a silk-curtained boudoir with velvet couches. When she popped her head in moments later, she looked quite pleased at my selection. She adjusted the straps, apologizing for making them so snug: "I am used to wearing my bra straps extremely tight for maximum cleavage." But I already knew that. She moved down to the garter belt, wanting to slide it from my waist lower down to my hips, but I realized I was not wearing any underwear, so I scrunched down my sweats trying not to blush. She suggested a pair of stockings (naturally), and in her hands, there they were, the stockings I saw on my friend, yet they looked so innocent without legs to fill them.

"I have something that I think will really work for you," she said and darted off. She returned with a sheer black demi-cup bra, and I slipped it on, but my breasts were popping out in all the wrong places.

"You're full all around; it's made for someone with a more teardrop shape. But that's OK, because sugar looks really good on you," she reassured.

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