Fashion

A Deeper Look at Agent Provocateur's Valentine's Day Campaign

We spoke with the lingerie brand's creative directer, Sarah Shotton, and model Charli Howard about lingerie, love, and self-acceptance.
Reading time 9 minutes

It’s Valentine’s day and you’re in love. The hotel room is booked, your table reserved and the appointment with a doctor—he’s supposed to be a miracle-worker—is made. From lip fillers to liposuction, the cosmetic industry hugely benefits from the annual celebration of love (and accompanying lust for self-improvement), with a recent poll recording women hoping for procedures increases by 78 percent...and they’re not the only ones profiting from our perpetual insecurity. Enter: lingerie.

There’s no culprit when it comes to skinny-washing quite like the brands producing garments for women at their most vulnerable, with new campaigns rolled-out just in time for the sexiest night of the year. Except, aren’t we supposed to be in the thick of a self-love revolution? It’s been four years since model Charli Howard furiously lamented fashion’s pitfalls in a viral Instagram post after she was fired from her agency over a pair of impossibly small leather pants. Diversity in fashion has since evolved from subversive to tokenized and finally wound up mainstream, yet somehow, casting bodies upwards of a size two is still a symbol of rebellion.

But someone’s shifting the narrative. Unlike underwear giant Victoria’s Secret’s (whose commitment to unrealistic beauty ideals has seen their showcases plagued by a perpetual PR storm), beloved British brand Agent Provocateur has released a Valentine’s campaign that celebrates the female in any form—and recruited Howard to help. While many reputable designers actively avoid curve models, hoping to go unnoticed by their legions of ‘woke’ millennial supporters, AP lifts them up. Creative director Sarah Shotton had Howard write an exceptionally honest open letter about her abuse of and newfound appreciation for her body. Self-acceptance has been a long time coming for Howard, and now she’s the leading the battle for body positivity...and there’s no better general than Shotton. Below, the pair weigh in on lingerie, love and why you are enough this Valentine’s Day.

Firstly, tell me about the inception of for Agent Provocateur’s Valentine’s Day campaign.

Shotton: It started with a conversation with Charli, talking about working together in the future and body positivity. Growing up I had looked at images of models that were not realistic and compared myself to them. It had a detrimental effect, so we decided to do a campaign inspired about embracing your body shape, as well as the idea that you don’t need to be with someone to be complete on Valentine’s Day. We really felt that Valentine’s Day shouldn’t be dressing up for someone, but rather focusing on oneself and celebrating your own body.

Howard: It was amazing for me to hear that one of my favorite brands were actively thinking about how they could progress and become more female-friendly.  Sarah wanted to make Valentine’s Day—something that is very relationship-focused and quite stressful (from “Why don’t I have a boyfriend?!”) — about celebrating yourself. You don’t need a man to buy yourself some gorgeous lingerie! Do it to make yourself feel sexy. It’s funny because when I was starting out, I went to a casting for Agent Provocateur around eight years ago and didn’t get the job. I was so insecure about my body, paranoid that they could see my cellulite, and felt that the only way I’d ever get to work for them was if I lost more weight. I can’t believe I’m doing it the way I look now, flaws and all.

 

How was that experience of putting your relationship with your body on paper?

Howard: It was very cathartic. Writing has helped me understand myself in a lot of ways. I had never really considered that Valentine’s Day could be a day of celebrating yourself.

 

You pushed your body to the absolute extreme for fashion, how did you rewire your outlook on beauty when you began gaining weight?

Howard: I’m a big believer that beauty starts from within, so I started on fixing that first. When I was starving myself, I was hanging around a lot of negative people (romantically or not) so cutting them out was a big start. I started paying myself compliments, rather than putting myself down. I think women are taught not to appreciate themselves.

Considering we’re fresh off another—and perhaps the most controversial—Victoria’s Secret show yet, what’s your take on body positivity in lingerie?

Shotton: I’m all for it! We strongly believe in healthy bodies, whichever size you may be. Make work with what you’ve got and be confident about it. This campaign really reflects that and is a great reminder for us all to celebrate your natural size and don’t succumb to society’s perception of what ‘looking good’ is.

Howard: Well every woman wears lingerie, don’t they? So, it’s important that the women buying it are represented in the media. I’ve always maintained that with the right imagery, styling, and creative teams, you can make anybody look high-end and fashionable. There isn’t an excuse to be lazy anymore and book the same bodies over and over.

 

Do you think fashion’s embrace of inclusion is surface-level? Or here to stay?

Howard: I hope it’s here to stay — it would be an awful waste of time if it didn’t! Look how far the industry has changed in the last few years, especially in New York. I do think some brands have jumped on the diversity bandwagon for ingenuine reasons, but consumers are smart and can always tell when brands are trying to make a conscious effort to be diverse. So, I hope that the increase in consumer demand for diversity continues to enforce brands to listen.

Shotton: It really depends on the brand and the consumer. I do think it’s here to stay and will continue to break boundaries but the level of authenticity really needs to be considered. If you are portraying an inclusive narrative to the public this has to be reflected in the company and must have a wide representation of diverse staff. There is a level of conscious all brands and consumer need to establish before pushing anything out to wider society. I’d like to say AP is very inclusive and pragmatic, hopefully, that translates.

 

How do you think AP represents the modern woman?

Shotton: AP’s designs are very multi-faceted in terms of having several ranges for different personalities and occasions. We portray strong women that also like to have fun and simultaneously are sexually liberated.

Howard: It’s hard to explain how AP makes you feel unless you’ve tried it yourself, but for me, AP makes me feel strong and womanly. It makes me feel sexy within myself; like I have a sexy secret when I wear it under my clothes. Women don’t need the gratification of men anymore; the pieces reflect that.

We’ve seen lingerie increasingly integrated into day and evening wear, what trend do you think is up next?

Shotton: I’ve noticed women wearing our bras as tops and not even our fashion bras (that can look like a crop top) but genuinely a typical bra as outerwear. And I’m all for it! I love seeing women showcasing it in different ways on social but it looks very effortless.

 

How do you think women’s approach to lingerie has evolved in recent years?

Shotton: Women buy lingerie for themselves and not for their partner. It’s become an investment piece. It’s the first thing you put on in the morning and you want to be comfortable, but also feel great.

Howard: I think we want pieces that flatter us, rather than creating styles that only suit a certain shape or size. I also think women are steering away from padding.  We don’t want to squeeze into styles based on what’s fashionable; we want lingerie built for us and the bodies we have. That makes us feel more confident as a result, too.

 

Is there anything you still wish we saw more or less of in lingerie?

Shotton: For the industry to keep pushing boundaries and have a diverse cast of women whether that relates to body shapes, ethnicity, sexual orientation and so on. I also find that more often than not the image out there for lingerie campaigns is can be quite romanticized and tend to be soft portrayal of women that is not always the case. We’re complex and have different personalities and moods! I say be real and have fun.

Howard: Well, diversity aside, we need more women sticking up for each other.  I’ve been on so many jobs with unnecessary nastiness over the years and we need women to come together and stick up for each other and together. It’s a female-dominated industry, after all.

 

Finally, how would you style yourself for Valentine’s Day?

Howard: In nothing but a pair of Agent Provocateur suspenders, of course.

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