If Serena Rees and Joseph Corre have their way, the Manhattan black-tie party circuit will be changed forever. \n"You know when women go to black-tie parties, they carry those little purses?" Rees, a founder, with Corre, of the English lingerie line Agent Provocateur, asked the other day over coffee and cigarettes at the SoHo Grand Hotel. \n"Well, why not carry a riding crop?" she said. \nIf the image of, say, a Nan Kempner or a Pia Getty showing up at the next ballet gala armed with a riding crop sends you running for the shrink's couch, there's more. On Thursday, Corre and Rees will be the hosts of a preview party for Agent Provocateur SoHo, the New York outpost of their S&M-influenced lingerie and accessories. \nThe riding crop, studded with Swarovski crystals, sells for US$245. \n"And we've got a full stock," Rees said, her voice squeaky with cheerleader enthusiasm. \nThe quarter-cup bras, rib-crushing corsets and zippered panties make the Victoria's Secret line look like the Carter's with the snapped-elastic waist that girls wore in fourth grade. Rose McGowan, Naomi Campbell and Sophie Dahl are big fans. When Christina Aguilera stopped into Henri Bendel and bought an orange Agent Provocateur bra, it made the tabloids. The merchandise is priced for celebrities, too: bras sell for up to US$230 and panties up to US$195. Access-ories, like the rhinestone-locking cuffs and collar chain, sell for up to US$700. \nBuying, of course, is half the spectacle. Saleswomen in Agent Provocateur boutiques wear pink micromini dresses with decolletage, fishnet stockings and black patent leather pumps with four-inch heels and pink bows. Corsets are strongly encouraged. The look is one of hobbled femininity, a cross between the elaborate costume of a geisha and the vampishness of a streetwalker. \n"Remember, a corset is a support garment," Corre said. "It's good for you." \nOther consumer product sales may be sagging, but lingerie is booming. Victoria's Secret had US$3.3 billion in lingerie and cosmetics sales last year. Underpants -- conversations about them, showing them, watching them on television -- have become part of daily life, and Abercrombie & Fitch began marketing thong underwear to pre-teenage girls last year. \nCorre and Rees, who are married and have a young daughter, founded the company in London in 1994 after meandering through jobs in fashion, music and advertising. \nCorre, the offspring of a punk dynasty, is the son of Vivienne Westwood, the fashion designer, and Malcolm McLaren, the impresario behind the Sex Pistols. Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious camped out on his parents' floor when he was a child. Sid took him to the candy store. \n"People ask me if I had a normal childhood," Corre said. "Well, I only had one childhood, so I don't have anything to compare it to." \nCorre's lineage has provided amusing moments. When Rees was giving birth, she was close to blacking out from pain and turned to reach for the mask supplying a painkilling gas. \n"I'm reaching for it, and I can't find it. ... I turn around, and there are Joe and Malcolm sucking away at it. You're having a baby, and there is Malcolm McLaren in the corner inhaling your gas," she said. \nCorre's mother, whose designs have included a rubber nun's outfit (for men), taught him everything about clothing, he said. \n"`Never do something unless there's a reason for it,'" Corre quoted. \nHe was smoking Silk Cuts and wearing Vivienne Westwood from head to toe, along with a sparkling skull and crossbones around his neck. ("Also my mum," he said.) \nHe met Rees at a London nightclub 10 years ago in a fable from the book of fashion fairy tales: She was the clipboard girl with the guest list. \n"She was on the door, and she gave me a real hard time," he said. \nCorre, who thought himself the coolest guy in London with the coolest pedigree, was intrigued. How could she not let him in? \n"The party was full," she said. \n"Then she invited herself round for dinner. ... Didn't you?" he said. \n"I think we went to a party for John Galliano," she said. \nThey were working in fashion and decided at the same time that the key element missing was the sexy underwear to go with couture. \n"In London eight years ago, you had department stores that sold black, white, ivory, nude, and maybe for holiday seasons or Valentine's Day, they would sell red things," Rees said. \n"And then you'd have lingerie boutiques run by older ladies, who would try to get you into some great big strapping number. Or you could go to a sex shop, and it wouldn't be the nicest environment to shop in, and it would be cheaply made and not pleasurable to wear. I mean, you could wear it for two minutes, but that's about it," she said. \nOn a global quest, they went to St. Moritz, Paris and Rome and didn't find any good underwear anywhere. \n"We went to Los Angeles. ... There was this fantasy of what you would expect to find there, you know, a kind of movie star glamour, Frederick's of Hollywood. But it was really disappointing," Corre said. \nThey found a company in northern England that still made corsets, and they sent the rest of their lingerie designs to be made in France. The first London store opened in 1994. There are now three. Their first foray into America was their Los Angeles boutique, which Corre calls "a kind of foreplay for New York." \nTheir literature and advertising is made up entirely of sexual images so frank they would make Helmut Newton blush. The catalog for the 2002 collection showed models in sportif poses -- legs splayed on the tennis court, legs splayed atop a bicycle, legs stretched out around a weight machine. \nOn the company's Web site a keyhole-shape screen shows women in lingerie and masks stripping off each other's clothing, and a model in a bra with strategically placed cutouts being spanked by her girlfriends, while phrases like "Nobody will recognize me in this disguise" and "I've tried to stop but I just can't help myself" alternate with the images. \nOne of Provocateur's early ads in England read, "More S&M, less M&S," alluding to the mass-market department store Marks & Spencer.
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