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Zippered panties retailer aims to influence NYC

Attention is being drawn to lingerie lines that include such add-ons as rhinestones, but expect to see some triple digit price tags

By Alex Kuczynski  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

If Serena Rees and Joseph Corre have their way, the Manhattan black-tie party circuit will be changed forever.

"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.

"Well, why not carry a riding crop?" she said.

If 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.

The riding crop, studded with Swarovski crystals, sells for US$245.

"And we've got a full stock," Rees said, her voice squeaky with cheerleader enthusiasm.

The 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.

Buying, 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.

"Remember, a corset is a support garment," Corre said. "It's good for you."

Other 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.

Corre 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.

Corre, 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.

"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."

Corre'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.

"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.

Corre's mother, whose designs have included a rubber nun's outfit (for men), taught him everything about clothing, he said.

"`Never do something unless there's a reason for it,'" Corre quoted.

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