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Sex, Soho & sisterhood: the early days of Agent Provocateur

Denna Cartamkhoob, director of the new film ‘Rising from the Gusset’, discusses why she decided to interview her old AP colleagues

In 1994, deep in Soho’s underbelly, a little lingerie shop sprang up on Broadwick Street. The brainchild of Joseph Corré, son of Vivienne Westwood, and his now ex-wife Serena Rees, the couple sought to inject a certain “je ne sais quoi” into the apparel market with the label, dubbed Agent Provocateur. Tired of the drab garments that flooded London’s highstreets, Corré and Rees launched a line of steamy underwear that instantly found fans, soon growing into a global brand. Even the uniforms staff wore – pale pink pin-up style dresses, revealing a hint of the stockings underneath – became notorious.   

That first shop, in the heart of the city’s red light district, was surrounded by the debauchery and decadence that had long furnished Soho’s scandalous reputation. Drawing the damned into its narrow streets, the area was a hotbed for artists, writers and filmmakers; in the early days, the likes of Francis Bacon, David Hockney and Lucien Freud rubbed shoulders with the local drug dealers, pimps and sex workers. This cross-section of society who inhabited the rickety flats and boozers gave Soho its character and flare, its risk and reward.

After several rounds of gentrification, only a few traces of the once-dominant sex industry remain. A few old neon signs still wink at passersby, tempting them into strip clubs, massage parlours, adult cinemas, peep shows and toy shops, but the area has changed dramatically. Still, for the women of AP, their Broadwick Street outpost wasn’t just a shop or a job – together, they were more like a community or a family. It’s this that British-Iranian filmmaker Denna Cartamkhoob explores in her recent documentary about the staff in the store’s early days, offering a portrait of the girls who worked there and the people they met along the way. 

What inspired you to make this film?

Denna Cartamkhoob: Well, I worked at Agent Provocateur – it was my first job after my A-Levels – and I ended up working there for quite a long time. I became close friends with all the girls there and I just wanted to document their story because there was something so special about all of them. We were like this amazing girl gang and what tied us together was this shared experience of working on Broadwick Street.  

“It was this amazing education in people: what they got up to and what they didn’t want their wives to know” – Denna Cartamkhoob

What makes the AP girls – then and now – so special?  

Denna Cartamkhoob: They are all unashamedly open about sex and being promiscuous and manipulative with their sexuality – like, in terms of selling expensive underwear and getting money out of men. I thought, now, when there’s this new wave of feminism that that sort of behavior might be frowned upon, but I admired them all for being so honest. I found them unique, they stood out, they didn’t follow trends either – they did things their own way.

What was your experience of working at AP?

Denna Cartamkhoob: I didn’t go straight to university, so AP for me was my weird university. I’d never been to Soho before and I didn’t know what the shop was. I just walked in there and was like, “Oh my God, these girls look really cool, they sell underwear and that’s kind of amazing.” I had no idea. Day-to-day there was just so much humour, but overall it was this amazing education in people: what they got up to and what they didn’t want their wives to know and, you know, I saw the most vulnerable sides of people too. The experience was formative for me, it gave me a lot of wisdom, which education and life hadn’t given me before that.

What made the location of the shop so unique?

Denna Cartamkhoob: Soho has changed so much, but that street is tucked away and opposite there’s a brothel that operates out of a flat – we used to watch it from a window, the people and the girls going in and out – then a few minutes down the road is where all the strip clubs are on Rupert Street. So, there would be a lot of foot traffic from the local working community needing to buy underwear.

People would also walk in looking for a prostitute or would ask for a massage – looking back now, I can’t believe I put myself through that – I think they thought they were entering a different world, where it was accepted to be pervy or something. I was this naïve girl and I found some of the stuff people wanted to do quite disgusting – no one in the shop was particularly kinky – but I found it interesting to observe this cross-section of society.

How has Soho changed?

Denna Cartamkhoob: A large portion of Soho has been sold to developers and what used to be this incredible motley crew of street people – the drug dealers, prostitutes and pimps – is not so individual anymore, because a lot of the businesses have been knocked down. It’s like they never existed. It’s sad, we used to walk down Berwick Street on our lunch break and we knew all the fruit and veg guys and we would buy weed off them at lunchtime. You’d know the cobbler and the dry cleaner and everything was independent, but I guess it’s just what happens.

Do you think there’s room in Soho for shops like AP to crop up again or has that era passed?

Denna Cartamkhoob: There are so many shops now, but I hope there will be someone with the same punk spirit to do a something different. I go there now and AP has also completely changed, but the girls are still the same, real characters, it still attracts a certain type of woman and that’s nice to see.

What’s one of your most memorable moments at AP?   

Denna Cartamkhoob: My most memorable moment is when I served my first customer. At the time, I was 18 and I had hardly any sexual experience and the first customer that I served was a woman called Gloria, who was a transgender prostitute. She was pre-op and that was her thing, she had both, and that’s how she made money. She was so gorgeous and had this really thick Italian accent, always reeked of perfume and had this cat called Cheseray that she carried around in her handbag. I was thrown into serve her and felt so intimidated, but I just thought it was amazing and wanted to stay there forever because I hadn’t met anyone like her before.

Watch a 12 minute cut below or see the full version here.