How the lingerie designer is challenging gender norms with her line of underwear

The early nineties were revolutionary in the world of sex appeal. Serena Rees was there, at the forefront of the seductive lingerie style we know today. As founder of Agent Provocateur, she pioneered pieces of underwear that redefined sexual autonomy for women everywhere. From strappy bras of black lace, to soft pink silks, the brand focused on extreme sensuality.

But in today’s fashion climate, classic designs can come off as a little tired. That’s why Rees founded Les Girls Les Boys, a new underwear brand inspired by millennial culture. The designs are intended to take its wearers from “bed-to-street,” and encourages experimentation with masculinity and femininity. Les Girls Les Boys is basically like Agent Provocateur’s hot younger sister. Rees describes the collection as “democratic,” and it embodies a new spirit of freedom in the way consumers view lingerie. We talked with Rees about the ever-changing industry, and why it took so long to reach this cultural moment.

Courtesy of Brett Lloyd

COOLS: Tell me a little about your career trajectory, and what inspired you to start Les Girls Les Boys.

Serena Rees: I’ve been around quite a long time. I started in fashion in the late 80s. I was pretty young, and I have worked in the industry ever since. It was a kind of university for me. I left home and school pretty early to follow my passions. I’ve worked with magazines, models, fashion people. They’re my peers. From the 80s, 90s, 2000s to now, I’ve worked in advertising with different photographers and artists. Fashion, art and music have been the key influences to everything I do. I also worked with Vivienne Westwood. She’s just an incredible visionary. It was in the very early 90s — a very exciting time. She’s one of the most out-there designers I’ve ever seen, but one of the best. I watched her grow, and it’s interesting to see what she’s done. She can take any piece of fabric and make an incredible dress. She’s like a magician. But everyone you work with is so inspiring in so many different ways. I grew up with club culture in the 80s and 90s, I was around club kids. All of that has had a huge influence on me, and I think music and art go hand in hand with fashion. Agent Provocateur started in the early 90s, and I sold that in 2007. Since then I’ve worked on new startups, and invested in new young designers, and recently started Les Girls Les Boys in the last few months.

COOLS: Les Girls Les Boys is described as a collection of “modern intimates.” What makes the brand different from what we’ve seen before traditionally?

SR: The reason I decided to launch this was that what I did with Agent Provocateur in the 90s was pretty revolutionary, at the time. Because of my background in fashion at that time, we brought fashion into the lingerie world. We wanted to say, don’t be afraid of your own femininity or sexuality. At the time, it was the right time for that voice, politically, to say those things. With everything that’s going on right now, women are not wanting to be in a push up bra to parade around for guys. It might be some guy’s idea of the perfect woman, but in this day and age it’s not relevant. I created Les Girls Les Boys as an alternative for today’s consumer. In the 90s everyone wanted lacy sexual lingerie, but it’s not like that anymore. This is to say, be who you are. You don’t have to be something that’s expected of you. It doesn’t matter if you’re a boy or a girl, or who you’re into. This is about being comfortable with sexuality. Be comfortable. That concept and idea.

COOLS: What were some of the challenges that came along with starting a lingerie brand inspired by sexual fluidity?

SR: To design and make underwear is something I’ve done for many years. I’ve learned a lot over the years. I know how to make it. I understand design, and fit, and technology. All of those things are important to know. I work with an amazing team. And it’s so incredible how fabric has developed over time. Price point is so important. I want it to be democratic. This is not $500 a piece collection. This is something everyday and accessible. I am not scared to launch a new line, I’m just not. I am confident, and I believe in its place and purpose, and I wouldn’t be doing it otherwise. There are a number of pieces that have been designed to be shared and swapped. We encourage all of our customers to buy and experiment with what they like. The frustrating thing is when you are trying to sell into a department store. They still think like, women’s and men’s departments. I want to present it in a different way. That’s the beauty of the online world though. But fashion shows are starting to show men and women together. It’s important, and it’s kind of crazy to separate it. They can exist together. It’s kind of a waste, and I think people got set in their ways. The landscape is changing. The whole fashion industry is in turmoil. We don’t work like luxury fashion houses do, we’re doing it very [differently]. Department stores have got to change, and hopefully we’re helping out on the underwear front.

COOLS: Agent Provocateur is classic, sensual lingerie, but it doesn’t always speak to the millennial consumer. Why do you think there has been a gap in that market for so long when it comes to intimates?

SR: I don’t know! Everyone just follows the next person, I suppose. People keep doing the same thing, until someone comes along to shake it up, or someone brings something good along. It’s like fashion, it’s like everything. People forget to think outside the box sometimes. It’s great if it’s what people have been waiting for. Sometimes we know what we want, but we just can’t find it. This sounds weird, but it’s true. I wrote about it in a book long ago, that underwear changes as fashion does. If you think about the 1950s, Dior’s new look, pointy bras. Things change politically. With political and social change, underwear changes too. Burning bras, 90s grunge. We said it’s ok to be sexy, but then it went too far. We have way too many people showing way too much, too much on Instagram. Everyone’s got fake everything. Everyone has to be this image, that’s just not real. Reality has to come back, or everyone’s gonna get really sick otherwise. It’s historical, it happens in history, and I guess we’re at that moment now again.

COOLS: How does your experience at Agent Provocateur compare to what you’ve done so far at Les Girls Les Boys?

SR: I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve ever done. They’re different things at different times. And it’s always good to keep a good sense of humor. That keeps me going. They’re very very different. I made some new rules about how I was gonna work, and who I was gonna work with. I love my amazing teams. I had that everywhere. I love what I do — I’ve been pretty lucky. I don’t think people should do stuff they don’t like. If you can work with your friends and family as well, that’s even better.

Courtesy of Brett Lloyd

COOLS: What aspects of millennial culture resonate with you the most?

SR: I watch what’s going on around me. I’m lucky I live in London and it’s all around me. Kids walking down the road, to the music you hear from someone else’s speaker. It might be an art show. But for this brand particularly, I watched how this generation was growing up. How they interact, what makes them happy and what makes them sad. It was almost like a study of ten years. I was hanging with these kids, listening to what they had to say. I noticed how they live, how they are with their friends, how they share things. What they do and how they do it. It inspired me to start what I started, but we’re not done yet. Everyone worries that they’re on their phones too much and that they don’t communicate. But they communicate a lot better than we ever did as kids, I think. They share a lot more about what they’re feeling, way more than the 80s. We were too busy showing off and trying to be great. They’re [totally] different. They say it how it is, and I like that. It’s really cool.

COOLS: What do you think about the current direction of the fashion industry in terms of sex and gender?

SR: I don’t know. I can’t answer that, I think it’s a way forward, but I can’t say what’s going to happen. I’m not saying everything in the collection is genderless or gender fluid, but I don’t care who wears what.

COOLS: What’s next for you and Les Girls Les Boys?

SR: We only launched on first of September. We’re busy with new partnerships, various different people, different collections. Busy growing, really.

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