The lingerie establish – and its celebrity models, from Kate Moss to Kylie – delineated a certain kind of 90s feminism. But times have changed

Kate Moss in an Agent Provocateur ad campaign.

It was down being overtly sexual. All that underwear, previously, you could single buy in a sex shop … Kate Moss in an Agent Provocateur ad campaign.

Agent Provocateur is up for selling, or in business speak, “open to offers” (there is a space between secretively equity and lingerie where everything sounds suggestive). It could be righteous another familiar finance story, a private equity stable taking a boutique brand to the mass market then chaperon, astonished, as it turns out that the boutiquey-ness was what people liked about. The sales held but the profits didn’t. If that were the saga, the mystery is how it lasted so long, since the PE firm 3i bought a preponderance share in the company a decade ago, following the divorce of its founders, Serena Rees and Joseph Corré, son of Malcolm McLaren and Dame Vivienne Westwood.

This gets like something different: the brand exemplified and distilled the 90s in so innumerable ways, cultural and economic, that the whiff of the doldrums take the jolt of history catching up with it, the way Tony Blair transfer one day look in the mirror and realise nobody’s listening to him on the EU, even while he’s right. The company may or may not survive, but its top end image is over.

From the sentiment of the fin de siecle’s vexed feminism, Agent Provocateur said something crafty but vital: “It wasn’t about fashion,” Charlotte Moore, the leader-writer of Instyle, remembers. “It was about being overtly sexual. All that underwear, before, you could only buy in a sex shop. It was very daring. They furnished leather whips, for god’s sake.” There was a detailed nostalgia fastened with a punk aesthetic that made it feel virtually intellectually confrontational, which turned it into a statement of empowerment.

High-street erotica … an AP store in London.

High-street erotica … an AP co-op give credence to in London. Photograph: Carl Court/Getty Images

Sue Tibbals is a feminist campaigner who at that sharp end was working for the Women’s Environmental Network, “using washable healthful towels, in an eco-feminist reverie. I didn’t engage with it a lot, however I did buy a very delightful feather cocktickler, which sat on my kitchen shelf for ages. It didn’t get a lot of its primary-purpose use.” She is on the qui vive of freighting any 90s or noughties style statement with too much esoteric significance, because “I’ve been very frustrated by the fact that people forbid commenting on feminism and clothing as though the two were indivisible. But it was pertinent, because it was an act of re-appropriation. Could we take on the tropes of male concoction on our own terms? That’s the difference between being dominated and directing.”

It was, in many ways, a reaction against the 70s and 80s, when you proved your power by setting all underwear – except functional grey utility pants – as a mechanism of male oppression. The problem with that was the sense of being over-policed; there is nothing altogether empowering about being told what kind of a feminist and a lady you are on the basis of whether or not you’re wearing a bra, and whether or not it is lacy. There was a ludic grandeur to Agent Provocateur’s corsets and sequinned pasties, a feeling of fool won the war by laughing at the battles.

As the brand moved into the 21st century, it disappeared this post-feminist empowerment in with a celebrity culture that was self-aware, saucy and intensely knowing, but none of us was exactly sure what it was we advised ofed. The famous ad was Kylie Minogue on a velvet bucking bronco, be showing that it was the most “erotic underwear in the world” by saying at the end, in a way that when you look back wasn’t really sensuous at all, but more like a focus group in Mad Men: “Would all the men in the audience opt stand up?” This was the era of Kylie’s butt, a time when people would ask rhetorically, but also querulously, “Resolution Kylie please leave her arse at home?”, as if, were she a innumerable reasonable person, she would manage without it. It was the definition of what we hand-me-down to call post-irony: if erotica was wrong because it was objectifying, to retake erotica meant to in fact disaggregate people into their body parts, and then giggle.

Joe Corre and Serena Rees.

Joe Corre and Serena Rees. Photograph: David Sillitoe for the Custodian

Running alongside that was the price: it was like going into a restaurant for the at the outset time and discovering how much a steak cost. You would pick up a matter in Agent Provocateur thinking it would reasonably be about 50 quid, and £279 would skip unashamed from the fancy pink tag. Sian Alexandra is a 25-year-old underwear plotter, who came of age at the tail end of all this. “All the young lingerie bloggers are hounds of the brand,” she says – but points out nobody could ever spare it. Young people have never been able to give up it, plainly; but the pre-crash mindset was different – the aspirations were irrational but nobody ever said it. I remember doing a joke peculiarity, in which I totted up how much you would spend a month for the baseline least of grooming as recommended by a women’s magazine: waxing, facials, gym membership, exhale dries, manicures, all that. It was about as expensive as stabling a tear horse.

Alexander describes new trends in lingerie: “Neon Moon do lingerie that isn’t for the virile gaze; it’s very plain, it’s very ethical. Lonely Lingerie is drafted to be worn on your own. A lot of stuff is being taken back from the spear gaze. You’ll go into Top Shop and there’ll be a bra with hearts beyond the nipples. That would probably scare a lot of guys off.” “Why, what do men comparable to?” “They like frilly baby dolls. Cami funds,” she says, witheringly.

The Agent Provocateur era feels more peer a phase we had to pass through than a place to mourn, unusually. The purpose was to puncture the patriarchy by borrowing its garb, then run away chortle. I complained a lot at the time, but owned no tights at all that weren’t fishnets. Not all of us employed as intelligently as Madonna; in fact, almost no one did. “She really did cop it for daring to put herself out there, not as a procreative object but as a sexual woman. That’s the distinction,” Tibbals concludes. “There’s no advantageously or wrong with cultural signifiers. It’s all about the terms on which you attack.”

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