In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.
In an improbable twist, a traumatic shopping experience as a teenager would lead to a lifelong obsession with lingerie for Sarah Shotton. She developed size-F breasts quite early, and was heartbroken to learn the only options for her to wear were matronly and plain.
"I cried and cried and cried in the changing room; it had quite a detrimental effect on me, to the point that I didn't feel very confident about my body shape," Shotton says. "I was on the verge of being anorexic because I was trying to lose weight to try and fit in clothing, because I thought that my breasts should be smaller. I was going to get a breast reduction because of it. It was so stupid."
Shotton grew up on a farm in England's County Durham where she started riding horses from a very young age, and her uniform of jodhpurs and wellies left her with a desire for dresses and girlier things. As she became more and more obsessed with fashion — following labels like Vivienne Westwood and Zandra Rhodes — her mom told her to apply to the prestigious Central Saint Martins. Shotton did a foundational year and then a four-year degree in print, but she wasn't quite sure where she'd end up.
"I always thought I wanted to be a buyer, but I'm not very good with numbers or maths, so I don't know what I was thinking there," she says with a big laugh. "But 'Absolutely Fabulous' was on at that time, with Joanna Lumley and Jennifer Saunders, so I was like, 'Oh yes, I'd love to do that, and I wear Moschino, so why not?'"
It was a job answering phones at Agent Provocateur that would lead Shotton into lingerie design. It was her first official job in fashion, and she's been there ever since. Over the past 25 years, Shotton has steadily worked her way up the ladder, sending faxes, concepting window displays and designing lingerie to ultimately become the brand's creativedDirector.
She's also seen Agent Provocateur go through a lot of changes. Armed with a cup of chamomile tea, Shotton chatted with us over the phone from her London headquarters to detail why she's so loyal to Agent Provocateur, how she learned to design lingerie and what she still hopes to accomplish with the brand — oh, and why you've probably already seen her boobs before. Standard AP stuff.
What was Saint Martins like?
It was the '90s, when I was at Saint Martins; I graduated in '98. It was amazing to be at a college that was based in Soho; it was just a real privilege, really. They do leave you to your own devices; you're expected to get on with your projects on your own, and that's what the real world is like. I met a lot of really great people there, and it's quite intense — it's very competitive, especially by your final year. When I came out of that, I took six months off. I was like, "Oh my God, I need a break." [laughs] I actually moved back to the north of England because my final year, I just literally was flat out; I didn't really sleep. Everyone was just working, working, working, building their collections up.
What were your first jobs in fashion?
I used to work at a vintage store called Radio Days, which was really interesting; I learned a lot about vintage lingerie because the store had a big collection of '50s bustiers and '30s French knickers and slips. I was very curvy, and I was an F cup, and I could never get any sexy lingerie that would fit me, so in the vintage store that I worked in, I used to buy a lot of the bustiers and alter them to fit me.
Then there was a job going at Agent Provocateur, just as an office junior, and a friend of mine was like, "You should go for that job — get your foot in the door, you're very Agent Provocateur." At the time, I wore lots of Westwood, and I was that kind of girl, but I also was a bit surfy, and very casual as well, so I had two sides to me — and at the time, actually, I got offered to work a design job at Quiksilver. I really wanted to do it, because I just wanted to drive up and down the coast selling surfboards. [laughs] They were like, "Do you want to move to Biarritz and design surfing bikinis and snowboarding suits?" I ended up going for Agent Provocateur, and I haven't looked back ever since. The rest is history.
When I got offered the job, there was the Broadwick Street store and there was the Bond Street store, and it was really a super cult brand, very niche. I literally started at the bottom, and worked in all different areas of the company. I started off just answering the phones and sending faxes. We only had one computer at that time — in the whole business — so we'd all have a set time for going on the computer.
Joe [Corré] and Serena [Rees] were very inspirational people, and they really put their trust in you. They'd say, "Can you go to Broadwick Street and change the windows?" And I'd be like, "Well, I'm not a window dresser." And they'd be like, "You've been to Saint Martins, you're creative — just go and do it." At the time, we used to design a lingerie range for Marks and Spencer called Salon Rose, and sometimes I'd be designing underwear for that part of the business, and then also helping fit.
How did you work your way up to creative director?
There was a lot of ducking and diving, and wheeling and dealing. I never thought I was going to be creative director, but I loved the brand. I was doing all the visuals for all the stores in London, which, as it got bigger, ended up being four stores. At the same time as working on the windows, I was also working on the shop interiors; when we were opening up Melrose, in LA, I was helping Joe get all of that together, helping him buy furniture for it, helping him get the wallpaper done, and stuff like that. By this point, I'd probably been in the company about a year and a half, and I'd got that taste that maybe I wanted to start designing again.
We used to buy all the brands as well as designing our own, and as we were getting bigger, we needed to start designing more of our own lingerie. So as soon as they said we need to design more of our own stuff, I was working in my spare time designing, because I was so desperate to start designing a bit of the lingerie.
What started to happen, little by little, I started designing a bit more, and things that I was designing were ending up becoming press leaders — they would get a lot of press on Scarlett Johansson, Beyoncé; early on, it was Dita Von Teese and Rachel Weisz, and then getting front covers. It was at that point when I was like, oh actually this is what I really want to do; I want to be a designer.
What made you want to design lingerie?
What AP did for me was quite liberating, because for five years of my life, I'd been ashamed that I had this curvaceous body, I was ashamed that I had big breasts, and ashamed that I had curves. That wasn't what I was looking at in the magazines, it wasn't on trend and wasn't in fashion.
After my first month of working at AP, when my probation period was over and I got a discount on the underwear, I bought my first set of lingerie from Agent Provocateur, which was a turquoise tulle quarter cup bra and matching suspender and g-string. The moment that I went in that changing room and took my clothes off and put that underwear on transformed my life, really. I felt totally empowered — I felt like Wonder Woman. I'd never been able to fit in any lingerie that was so beautiful and exquisite, and made me feel like a million dollars. I felt like I was a rock star in that changing room. For me, it was like coming home.
So, for me, after that experience, although I was working on the windows and I was doing lots of different things, I felt this company was so empowering. When I had to start designing for AP, my main motivation was, I want women who have gone through what I've gone through to feel a million dollars, and to feel as special as I did that day. I want somebody who is an F cup to be able to wear the same shape bra as somebody that's a B cup and to feel amazing, to put something on that transforms them and makes the most of their shape.
How did you rise up the design ranks?
I was junior designer, and then I was working all the shoots. If we were having fashion shows, I was always helping make all the show pieces. We were doing lots of parties, so when there was an event I was also one of the AP girls in her lingerie. We had to be very versatile; everyone did everything, so I'd be there stood in my underwear doing the door — and getting into trouble, because I was always letting too many boys in. [laughs]
Slowly I became Joe and Serena's right hand, because they knew that if there was something to do, I would get on and do it. And then, in 2007, the company got bought by 3i after Joe and Serena split up. Then really I became Joe's right hand; I was doing more and more. I was working on the fragrance with him — I also ended up being in the campaign myself. I was the DD girl for the fragrance, when we launched DD fragrance, so my boobs were all over the place for a while. [laughs] I was in some of the campaigns, and I was in a couple of music videos. The brand was very fun and it was very experimental at that point.
How did you ultimately become creative director?
When Joe stepped down, the owners of the company at the time said, "We'd really like you to become creative director. We've been watching what you've been doing; would you like the opportunity?" I was close to Joe; he was like a big brother to me. It was like, I'm going to rise to the challenge, but it was quite big shoes to step into.
In 2008, I built my first collection, which came out in 2009. When I did that first collection, I think we had lost our way a little bit. I was like, this brand is about women; it's about empowering women, and it's about making them feel strong and womanly and fun and sexy. I had to come up with my first campaign, so I went back to when Agent Provocateur first started, in '94, and I was thinking about "Twin Peaks," David Lynch, Sherilyn Fenn, and great movies from that time that had really inspired me — "Basic Instinct," and "Lost Highway," and "True Romance."
I brought in all the straps; the high-necked bras started then. I wanted to move everything on a little bit, and do things that hadn't really been done before with lingerie. It was a big challenge, and it was amazing when it all came out, just to see it all together and see it hung it the store. And it really sold very well, so I was quite chuffed. That's how I came to being creative director.
When I got made creative director, we'd stopped doing moving image, and I felt that AP was about moving image. To me, lingerie really comes alive when a woman's moving. And I find it really inspirational; it just tells a story. It's much sexier, it's less static. So as soon as I got made creative director, I went to RSA Films and I worked with Johan Renck, who's amazing. He helped me do the first campaign, bringing back strong woman.
The brand has undergone a few major transitions lately. What has it been like guiding AP through those changes?
I've been through so many changes; first was the 2006 buyout, and then Joe left, which was a change. Then, obviously, the sale this year — I knew about things that were going on at the end of 2016, and what I did was I really submerged myself in the collection at that point. The CEO at the time was like, "Sarah, just keep focusing on the collection." I was working on the spring/summer collection, and that's why it's really bright, because it was quite a dark period at AP HQ.
I was lucky enough, when the sale happened, that the buyers who bought us were very much like, "You've been doing this a long time, we trust you." Our owners know the brand; they've been real fans of the brand since the '90s. They were just like, "We need to get this brand back to how it used to be; we want it to be cult, we want it to have a boutique feeling."
At the same time as I was building the collection, they were picking the stores that they wanted to go forward with. The transition was quite tough — although, I'm tougher. I'm very sort of forward-thinking, and very positive. Change is always quite hard, but as I say, you've just got to get on with it, and just look to the future.
We're just really focusing on getting the stores back. There's going to be stores around the world that are going to get a new look, which is exciting as well. I'm focusing on them, because we had so many stores at one point that it was just hard to control. You have to look after them properly. We're known for our service, and we should be giving a good service.
What is something you wish you'd known before you started?
How tough it was going to be! I wish I'd known, maybe, to work a bit harder in college. I wish for more confidence sometimes. You know when you're trying to be positive about everything, and sometimes you start questioning yourself, and going, "Oh, can I really do this?" I wish I didn't have that, because I think, in life, that's the only thing that really holds people back, is that voice in your head that tells you you're not good enough, or you can't do it.
What advice would you give someone who wanted to sort of follow in your footsteps?
Enjoy the ride, for sure. Don't worry so much, and just really work hard and learn from your mistakes. When you do something wrong, don't think, "Oh God, that's it." Having the courage to carry on and not look back is a big thing. What I've learned in the last few years is just to not worry about things; don't worry about things you've done, and keep looking to the future.
What do you look for in people who are going to be a part of your team?
Confidence; a bit of attitude. I like people to question me a little bit, as well. I don't like people who just agree to everything, because I'm not always right. Creativity, somebody with good ideas — and somebody who's fun, who's not afraid. I always look at where they've studied, because I think it's good to show that you have studied; although, one of my designers — who's amazing — she didn't do a degree. She was going to go to college and she did work experience with us and she never left.
I think that it's 98 percent hard work and 2 percent luck. I always say that. You have to put the hours in — and I did. When I was doing the windows, I was working all my weekends. It was quite normal for me to do a seven-day week.
So many people do work that they don't really enjoy. I think if you find something that you really love, then that's half the battle. So I look for passion in people.
What is your ultimate goal for the brand?
My ultimate goal is to get the brand more well-known, because obviously a lot of women know who we are, but there's so many women that we haven't touched. My main goal is to get the message out that it is about empowerment; that would help me if we reached out to more women, to be able to do even bigger bra sizes. I'd like to do even bigger bra cup sizes, and to try and get some new shapes out there as well.
But mostly just to get it more out there and for women to not be afraid to walk through the door. So many people are still kind of quite afraid, and actually, it's really fun! And, you know, I'm designing for all you women out there. And men, I suppose! It's for everyone to have fun.