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Fashion disruptor: Serena Rees

Through a long career in the fashion world, Serena Rees has consistently carved out her own niche. In the early 1990s, after a stint working with legendary English designer Vivienne Westwood, she and her then-husband (Westwood’s son) decided to open a London-based lingerie store offering bold, exciting pieces instead of the drab underwear and bras they saw populating the marketplace.

They soon realized, however, that there was a dearth of existing products they’d actually want to sell. “I couldn’t find things that were high enough quality and in fabrics or colors I wanted,” she explains. So, they began designing their own lingerie, founding the brand Agent Provocateur in 1994. The line embraced sexuality and power, with daring garments that often featured Westwood-inspired corsetry. “It was a collection of intimates, but very much with a fashion background,” says Rees. “We could take risks because it was our business, whereas [bigger companies] couldn’t do what they wanted. They had to follow trends, while we created trends.”

Twenty-five years later, with her newest line Les Girls Les Boys, Rees remains a fashion disrupter. Adapting to a less formal, generational shift in dressing, the company, which she started in 2017, sells underwear, athleisure, and swimwear—all meant for mixing and matching across genders, age groups, and daily activities.

Furthermore talked to the businesswoman about lessons learned, design inspiration, and her wellness rituals.

Photo: Getty Images

What important lessons have you learned in almost 30 years in fashion?

“I’ve learned never to be scared to take risks. I’ve also learned everything there is to know about a bra—about fit, about how it makes one feel, about the proportion of the body. There’s a fine art to it, one that also applies to swimwear.”

Can you tell us about the ethos behind Les Boys Les Girls?

“After I sold Agent Provocateur, I thought ‘I’ve done my thing for the lingerie world,’ and I was ready to move on. But at that time, I was also seeing my [teenage] kid and step-kids growing up and becoming unhappy and anxious about the oversexualized images they were encountering online. I saw both girls and boys feeling so awkward that they didn’t necessarily have a six-pack or look a certain way in push-up bras. This was really having a negative effect [on them], so I watched, listened, and talked to them. In the ‘90s, with Agent Provocateur, we were trying to say ‘don’t be afraid of your femininity, it’s your strength and power, use it as you will.’ With Les Boys Les Girls, I wanted to promote body positivity, and give these kids the power to know that they’re okay just as they are.”

The line is unique in that a lot of the pieces seem to be wearable by different genders. Can you talk a bit about this?

“When I was starting to think about the line, discussions of gender seemed to be at the forefront and I saw many members of the younger generation figuring out who they were and realizing that they didn’t really want to be defined as one thing or another. Les Boys Les Girls is about a bunch of people who don’t necessarily want to be labeled. There are shareable items in the collection that everyone can wear—everybody needs underwear, everybody wears tops, everybody needs hoodies.”

Where did you find design inspiration for the line?

“In addition to music, art, and fashion, which always inspire me, I was watching how kids were interacting and feeling, and how people live today versus how they did in the 1990s. Back then, you wore hosiery, heels, and a suit to work, now it’s very different, people can wear sport shoes to the office. Today, people also work from different places—the train, the dining table, or even the bed—and they dress accordingly. We think of our clothing as a crossover from ‘bed to street.’”

What are your favorite pieces from Les Girls Les Boys?

“Originally, I thought I was making a line only of interest to ages 18 to 30. But I’m older, and I wear and try everything that we make. In my whole career, I’ve never made anything that I don’t like. I particularly love our swim line, because you can mix and match—I wear the swimsuits with jeans sometimes, too. Because I’ve made underwear for so long, I make sure it’s comfortable and high-quality.”

How would you describe your wellness routine?

“I’ve always been pretty healthy about what I put into my body. If you eat unhealthily, you feel it, and it’s not a nice feeling. I used to be quite strict—no dairy, no wheat, no sugar, and no red meat—but now I’ve found a really happy place where I try to avoid things I know aren’t good for me, but don’t say no. Generally, my diet is quite plant-based and focused on seasonal, organic, and local produce—I don’t want to have fruit flown from one side of the world to the other, which often happens here in the U.K. I try to do everything naturally and I swear by acupuncture.”

What about fitness?

“I love to do yoga and Pilates and walk the dog. When I’m by the sea, I love to go swimming. Every morning, I wear trackies and hoodies from my line to the gym, with our ribbed tanks and T-shirts—I don’t mind going to a meeting in them, too.”
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