Words Kiera Court
Portraits Simon Melber
“…this is saying: be your own self because that’s the sexiest and best you can ever be.”
It’s an unseasonably mild morning for October, and the quaint streets of Marylebone feel crisp and cheerful. I’m greeted with a similar degree of effortless warmth by Serena Rees, founder of lingerie label les girls les boys, when we meet for the first time at her studio. It is a basement beribboned with rails of garments slinking off of their hangers and walls decorated with clipped photographs of millennials laughing, loving, kissing and co-existing.
Marylebone has been Serena’s working home since she left her Cambridge-educated parents, aged 16, and went straight into work. “I think they would’ve liked me to have gone too. I just wanted to work and do exciting things and learn about the world – to be responsible for myself and not really have anyone telling me what to do. I haven’t changed much since then,” she explains with characteristic self-assurance.
When she was five years old, during the holidays, Serena used to go to work with her mum at Gallery Five on Great Titchfield Street. “I used to be sent round the corner to get things from the newsagents and the food shop for everybody in the office. They paid me and I loved it. I got a feeling for work very early on. Then, you could send your five-year-old round the corner on their own! It was totally fine! It wasn’t a weird thing.”
Her first port of call in Marylebone was working with a retoucher on Marylebone High Street, at a time when a scalpel was used to scrape away at black and white images. She chuckles and muses, “There was this crazy, gay and funny retoucher that used to live above the shops in this really cool flat. I’d take the retouching over to him.”
It’s difficult not to feel inspired by Serena; her work ethic grew quicker than she did but her intuition kept up. So much so, in fact, that she went on to work for designer Vivienne Westwood, where her knowledge and experience within the fashion industry bloomed. “I worked across the board in her business. I loved the clothes. They’re brilliant. I wore them and still wear them to this day.” She nods her head slowly and I assume it’s in acknowledgement of her then-husband, Joseph Corré, son of Vivienne and Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren, with whom she co-founded the lingerie label L’Agent Provocateur in 1994, when she was just 26.
“It was a very different idea in the beginning. It was supposed to be a lifestyle store where everything was erotic or sensual in some way, shape or form.” Due to the recession, she and Corré were continuously outbid on the large stores they’d find in Soho. “We were down, as we’d done so much work, so we took one element of the original idea, which was the lingerie, and opened up a tiny shop in Soho, on Broadwick Street. We painted it ourselves. Then, in 2007, we sold it for a large amount of money. It was a very different time. What we were doing then back in the 90s was saying, don’t be afraid of your sexuality – it’s okay to be sexy.”
Soho was the perfect place to do this, I suggest: in Soho, you can just exist. Serena agrees enthusiastically: “Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, all that gang of artists – we were all happening and bubbling together at the same time. All of my friends who were at St Martins round the corner used to come and hang out at the store. Everyone was in that store and it was really fun! Old Compton Street was almost like a sexual revolution for the gay movement. They could go to a café where no one was going to beat them up. It was very different then and it was exciting. It’ll always be exciting, Soho.”
It’s clear Serena has always embraced change, and continues to do so. It’s what inspired her current brainchild and latest brand, les girls les boys, 10 years after she sold L’Agent Provocateur. “Although, ultimately, I’m making underwear again, which I didn’t think I’d ever be doing, les girls les boys sends a very different message to back in the 90s. Too much has been shown and put out there; it’s been abused somewhat. Now we have the #MeToo movement – it cannot continue like this.”
The new label, aimed at millennials, champions comfort over erotica in the form of undergarments of all kinds, coined bed-to-street wear. Les girls les boys takes things back to basics. It’s a collection that basically enables the wearer, regardless of gender, to strip off in a way that allows them to fully be themselves. “Boys and girls are expected to look like these unattainable, unrealistic body types. So, this is saying: be your own self because that’s the sexiest and best you can ever be.”
Serena is watching political and social change unfold in front of her, and is evolving with them. She understands the need for authenticity and honesty, for accurate portrayals of reality. As she looks me in the eye, I feel the words she speaks address not just me, but everyone in my generation: “Don’t ruin your life thinking you’re not good enough, until suddenly you’re 50 years old, having wasted all those years not doing things because you were down on yourself, because you weren’t what you saw in a magazine.”
She reclines back into her seat as I take one last glance at the Polaroids on the wall. They meticulously fit the aesthetic of community and whisper an unspoken understanding of insecurity. “Design is having an eye,” she remarks. “Having an understanding for the detail in things and a passion as well. If you put all those things together, it helps you create an experience. I think, ultimately, that’s what I do. I create experiences.”