Agent Provocateur: Graphic and novel

IT IS a brand that lives up to its name. We've had images of Sapphic sirens Daisy Lowe and Peaches Geldof tempting each other with cherries, and Maggie Gyllenhaal astride a chair, gently restrained by tasselled handcuffs. Indeed, when Kate Moss appeared as saucy Miss X in a series of adverts directed by Mike Figgis, so many people logged on to view them that they brought the entire website crashing down.

So when Agent Provocateur came to design its latest advertising campaign, it must have wondered how it might keep us all panting for more. In the end, it didn't sign up a big-name supermodel or rock star's daughter; it created superwoman instead. Or, rather, an entire race of all-powerful graphic-novel superheroines who hail from the planet Voluptura and in whose hands the future of the human race rests.

Of course, they don't wear much in the way of clothing, these girls (it must be warm on Voluptura). So we find pneumatic Miss Magnette in stockings and suspenders – "no one can resist her attraction" – the Bullet – dressed in a rhinestone playsuit that leaves nothing to the imagination – and Nymphette – dressed in electric- blue lace. "This year's collection was very spacey," says the company's PR director, Jess Morris, by way of explanation. "There were a lot of high legs and silver and futuristic styles, so that's how it all started."

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The company recruited Marvel and DC Comics artist Staz Johnson – who has illustrated characters ranging from Batman and Spider-Man to the Fantastic Four and Wolverine – and Panini Comics writer Brady Webb to create four stories following the adventures of The New World Order. Part 1: Mission to Earth. "In a nutshell, the 'regime' has taken over the world and this beautiful, Amazonian, strong, fearsome group of women take it into their hands to liberate Planet Earth. And, because obviously we're Agent Provocateur and everything we do is sexy and powerful but still very tongue-in-cheek, they do it through their sexual awareness," says Morris.

If the concept of all-powerful governments and troubled times seems to ring a bell, it's entirely deliberate. "Behind every campaign there is a social connection," says Morris. "So why this story now? The world's a very difficult place to be at the moment, and sometimes you have to turn it into a fantasy to make light of it.

"As the name suggests, we do like to provoke thought, but we never take ourselves too seriously. We can't really – it's just knickers, after all."

The graphic novel approach is a major departure for the lingerie company, which has tended towards burlesque in the past, "but then the whole world went burlesque so we moved away from that", says Morris. "There's always a little bit of retro in Agent Provocateur, and comic-books are a very retro thing. It's that sort of B-movie, Catwoman, Spider-Man culture – but bringing a modern approach to it. It's still good versus evil, but adding a little bit of sauce."

She cites strong heroines such as Michelle Pfeiffer and Halle Berry as Catwoman and Angelina Jolie playing Lara Croft as major influences – "all of these incredible, powerful actresses who portray these amazing characters. Women can have different role models. We do have to be superwomen: we have to manage the children and the job and the boyfriend, so why shouldn't that fantasy be available to women as well as men?"

In the end, of course, the girls from Voluptura get the last laugh. "It's not as if they're sex objects," says Morris. "Yes, they're dressed provocatively – that's what we do; we're a lingerie company – but it's because of their prowess that the men are falling around the place. The women are always the ones in control."

If proof were needed that this is indeed the case – in life as in comic-books – she explains that most of Agent Provocateur's customers are women. "It's about a 70-30 split, though that changes at Valentine's Day and Christmas, of course."

But what of the feminist stance? Are we letting the side down by sucking our tummies in and slipping on a spangled thong? "Agent Provocateur sells lingerie for sex, not for cosying up in front of EastEnders with a cup of tea," says Linda Watson-Brown, a former student of gender politics and now a best-selling writer, "so it's not really that shocking that a company which makes you think of having sex produces an ad that isn't full of Nora Batty types in grey, cast-iron boulder-holders.

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"Is it offensive? Only if you think sex is offensive. Does it sexualise women? These are grown-ups dressing as comic-book characters, which seems a lot less of an issue than someone pretending to be a schoolgirl, sucking on a lollipop and holding her homework jotter to her suspenders.

"Are these real women? Hell, no, but does it matter? The joke's on men if they buy their other half one of these get-ups and seriously think they will turn into a sex goddess."

She concedes that the campaign may well be aimed at men, given they are traditionally the main audience for graphic novels. "But I think this has a tongue-in-cheek appeal to women as well," she says. "You would be surprised how many of us middle-aged-frumps have Wonder Woman fantasies... and there's always the hope that the men in our lives will turn into chiselled saviours of the world as soon as we slip into a couple of nipple tassels and a G-string."

Still, these are tough times for all businesses, and Morris admits that the company needs to broaden its appeal to ensure its continued survival. But she insists that complaints about its adverts are few and far between. "There are always going to be people who are upset about anything even as soft as the Wonderbra advert. Whenever we do a new campaign there are always one or two who say that it's far too overt. But we don't think we portray women in a victimised fashion. They're never lying there waiting to get ravaged – they're the ones doing the ravaging.

"Wearing this underwear makes you feel confident, and confidence is sexy; it's an empowering thing and that makes you feel like a superhero."

Agent Provocateur, 213 Ingram Street, Glasgow (0141-221 2538,