Profile: Joseph Corre of Agent Provocateur

The son of punk legends Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, Joseph Corre blazed a trail with saucy underwear chain Agent Provocateur - and said knickers to an MBE.

So this is how it ends for Tony Blair. Not with the cheers and tears of a grateful nation, "but with calumny and condemnation from a knicker salesman", says the Daily Express. After "wrestling" with his conscience, Joseph Corre, co-founder of Agent Provocateur (pictured with fellow founder, Serena Rees), has rejected the MBE he was awarded for services to British industry, citing the lies Blair told over Iraq. "I felt that I couldn't accept the honour from a dishonest man. And Tony Blair is a dishonest man," he wrote, signing off: "Knickers forever!"

Corre's headline-grabbing protest was a publicity masterstroke, unsurprising given his parentage. Malcolm McLaren, his father, "has built a career on sedition", says the Daily Mail. His mother, Vivienne Westwood, made iconoclasm a fashion statement. Joe, 39, grew up surrounded by the "bizarre paraphernalia" of his parents' trade as "the mother and father of punk". It didn't harm his business prospects. Agent Provocateur, the "trail-blazing" lingerie firm he launched in 1994 with then-girlfriend Serena Rees, is "British business at its best", says The Times. Corre inherited his design skills from his mother and a temper from his father. "There's always a risk element with Joe, and you certainly never want to be in a room when he loses his temper," says his friend Alex James of the band Blur Corre had to be wrestled to the ground at James's wedding after trying to punch the bride's father.

"I'm a hopeless father, it's not surprising my son doesn't like me," Malcolm McLaren once said. "I decided to call him Corre'. He grew up feeling strange; alienated from a name that had nothing to do with him. But I gave him the only name I believed in; my grandmother's." The redoubtable Rose Corre had brought up Malcolm single-handed, insisting he share her bed until he was 13. Had she had her way, Joseph, conceived soon after McLaren met Westwood, would not have been born at all. "My grandmother gave us the money for an abortion," says McLaren. "Vivienne spent it on a cashmere twinset." Joe had one perpetual fear: that one or other of his parents would call him stupid. "The look was enough. You never wanted to be put under the Stupid Spotlight."

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Corre met Serena Rees in a nightclub in 1992. Soon after, they decided to start a sex and lifestyle store. The move was triggered by a fact-finding mission to Ann Summers, where they found a lager-flavoured nipple gel. "I thought, My god, is that the state of the nation?'," recalls Corre. They opened their first store in Soho; a branch in Knightsbridge soon followed. Boosted by endorsements from friends such as Kate Moss, the public lapped up its brand of saucy-but-classy sexiness. In 1999, they hit the big-time with a lucrative deal to design a range for Marks & Spencer and began an aggressive international expansion. At the opening of their Las Vegas store, notes the San Francisco Chronicle, Paris Hilton "dropped four grand on undies".

But neither the marriage, nor the profits, have lasted. The couple, who have a ten-year-old daughter, Cora, split up last year Serena has moved in with The Clash bass player, Paul Simonon. Meanwhile, the firm's last set of accounts show a pre-tax loss of £208,000 on sales of just under £9m. Can it recover? It may depend on whether Corre can continue in business partnership with his ex-girlfriend. The omens don't look great. Serena Rees also received an MBE in the Queen's Birthday List: she regards it as an honour and plans to keep it.

The powers behind the throne at Agent Provocateur

Joseph Corre thinks his MBE for services to women's underwear is unacceptable, says David Robson in the Daily Express. "So do I." The merest glimpse of Agent Provocateur's "irresistible cream Cookie bra-and-pant set" or its "explosive cerise Gwendoline basque" makes it plain that the honours system has been brought into ridicule and contempt. "An MBE for that? The family who owned Marks & Spencer received peerages for services to the cotton gusset. Corre should have got a dukedom at least."

The firm's initial success was based on one key insight, agrees The Sunday Times: that there was no middle way in the lingerie industry between demureness and tacky sex apparel. The design element of Agent Provocateur, which drew heavily on Vivienne Westwood for inspiration, was always its strength. But the firm was no slouch when it came to marketing either, drawing on the couple's celebrity friends to boost the brand. Damian Hirst's promotional material mocked George Bush; Kylie Minogue was portrayed "riding her bucking bronco into sexual oblivion"; and Kate Moss appeared in an erotic promotional film directed by Mike Figgis.

Yet the brand's appeal was best encapsulated by Serena Rees herself, says The Sunday magazine. "To meet Rees is to understand immediately the allure of Agent Provocateur. Tall, dark, exceptionally handsome, she is a self-confessed make an effort' sort of gal." As she puts it: "Great lingerie gives you confidence, a feeling of well-being. You feel like a sexy superhero underneath your clothing." How will Corre get by without her?