It’s 10am in the lingerie department at one of London’s luxury department stores and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen someone so impeccably well put together at this time in the morning.
Bleary-eyed over my coffee, I am gazing transfixed at the sales assistants in their polished pageantry - all smiles and red lipstick, heels and stockings, with not a perfectly mascara’d lash out of place.
It’s the week before Christmas, their busiest time second only to Valentine's Day, and these girls are here to sell. Looking good is part and parcel of the job, it’s even in their contract.
Girls have been denied jobs for being a size too 'big', and if they should have the misfortune of forgetting to apply their signature swirl of blusher or god-forbid, clock-in with a chipped nail, they’re sent swiftly down to the beauty hall for ‘corrections’.
“When I first started I was terrible at make-up, they made me pay to see a makeup artist to teach me how,” sighs Valerie*, a delicate brunette, refreshingly grounded despite the Stepford Sales Assistant get-up. Chatty and engaging, she tells me she’s worked here for just over a year, a respite from a difficult time at university.
A mink-clad woman stops to gaze at the walls of lingerie and the sales assistants instantly flock around her, suggesting this-or-that, a flurry of frills and ooh-la-la lace as she slips behind the fitting room curtains. It’s quite the spectacle.
I ask Valerie if she likes her job. ”I spend all day looking at women in gorgeous underwear, it's most men's dream,” she laughs.
But it’s a fantasy some customers can take too far. “There is a weird atmosphere sometimes,” her smile dims and I prepare for the ubiquitous ‘Carry On’ tales of couples getting carried away in the changing rooms (which, of course, she has plenty of). Instead she begins to regale me with stories of men, very rich men, behaving very badly.
“The more successful they are, the worse they act,” she says.
The men with big money to spend often prey on the sales assistants, who work on commission: “It’s almost like a game to them, to see how much they can get away with.”
With relaxed inhibitions from long lunches at the store’s glittering champagne bar, some men can easily take things too far, beyond the realm of bawdy banter and crossing the line into sexual harassment.
They will often ask if they can buy the girls underwear, to see them model it. Some will start talking dirty right off the bat.
Valerie reveals how one “very well-known” man showed her naked pictures of his girlfriend on his phone, asking her to guess the woman’s bra-size as he had purportedly forgotten. “It was mortifying,” she says, and shifts uncomfortably.
“But if men flirt with me, I have to flirt back. It's just part of the job - we’re selling sex, not literally, just the idea of it.”
And sex does sell. Despite the high-street’s decline, the lingerie industry appears virtually recession-proof - consistently growing year-on-year since 2008.
The average British woman spends £15,000 on lingerie in a lifetime but here in the playground of London’s most powerful and elite, it’s a different world. It’s not uncommon for Valerie’s customers to drop five or 10 thousand pounds on a few sets of underwear without batting an eyelid.
This, of course, means she always sees what footballers’ wives will be getting for Christmas, and most likely their girlfriends on the side too.
“I’m adept at spotting a cheat now,” she says matter-of-factly, as if mistresses are practically de rigueur among high-status men.
While most philandering spouses cautiously enquire what will appear on their bank statements before making a purchase, others are far more blasé.
“One man asked for two of everything, in two different sizes and in two different boxes,” she motions a pointed finger. “He says ‘this one’s for my wife, and this one’s for my mistress’, it made me feel sick.”
When he asked her to put a sticker on one of the boxes, so he could tell them apart, Valerie purposely switched them around. She’s grinning now, a chink in the glossy customer service, “I don’t think he had a very happy Christmas.”
In the store’s opulent halls, it’s also the norm to see older gentleman with girls young enough to be their daughters. When I start to suggest they could be, she cuts me off: “Trust me, no one would buy their daughter such risqué underwear.”
But the girls here for the goods look bored, sullen, and completely devoid of affection for their male companions.
Valerie explains that they see lingerie as nothing more than a lacy frippery, that it’s not an investment like jewellery, handbags or even plastic surgery. In short, they’d rather be in another department.
She shares her sadness for the women who’ve made a career out of such exploits, and over how things can end up when they start to lose their looks.
Last week she caught a regular customer, seen with a different man each week, snorting cocaine in the fitting rooms. After stumbling out, red-faced and flustered, she attempted to pay with declined credit card after credit card, begging her date “please buy me things.”
It’s not an uncommon occurrence, and with seemingly no moral guidelines it can be hard for the girls working here not to get sucked in. As we say goodbye, Valerie pauses and tells me: “I don’t want to work here forever,” and I really hope she doesn’t have to.
*Names have been changed
Photography by Hana Haley