Mike Ashley’s Sports Direct has emerged as a bidder in the race for struggling upmarket lingerie chain Agent Provocateur.

Sports Direct has reportedly tabled a £27.5m bid, according to The Sunday Times, just shy of the £30m that private-equity owner 3i is reportedly searching for.

The sportswear retailer’s plans involve keeping all 11 of the brand’s stores open and to begin selling it in USC, the casualwear retailer also owned by Ashley.

French womenswear brand Etam and private-equity firms Lion Capital and Terra Firma Capital Partners are also among the bidders.

3i has owned Agent Provocateur for over a decade. It is expected to make a decision on its preferred bidder shortly.

Recent troubles

Agent Provocateur has struggled for a number of years but has recently been hit by an accounting scandal, currently being investigated by KPMG, which is said to relate to an overstatement of profits.

It has also suffered from a swift succession of management with both chairman Chris Woodhouse and former chief executive Garry Hogarth departing in the last few months of 2016.

Current chief executive Fabrizio Malverdi was parachuted in to lead a turnaround of the business last year but is not expected to remain in position after any sale.

In addition to its 11 stores, Agent Provocateur has around 100 concessions in 13 countries, including at Harrods and Selfridges in London, Manchester and Birmingham in the UK.