An Exclusive Interview With The Design Duo Behind Preen

Combining JUSTIN THORNTON’s experimental futurism with THEA BREGAZZI’s poised elegance, PREEN’s recipe for making special, wearable dresses shows no sign of waning …

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The Isle of Man is not known for its fashion credentials. Apart from the annual TT race and as a lucrative offshore tax haven, its most famous residents have included the Gibb brothers – Barry and Maurice of The Bee Gees. It is also where Justin Thornton and Thea Bregazzi spent their formative years and may explain their seemingly idiosyncratic design vision. Says Thornton, “We both met at the age of 18 on an art foundation course on the Isle of Man. We moved to London in the 1990s after university and set up Preen as a shop in the Portobello Road.”

On the island were only a few bars and clubs where goths, punks, New Romantics and hippies met. It’s perhaps this harmonious confluence of inspirations that has informed their designs as well as accounted for the diversity of their clients. Divas, catwalk darlings and duchesses are not normally drawn to the same styles yet Diane Kruger, Christy Turlington, Rihanna and Olivia Palermo are regular clients as too is the Duchess of Cambridge, who wore their red crepe “Finella” dress (in signature body-sculpting stretch satin) on her Canadian tour last year and loved it so much she later bought it in black. Bregazzi, who has retained her Manx lilt, says, “When we design, we think about the way people are working and living, what’s going on. I’m very interested in why certain people want to wear certain styles at certain times. It’s all wound up with culture and politics.”

They’ve had their share of First Lady patrons, who have selected Preen by Thornton Bregazzi when they wanted their choice of dress to provide a frame, rather than be the picture itself. Michelle Obama, photographed in their designs no less than six times, invited them to the White House (the designers took their mothers) and significantly Samantha Cameron wore the label for her husband’s election victory and Brexit defeat. Says Thornton, “The woman we design for is ageless and modern. She is our friend, mother and successful business woman.”

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Certainly customers are drawn to the designers’ warmth and normalcy – and remain loyal as a result; the pair make a refreshing change to some of the more outré characters on the fashion circuit. Working collaboratively, they have two daughters (Fauve and Blythe) and will marry this year after two decades together.

They have come a long way since selling off pieces at the back of their shop in 1996 and now design a burgeoning line of accessories including sunglasses and shoes. Thornton worked with Helen Storey immediately after graduation while Bregazzi was a stylist and designer before they decided to combine their talent. As an independent label, Cher and Janet Jackson were early clients and word of mouth worked without the need for an advertising budget. Madonna, Sarah Jessica Parker and Jennifer Lopez were other early devotees; Kate Bosworth, Yasmin Sewell and Jessica Chastain followed. A move to New York between 2008-2013 gave them international recognition and an admiration of American positivity. They made the decision to return to London when their second daughter was born and now live in west London, where they cite the ultra-feminine Sketch as their favourite dining spot. A fitting backdrop for wearing one of their designs …

It was their short, sculptural “Power Dress” that catapulted them to fame. Made with 1950s corseting fabric that took an inch off the waistline and flattened the stomach, it was much subtler than, say, Hervé Leger’s “Bandage” dress, and cooler than the more corporate Roland Mouret “Galaxy” dress. Says Thornton of this iconic style, “Back in 2006, we designed the Power dress which was a tight, structured dress inspired by the 90s supermodels. It was a huge hit, especially when Amy Winehouse and Gwyneth Paltrow wore it. Season after season, we’ll update this style and include this within our classic offering, so it’s really important that we are always evolving.” This down-to-earth approach is key to their commercial success – stick with a tried and tested winner – with Bregazzi adding, “We like to create silhouettes that are easy and effortless.” Their dresses appeal because they are feminine and flowing but also because they have edge – take the asymmetric seams, odd necklines and mismatched panelling details or lopsided ruching of recent collections. Their separates are equally striking, especially their blouses. When they first showed during London Fashion Week in 2001, Liberty Ross wore one of their “rosary bead” blouses straight off the catwalk. It was snapped and papped, making it an instant hit.

Insiders report that attending their shows are emotionally-charged occasions – the couple’s daughters have ringside seats so they are the first faces their parents see when taking a bow. Check their Instagram and you’ll note frequent images of what seems like a normal family life – trips to the beach on the Isle of Man or at their Suffolk cottage, the girls wearing organza dresses from the Preen Mini collection, or behind the scenes in their studio with the hashtag #thekidstakeover. One wonders whether their collaboration to mark Beatrix Potter’s 150th anniversary in 2016 had any bearing on their daughters’ reading material? Preen designed the anniversary cover to The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin.

Fairytales aside, this season their dresses take inspiration from the botanical world, Georgia O’Keeffe, modern architecture and the poet Edith Sitwell, with patchwork, ruffled-trimmed raw denim and a festival of colours predominating. The ruffles no doubt are nod to their shared love of all things Victoriana, as are their dark floral and velvet creations. Bregazzi herself looks pre-Raphaelite, with flowing auburn hair, and their west London home is full of Victorian glass bottles. Indeed, their interior style is as visually inviting as their collections and a future line is on the cards.

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Preen SS17, Jason Lloyd Evans

When you are looking for a pretty “passe-partout” dress to take you from boardroom to cocktail party, Preen is a sound investment. Though confronted with such an enviable choice, what does a customer do? Go for the Preen Line and its contemporary deconstruction and minimal opulence or splurge on an injection of confidence-boosting colour? The Preen Line diary online helps, with international stylists and bloggers providing street-style inspiration. Bregazzi counsels, “It depends on your body shape but the shirt dress is great for most shapes as it has a softly draped drop waist.” If you want to add some edge, their recent collaboration with Ugg is perfect. The flatform, zeitgeisty shoe has oversized bows and a utilitarian strap – certainly a fashionable departure for Ugg. “The shoes are part of “Tokyo Pastel Goths”, Thornton explains, “and in part, the seamless gloss of Jeff Koons’ manipulations of balloon and bow art. We worked with Ugg to develop runway shoes that are effortless and edgy, cute and tough – it’s all about the attitude.”

The brand’s own attitude could be defined as both brave and visionary. While they have made the dress their own, Preen is also credited with creating (alongside Daryl K in New York) the skinny jean or hipster drainpipes which were synonymous with Kate Moss’s rock ‘n’ roll aesthetic: she bought them from the designers in the 1990s and they make an appearance in the SS17 collection too. “Our ripped Neala jeans with lace detail look fantastic on all shapes and our diver sequins give a jolt of joy!” says Thornton, who names them as his favourite piece from the collection. Bregazzi adds, “The silk lurex Drake Dress with the mini Pentagram print is my favourite style of the season.” Bregazzi also reveals, “We drew inspiration from witchcraft and paganism that was practised in our native Isle of Man – we loved the dark romantic history of it.” No doubt more Manx myths will be revealed in the future. For now they promise, “More beautiful dresses, fragrance, accessories and some exciting collaborations to be announced.” Worth the wait.

Preen By Thornton Bregazzi is at Brown Thomas, Dublin.

Penny Mc Cormick

This article appeared in a previous issue, for more features like this don’t miss our next issue, out Thursday May 4.

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