The Preen Arena

Firm favourite of First Ladies, royals and fashion cognoscenti, Preen straddles the gulf between creativity and cold hard sales with an enviable ease. What’s their formula? Luke Singleton calls them up and discovers the link between pagans, nightclubbing and Michelle Obama

Fashion frequently loves to focus on glamour and unattainable ideals, rather than relatability, and it takes a special talent to reconcile these usually mutually exclusive concepts. Being able to nail cross-appeal is like gold dust to fashion labels. “Yes, it’s important,” asserts Justin Thornton of the label Preen by Thornton Bregazzi. “We [that’s Thornton and his business partner and wife, Thea Bregazzi] want to give women an aspiration and something to desire, and as a designer you want to challenge them and give them something they haven’t thought of before. But at the end of the day, it’s got to work for them.” I have called him up to congratulate him on a stellar year; Preen is becoming something of a household name, yet, unusually, manages to remain unbound by demographic restrictions. 

So why do women gravitate towards a particular dress? The Duchess of Cambridge bought the same Preen cocktail dress in two different colours; pillar-box red and black, from Fenwick on London’s Bond Street. Michelle Obama wore her cheerful lemon-yellow Preen dress, with sky-blue lace overlay, for a ceremonial arrival in London. Alexa Chung wore a bare-shouldered, Preen dress, in ruched black velvet, to last year’s Brit Awards. The relationship between designers and customers is symbiotic, so what sort of women now inspire designers to dress them? Apparently, it helps to be a little bit real. Justin is quick to tell me that his greatest inspirations have always been the female relationships that surround him. “We have this core group of women we have known for years in London. When we were all younger, they would be clubbing with us, going to gigs with us, and now they’re very successful mothers, career women, CEOs, executive directors, film producers, make-up artists. They have totally inspired us; they are all so diverse, the style by which they live.” I notice that this is where Justin is at his most enthusiastic, long before I decide to bring up the Obama connection. “We’re not huge promoters,” he confesses, when I query his unexpected modesty here. “We’ve always been known as being under the radar.” 

It is for this reason that Preen, as a brand, currently holds an unrivalled, cult-like status among women who, perhaps, adhere to a more cultivated aesthetic but who also want to cut a dash in something extraordinary, without looking like the walking embodiment of a fashion designer’s whimsy. “When Thea and I are designing together, we often go: ‘So-and-so would wear that’, and if our friends wouldn’t wear it, we’ll take it straight out of the collection. The women who have grown up with us are now the women changing the rules within the industry.” 

Preen’s spring/summer 2017 collection is a return to the roots of the designers, who hail from the Isle of Man, and is a reflection on the pagan history of their home culture. Justin and Thea grew up in an area fascinated with voodoo sorcery and occultism. “That’s why you see the witchcraft symbolism in all the prints, with the flowers on the faces and the plaited hair, and dreamy, almost dark, sinister paganism. We love references that have two different connotations, and that are a little dark, but still beautiful at the same time. A tough femininity, which is quite important.” 

After graduating with fine arts degrees, the pair moved to London in 1995, during the heady days of Cool Britannia; a time when rising stars were flocking to the city, as a tidal wave of opportunism surged through the capital. “Living in Notting Hill back then was probably what Hoxton has been like in recent years,” Justin explains. “Nights out were spent clubbing at Subterranea, off the Portobello Road, providing a perfect networking opportunity; everybody was there. I was about 18 or 19, and it was amazing. Such a fun place to go.” How did people respond when they heard Justin and Thea were trying to break into the fashion industry? “Everybody was pretty nice. You’d tell them you were trying to do your own fashion label, and people were like, ‘Yeah, go for it!’” 

Preen is not without its celebrity admirers, of course. After the Duchess wore its black dress to a charity gala, stocks sold out within weeks – reminiscent of Roland Mouret’s Galaxy dress from a decade ago, although Preen’s hit run was not limited to one particular dress. The hits kept on coming. At one point, it felt like there was a Preen garment on almost every magazine front cover, sauntering up the red carpet of every award ceremony and sat on the sofa of every popular US chat show. Yet Justin retains his down-to-earth sensibility: “We are very aware that it’s wonderful to dress Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Bosworth and people like that, but the reality is that they’re not going out and buying it. We need the woman who is going to go out and buy it to want it as well.” Does he have a good idea of who this particular woman is? “Well, if you look at the modern woman, she is not pigeon-holed at any particular time in her life to believe she should dress a certain way. Women are now very expressive in the way they dress. Maybe today they want to be tough, a ball-breaker, and wear a suit. Tomorrow, they may want to be super-feminine and delicate.” I am reminded of Theresa May’s brown leather Amanda Wakeley trousers that she wore at 10 Downing Street; an astonishing fashion moment which caused a Fleet Street furore last December. Did this not present a woman who can inhabit different characters, with enough confidence to trust her owninstinct; a sartorially modern politician? “Well, look at Michelle Obama!” Justin exclaims. “Look at how inspirational and amazing she has been. She’s the first First Lady in America really to embrace colour, print and to not wear the typical thing for the typical occasion.” 

Totally agree. So we are talking politics now! How exactly did Preen cultivate that relationship? “It started in the second year of her tenure as First Lady. We were contacted and told she had seen a piece online and she just really liked it.” Were there any complications around fittings? “She’s pretty easy to fit. She is so down-to-earth. We were fortunate enough to go to the White House. She wore us for her last interview as First Lady, on Oprah.” The dress in question was a long-sleeved, midnight-blue silk dress, with pale-green horizontal stripes and a collage of floral prints. So refreshingly modern, and a little atypical. It felt instinctive. “It is such a weird feeling, because 2016, for us, was such a fantastic year. But for the world it was a bloody shit year.” 2016 was a vintage year for politics, and Preen was seen on the backs of many important female politicians. What an interesting way to be part of the conversation, but still remain protected from the pandemonium. “We never courted it… but it is nice. It encourages new customers to come along. When you get someone whom you consider a conservative person, like Samantha Cameron, in that she was the Prime Minister’s wife and there was a certain way she had to dress, for her to select us it’s a seal of approval. We don’t normally design for that look, so it makes us feel that as designers we are appealing to a vast array of women.” 

Crossover complete.

All clothes from the Preen by Thornton Bregazzi Spring/Summer 2017 collection

Photography: Ash Reynolds

Fashion direction: Thea Lewis-Yates

Hair: Jamie McCormick

Make-up: Kim Brown @ Premier using Benefit Cosmetics

Nails: Cherrie Snow @ Eighteen Management using Bio Sculpture Gel

Model: Tiffany Johnson @ PRM

Set Designer: Ben Clark @ Patricia McMahon

Fashion Assistants: Amity MacDonnell, Olga Dritsopoulou, Steph Kelly and Gabi Espadas 

Digital Technician: Joe Stone

Photographic assistant: Neil Payne