On a 36-degree scorching August day, Preen designers Thea Bregazzi and Justin Thornton are beaming through Zoom. As light and cheerful as their studio surroundings, the duo’s enthusiasm is infectious as they chat about their lifelong infatuation with fashion. But this relationship stretches far beyond the nine-to-five. Just like their whimsical designs, their love story could also be lifted straight out of a fairytale.
Words by Charlie Newman. Portrait courtesy of Preen.
All clothes by Preen by Thornton Bregazzi.
The setting? The Isle of Man, studded with medieval castles and rugged coastlines, with echoes of its Celtic and Viking history, formed the perfect playground for young Thea and Justin to roam. Although unknown to each other at the time, their childhood mirrored one another’s. Both have strong matriarchal figures in their family. Justin’s mother was a stereotypical “’70s mother… very much make do and mend.” He chuckles at the memory of yearning for a Star Wars Death Star toy, “My mother said ‘£24.99? I don’t think so, we’ll make our own!’” Without clothing shops, and without siblings for Justin, boredom “forced me to be creative… I used to go to secondhand shops and everything would be either too big or didn’t fit, so I would just alter them.” Similarly Thea’s neighbouring “pioneer” grandparents were self-sufficient, growing “their own vegetables, they made all of their own food, [my grandmother] knitted her own jumpers, she even spun her own wool.”
The pair finally collided whilst studying an art foundation course on the island. “First we were just really good mates, we got along straight away. We were kind of into the same music, same kind of fashion.” Afterwards, they attended separate universities, Justin to study Fashion and Textiles, and Thea Fashion Design and Business. It seems as though they haven’t strayed far from their academic roots. Justin confesses that, “Thea has more of a business mind than me… We work differently but both design. I work by draping a lot on the stand,” whilst Thea sketches and also drapes. Thea describes herself as more, “practical. It’s good for Justin as he can be more free with design and not be thinking about restraints, whereas I can think about it on the body, the hips, the arms… from a woman’s perspective.”
Thornton Bregazzi’s differing angles blend to create thoughtfully considered designs with a playful edge, a distinct vision they have maintained and cultivated since founding their brand Preen in 1996. Their debut London Fashion Spring Summer collection in 2001 consolidated the brand's mark on the British fashion industry through their darkly romantic lens. Preen’s designs flutter with feverish frills, delicately gathered and draped to flatter the female form. The magic lies in the juxtaposition – Bloomsbury florals on acid; costume drama meets punk; suits for romping not for working; all tied together with a heady cacophony of texture, including feathers, sequins, velvet, lace and silk.
You’re not mistaken if Preen’s signature feels familiar, for whiffs of their DNA can be found in many a current collection across fellow fashion houses. Rather than be irritated by the emulation, Thea and Justin chose to see it as a form of flattery. “I mean we’ve been doing it for a long time so of course, there will be people who are inspired by us. You just have to say to yourself, ‘Well we’re obviously doing something right.’” And indeed they are.
"Most designs are an amalgamation of both of us"
Preen designs are adored by respected women across the globe, from Beyoncé, to Cate Blanchett, Rihanna, Amy Winehouse, Gwyneth Paltrow, Meghan Markle, the former First Lady Michelle Obama and the Duchess of Cambridge. As well as Susan Sarandon and Thornton Bregazzi family favourite, Billie Eilish. Despite their famous fans, Preen projects a humbler voice. Justin explains, “I think probably because we never really were the next big thing, we were always kind of respected. We never had that huge pressure that some young designers have where they’re under the spotlight. We never really experienced that and actually I think that was a positive thing.” Those who do experience the intense attention often fall as fast as they ascended due to impossibly fast expansion. Instead, Thornton Bregazzi chose to own their company without investors in order to give them more flexibility, “But at the same time when things go wrong, that’s all on us.” Learning from previous mistakes, together they embark on a more authentic journey. Thea jokes, “If he was employing me I’d be like ‘That’s a very lovely design’ [acts being sick] but we can be honest with each other. We bounce ideas off each other. Most designs are an amalgamation of both of us.”
Each collection is borne out of a story, whether that be a painting, “or a way somebody carried their bag which has hitched up their sleeve, even seeing someone wearing something in the street in a different way.” London is their favourite place to people watch, “It’s very inspirational, the clash of cultures,” with Japan coming in as a close second. Justin explains, “When we start a collection, we open ourselves up to everything, let everything in and then slowly filter it to what we’re really focused on. It could be anything. You can’t help but be influenced by social and economic situations and be reminded of times in the past that seem similar or feel current again. Of course we always design in our own aesthetic and our own handwriting, we’re not interested in rehashing the same thing all the time. We want to have a new angle on it, feel a little bit modern.” The Preen moodboard is a worthwhile lesson in inquisitiveness, serving us with a reminder to hold onto your childhood curiosity and find beauty everywhere. “We have the most bizarre inspirations. We’ve had pearl divers from Korea, witchcraft, youth culture,” and many more.
"We have the most bizarre inspirations. We’ve had pearl divers from Korea, witchcraft, youth culture,"
Throbbing youth culture was most evident in their recent Fall Winter 2022 collection, laden with mismatched patchwork plaids, oversized outwear cinched in at the waist or flowing haphazardly due to the leaping and rhythmic performances of the English National Ballet. Preen’s trademark moody florals and structured floating fabric was brought to heady heights in their runway show held at Soho’s iconic Heaven nightclub. Preen’s first show post-pandemic was palpably emotional for various reasons – exciting because it was the first time in a long while that many people had been in a club, but also it gave Preen the opportunity to help other industries who had also been negatively impacted by the pandemic. Complete with sticky floors (for after vigorous cleaning, the floor was too slippery for the dancers, so they had to spray it with Coca-Cola!), for Thea the show felt, “More personal. We can’t compete with the really big shows but it didn’t feel like the right sort of time to do that anyway. I just think it’s fun to do more parties, more dinners. It’s quite exciting because I feel like everything’s changing again, we're re-evaluating again. Loads of my friends, their lives completely changed for the better, eventually.”
You can find the full piece in the Fall Winter 2022 Issue 9: Purchase your copy here.