Perfectly Preened

Saturday 15 September 2012

Designers · Featured

PHOTOGRAPHY BY TARA DARBY
WORDS BY CLARE COULSON

After 10 seasons in New York and dressing the international set, Preen by Thornton Bregazzi is back at London Fashion Week. The British label once renowned for deconstruction may have grown up since its cult Nineties days, but it still brings a cool edge to the polish.

Just over 15 years ago, Preen’s Justin Thornton and Thea Bregazzi opened their shop on Portobello Green. It didn’t take long for a cult following to develop for their cool, draped dresses and groundbreaking skinny jeans, which would routinely sell out every Saturday as fast as the duo could make them. “We didn’t have backing or funding so we really needed to sell the clothes. We did everything ourselves,” remembers Thornton.

“That meant that we had to perfect absolutely everything,” adds Bregazzi. “For example, it’s hard to get the fit on trousers correct, but we would try things on so many different people to get it just right. It was really trial and error. All the feedback was invaluable. People can be brutal, but I think it’s something you have to hear.”

The success they have enjoyed since is firmly rooted in those early days, when they got to know the Preen woman so well. Their approach has always been female-friendly – there may have been super-sexy dresses (like the phenomenally successful Power dress, worn by Gwyneth Paltrow, Amy Winehouse and Rihanna, to name a few, and still a regular sell-out), but each and every season they offer customers just as many flattering and forgiving dresses, slick blazers and covetable separates, too.

As Natalie Kingham, Matches International Womenswear Buyer, puts it, “Their prints and cuts are feminine with an edge, and can be styled and worn in so many different ways. They have such a natural flair for knowing exactly what women want to wear, and they move effortlessly with the times. I remember them when they were based in that small store in Portobello Green, through to the Power-dress days and beyond.”

They’ve come a long way since those early Notting Hill days, both literally and metaphorically. After five years showing in New York, they are finally moving back to London this season – prompted, in part, by the impending birth of their second child (due in a few days’ time), but also by the way in which London has evolved since they were last showing here. “The BFC has always asked us to come back, but London has changed so much now – it’s so much more international,” says Thornton.

“When we went to New York, we needed that boost and we always go very much with our instincts,” adds Bregazzi. “But we have done 10 seasons in New York. It felt like it was time to come back.”

It’s great news for London Fashion Week, but the couple’s sojourn stateside has also seen an incredible evolution of their brand. “New York was great, our business doubled – although I don’t think that was
just because we were showing there,” explains Thornton. “We started selling to so many different countries. Suddenly, we were selling in LA, Australia and the Middle East. So we stopped thinking only about our cool London girl.”

Now the pair are more likely to look to their international clients as well as their friends, who, like them, are in their thirties or forties, and have family lives and careers to dress for.

“We’ve grown up, but the world has changed dramatically in that time, too: the way people travel, the way modern women dress now. They will put an evening skirt with a white tee and wear it in the evening, or wear a cocktail dress with flats for the day.”

As well as being versatile, Preen is pretty ageless. Thornton tells a recent story fed back by one of their New York stockists. A woman came to the store looking for a killer dress for a society wedding. “She wanted to look amazing, because she hated the mother of the bride,” he recalls, with a laugh. “The store owner persuaded her to try a bright red, skintight Preen dress. You would never have imagined someone of a certain age wearing it, but the woman said that she looked and felt amazing in it, and she took it. That wouldn’t have happened so much 10 years ago, but now there are fewer rules. It’s just about what looks good.”

The pair have tried to keep an eye on their customer and get feedback, even as the business has grown (the main line, along with their more casual contemporary collection, called Preen Line, is now sold in 35 countries globally). “We do six collections a year now, so we are in the bubble of the studio. It’s very important to keep in touch with the people actually wearing your clothes, although it can be quite hard. But in the showroom, we get all the feedback from the buyers – they are great at keeping us updated with how pieces are selling.”

Sometimes the best-sellers take the designers entirely by surprise. Net-A-Porter recently asked for a Plaza dress to be made exclusively for them, in a really vivid green. “We were like, ‘Ooh, are you sure?’” says Thornton. The site sold 80 per cent of the dresses within 48 hours. “It was amazing, but they are brilliant at what they do.”

The all-woman appeal of the label is clear in the main collections. For S/S 13, the pair are developing the fresh and sporty feel of their Resort collection. Each collection invariably continues an element
from the previous season, says Thornton, but spring also draws on the idea of patchworks, which they initially developed for A/W 12.

“We are always interested in mixing texture and patterns and being quite eclectic,” says Bregazzi. But with this collection, they have been careful to maintain a modern, minimal feel. Snake prints are dyed blue or pink, mixed in patchworks with crisp white or navy jacquards, and cut into sharp pencil skirts. Meanwhile, their signature blazers – a little oversized – come in cream, edged with a monochrome stingray print that also appears in silk camisoles topped with small flowers. Mock croc appears as
a shiny jacquard.

Although there is some colour, the overriding look is crisp navy and blue, to maintain a “classic element to the collection. We wanted it to be very crisp and fresh,” adds Bregazzi.

Playing hard against soft has always been part of the Preen aesthetic, and this season offers sheer camisole tops with lace panels and seductive bodice tops to wear underneath more masculine jackets.

Their mood board is covered in images from the early Nineties. “I don’t want to use the word ‘grunge’,” explains Thornton, “but I guess it does have that feeling, with the relaxed tailoring, layering and
little under-pieces.”

If there is a muse for the collection, it’s Christina Ricci’s Layla from Buffalo ’66 – the cult 1998 film in which Ricci falls for her convict kidnapper, Billy, played by Vincent Gallo. “It has always been one of our favourite films,” adds Thornton. “We loved the attitude and feeling of it: the contrast between the cute and the delicate, the hard and the structured. Those opposing themes have always been a part of our collections.”

Those dual themes must stem, in a way, from the fact that Thornton and Bregazzi work together on all aspects of the design. “I can’t even imagine what it is like to design alone,” muses Thornton. “If one of us really doesn’t like something, it challenges us more – and that’s what is great about the two of us designing together. And because Thea is a woman, she always thinks more practically about the woman who will be wearing it: how she will wear it, and what underwear she will be wearing underneath.”

Next up is an online store, which will bring them even closer to their loyal customers. “Buyers have a very specific idea of what they want to buy, according to their customers, and no one is ever going to have the whole collection or certain pieces. So we will sell what our other stockists can’t offer: special pieces, one-off colours and re-editions from previous collections.”

But first, it’s all hands on deck to deliver their London comeback show, and the home side couldn’t be more excited. “Showing in New York for the past five years has helped hone their signature and apply their own gloss,” says Alison Chisholm, Assistant Contemporary Buyer at Harvey Nichols. “Now they have the benefit of a history and a unique design archive, both of which feed into the character of Preen, defining its past and helping shape the brand for the future. It will be wonderful to have them back.”

Preen by Thornton Bregazzi’s collection is being shown on Sunday at 9am in SW7. Stockists: Avenue 32, Harvey Nichols, Joseph, Matches, Mywardrobe.com, Net-A-Porter, Selfridges

We would like to thank the following advertisers:

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Anya Hindmarch
Cotton USA
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