Favoured by the beautiful and modern – iconic stars Kate Moss, Chloe Sevigny and Amy Winehouse among them, London label Preen has since it's inception been snapped up by the coolest it-girls around. Going strong for over ten years, design duo and long-time partners, the endlessly affable Justin Thornton and Thea Bregazzi, have carved out a niche for their effortless and experimental aesthetic and approach to fashion – an attitude they put down to growing up in the Isle of Man, a sunny little island where anything goes. With modest beginnings recycling vintage fabrics and antique embellishments to create signature structured and referential womenswear, Preen, launching in 1996 with a boutique in West London's Portobello Green, soon went on to become one of London Fashion Week's brightest talents. Now showing at New York Fashion Week, their Spring/Summer 2009 collection marking the one year anniversary of the move, Preen has proven to be an ever-evolving international label successful through saleability as opposed to hype and sponsorships – the duo revel in the fact that they have never had to contend with being the 'next big thing'. Over breakfast in South Ken's jostling Tom's Deli, Justin Thornton and a glowing, eight-months pregnant Thea Bregazzi, talked with Indigo Clarke about teen fashion fun, London versus New York parties and the future of Preen.
Indigo Clarke: How is your Spring/Summer09 'Preen by Thornton and Bregazzi' collection coming along – what has been motivating your designs for the new season regarding themes and mood?
Justin Thornton: The SS09 collection will be ready in two weeks time – ready for when we show in New York. We tend not to really talk about it until we've shown on the catwalk so as to not give too much away, but as with all our collections, our new ones are a development of the one before. We always look at what we really liked from the last collection and we develop that forward with new themes and inspirations – we sort of deconstruct our past designs to create new ones. Each collection is a journey, each one is like a new trip for us…
Clarke: So your SS09 collection will really be quite an extension of what we saw from Preen for Autumn/Winter 2008…
Thornton: Yes it will be a real development of the last collection – moving on with that sort of easy, relaxed look – but we're introducing more structure to the collection. For colours we're thinking light, neutral, muted summer colours – we'll be going with a very Preen colour palette… but we haven't finished the collection yet so just wait and see!
Clarke: I can't believe how close to fashion week you are creating your collection! It's amazing you designers manage to get it all done…
Thea Bregazzi: (Laughs) two weeks is quite a long time away… in two weeks we may change our mind completely about what we're doing with the collection! There is also the styling – the way it is styled can really change the way it's perceived.
Clarke: You're known for a distinctly modern aesthetic – I've always found it interesting that you started out recycling vintage fabric and embellishments, something that your perceived signature goes against. What is your philosophy – has it remained the same since you started out?
Thornton: Our philosophy has always been to create something that appeals to a modern woman – we've always designed with that very modern woman in mind. So even though our designs may reference the past, or have historical references – it's been really important for us to think of the woman here and now, not someone from the Victorian age or from the 70s – we want to keep our aesthetic modern. Also, even though we may reference another time or look, we don't ever want to just duplicate that, so we fuse that with something else – maybe mix in a space-age or futuristic element.
Bregazzi: A touch of sci-fi (laughs). We don't ever want our designs to look like a costume – we always think of the woman wearing it, we don't want her to feel silly or as though she's wearing an over-the-top number even if it's a show-piece or something really glamorous.
Clarke: So you don't want the garment to wear the woman – you want her personality to come through…
Bregazzi: Yes, exactly. We see our woman as a mixture of our friends and people we know. We try to create clothes for a certain lifestyle – for a professional girl who will go to work in the morning in an outfit they want to wear when they go out that night, they'll just accessorize it or change a jacket. We want to create clothing that will take you through from morning to evening.
Clarke: So wearability is a big factor…
Thornton: Yes definitely, and desirability is important. Also, we design with a basis of classicism, we have three or four main classic pieces that inspire us; a white shirt, a black jacket, a black trouser, a vest. These are things we put in every collection, you may not see these pieces but they have been an inspiration. For example, the white shirt may end up being a silk wraparound dress - they are like starting point for our collections.
Clarke: You have a lot of celebrities wearing your clothing, but they tend to be the cool, edgy girls – like Chloe Sevigny and Kate Moss. Why do you think these girls are attracted to your aesthetic?
Bregazzi: Kate Moss, from the very beginning, has been very supportive. I think because we never courted that celebrity thing, it really just happened naturally, they liked our clothes. Now we've started doing more specialist pieces for this clientele – not Oscar dresses exactly, but cool cocktail dresses. We've started catering for that, so celebrities come to us for something different, not frou-frou red-carpet wear, something with a modern edge.
Thornton: If you think of these cooler girls, who are the Hollywood girls or they're singers and models, they are still young and they have to go to particular events that are quite dressy, but they don't necessarily want to wear the full-on floor-length gowns. They want to wear something quite modern, but still dressy, and that's where it's worked really well for us – we've focused on making little cocktail dresses, like the little black dress with a twist, we haven't wanted to do the full-on red carpet number. I think these young Hollywood, cool girls want something modern, and that's why they like our designs. Fashion has developed so that women wear little cocktail dresses now to red-carpet events.
Clarke: Why were you initially inspired to work with one another?
Thornton: I used to work for a designer called Helen Storey and she asked us both to consult on a collection when we were 18, that was the first time we worked together and it just worked really well.
Bregazzi: We just worked so well and had such fun together, we do like similar things – but, I come obviously from a female point of view and Justin from a masculine, so I can often add a touch of reality, understanding what girls will want to actually wear – so it's good to have that mixture. We do have, I wouldn't say arguments, but little debates about what our woman would wear…
Thornton: Or discussions…
Clarke: The hallmark of any good relationship (laughs).
Bregazzi: (Laughs) exactly! I do believe that two heads are better than one because you have two different opinions and outlooks. I know some partnerships that come from very different perspectives, whereas we do have a similar point of view and like the same things more or less.
Thornton: Yes, we really have very similar taste and like the same things in general, so it's an easy partnership.
Clarke: What would you say you each bring to the label?
Thornton: I can be really experimental, and I like things to be quite hard-edge – whereas Thea brings a softer element to our designs. She would hate me to say this, but she likes quite girly things…
Bregazzi: (laughs) I do…
Thornton: Not that she wears girly-girly clothing, but she likes things with a bit of sparkle or frill. So when you have the combination of the masculine tailoring with the feminine you end up with something quite nice.
Clarke: Yes, even your quite body-con mini dresses have a softness, cuteness and sense of wearability, small details like a ruffle or cinch can make a girl, whether she has a perfect figure or not, look amazing.
Thornton: Yes and that is a perfect example of how we work together – I would design that body-con dress as a real supermodel dress (laughs) – that virtually no-one could wear, and then Thea will look at how we can make it suit many different body-types. Adding details like a frill over the bust are subtle ways to make a piece more accessible.
Clarke: And those little ruffles at the hip are always flattering…
Bregazzi: Yes because even if you're really skinny you want a little bit of shape, and then if you have got bigger hips it disguises it a little bit, people will just think it's puff!
Clarke: Being from the Isle of Man originally, how do you think it's influenced your perspective on fashion?
Bregazzi: I think it's definitely made us more open-minded about fashion and other cultures…
Clarke: Because it is quite a different culture there isn't it? You have your own name, Manx, after those weird cats with no tail…
Thornton: Yes, and we have our own money, and government (Laughs)! We're named after the Manx cats that originate from the Isle of Man, they are our national cat, they're actually born with no tail – how weird! Growing up there, there were only two nightclubs and two bars – they were the only places that were young and fun and so therefore you had all the Goths, punks, hippies, new romantics all in the same place.
Bregazzi: Good music is good music – and so all the different types enjoyed it together. I'd be pogo-ing around with the punks and dancing with the Goths…
Thornton: While wearing a puffball dress!
Bregazzi: Exactly! You all just mixed together. And we didn't have any cool fashion shops or anything back then, so everyone's style was mixed up.
Clarke: So you really had to use your imaginations – and Charity Shops!
Bregazzi: Yes I loved Charity shops and we really used our imaginations, and my friends and I would make things up ourselves, like sew our own skirts to wear out on a Friday night. We just wanted to make things that were a bit different, to be different really because it was a small island and people were kind of all the same – just like anywhere in outer-London. London was just the mecca for us, we always wanted to go to London, we thought it was the best place ever.
Thornton: And then when we got to London it was weird because the styles in the clubs were so distinct – it was just goth or just new romantic, it wasn't as crazy.
Clarke: So did you fit into a genre as a teen?
Bregazzi: I was an inde kid really..
Thornton: Well, you were into inde music but you didn't look like an inde kid.
Bregazzi: (Laughs) well I thought I did! I wanted to look cute still but wanted to be cool, I liked Pepsi&Shirlie – their mini-skirts and over-the-knee socks look – they were around the same time as Wham. But then, I wanted to be a bit tough so I'd wear Dr Martins boots. When I was a little older I was a bit of a modette.
Thornton: I was quite preppy really – but then I didn't wear preppy colours, I'd wear mostly black. Kind of new romantic…
Bregazzi: Without the frills (laughs).
Clarke: I know that even coming from Sydney, which isn't that small, there is a desire to be different because you feel so far away and isolated from the rest of the world – and then you get the kids from the towns out of Sydney that looked cooler than any of us – it's almost like the further you go the kids grow more crazy and more extreme. Do you think coming from a smaller place made you more open to experimentation and less afraid of challenging conventions in terms of fashion?
Bregazzi: Yes definitely, it really made us more open to finding our own style.
Thornton: It really made us feel that we didn't need to fit into any particular group or movement, we were quite self-sufficient and comfortable doing what we liked. And the island we grew up in was really safe, we knew most people, you could be quite expressive – whereas in some larger towns you might have to conform to survive.
Bregazzi: I think it's so great to express yourself as a teenager, or at any time – to really be individual, to try to find your own look.
Clarke: This Spring/Summer is your one year anniversary showing in New York – how do you like showing over there?
Bregazzi: Oh yes it is one year now isn't it! It's really nice to show there, it's nice to show in a different city. We showed in London for years and years and it got to the point where people were asking us, 'are you going to show in Paris?' People expect you to move on from London – it's not that we don't love London, we do and we live here, it has a great energy, but New York just seemed like the right place for us. It was a challenge and it's very business-like in New York. We thought let's try it, and it has been so positively received, it's been such a great experience.
Thornton: It's just more international – I hate to say it but it's true. London is seen internationally as the most exciting of fashion weeks, it's creative, it's where all the new ideas come from, it's better than it used to be, but it's not seen as a major business fashion week.
Clarke: Yes a lot of the buyers don't even come to London…
Thornton: Exactly, they just visit the showrooms in Paris. When we showed in London we'd do 90% of our sales in Paris.
Bregazzi: It's such a shame because London is amazing.
Thornton: And we'd always loved New York, its just really fun. It's buzzing, it's lively, it's easy to work there, everybody's really positive, up and conscientious – anything you need you can have, nothing's too much trouble. Sometimes people say that attitude is fake, but when you're only there for a week that positive attitude is fine! You also have to think about constantly developing your brand – people might like what you do but if you aren't developing you can be perceived as stagnant, so it was good for us to make a change.
Clarke: And the parties in New York for Fashion Week must be crazy over there – because they're really fun here in London…
Thornton: Well I'd say the parties in London are actually better…
Clarke: That's because there's never any parties on the rest of the year – we have to make the most of them!
Thornton: Well the parties in New York are fabulous – the cocktails are great, they're in an amazing venue, there's celebrities everywhere.
Clarke: Are you having a party in New York this year? You should have a one year anniversary party!
Thornton: Thea's not even going to be in New York this season because she's having a baby…
Clarke: Oh my goodness I didn't even notice - you look so tiny Thea!
Bregazzi: It's all under the table (laughs), just wait until I stand up! The show is very close to my due date – I'm due end of September. I won't be at the show for the first time ever so it will be really weird!
Thornton: We'll be on the phone the whole time though.
Clarke: Can you tell me about your 'Preen' and 'Preen by Thornton and Bregazzi' lines? I know you showed your new Preen line in Copenhagen last season…
Thornton: Showing there was a one off, to launch the new line which is more everyday, wearable pieces.
Bregazzi: We were showing both lines together but now we want to separate the two – have the Preen line more daywear, and the mainline more dressed up.
Thornton: This season, because Thea won't be able to move during London fashion Week, we are not going to show, but from next season we will show mainline in New York and then the Preen line in London.
Clarke: That's exciting – you get the best of both fashion worlds. Any plans or projects ahead?
Thornton: We are doing bags this season, we've only done bags once before and in a small way. We're doing a small easy every day bag, a shopper, a larger lots of pockets useable bag and then a rock'n'rolly bag.
Bregazzi: They're quite cool, and there is a touch of quirkiness to them without having too many bells and whistles.
Thornton: And then we're doing an exclusive cruise collection with with Net-a-Porter.com – available online in October. There has been a great reaction to it, and they've already doubled their order. We also did sunglasses with Linda Farrow…
Bregazzi: And a perfume! But mostly we're really excited about having the baby – I can't wait for it to arrive now.