The couple that sews together grows together

After five years showing in NYC, Justin Thornton and Thea Bregazzi, aka British label Preen, are back for London Fashion Week. Welcome home, says Harriet Walker
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Designers Justin Thornton and Thea Bregazzi have quite a month ahead of them. On Sunday, they make a highly anticipated return to the London schedule, their first show in the capital since taking their label Preen (Preen by Thornton Bregazzi, to use its full name) to New York Fashion Week five years ago.

"When we all trooped off, it was almost like a holiday," Thornton laughs at the memory. "It was fantastic – we got such a positive response. And it was just a completely different thing from London at the time. By our third season there, we'd doubled our business internationally."

In 2007, London Fashion Week had far less of the commercial appeal or international interest that it does now; fewer big brands showed there and the given route for young labels was to take their wares to the bigger stages of New York, Milan or Paris after making an edgy name for themselves here.

So why return now to the city where they started out in 1996 with a small shop on Portobello Market? Because shortly after the catwalk show, Bregazzi is due to give birth.

"By that time I'm going to be huge," she admits. "But we were discussing coming back anyway, because 2012 is such an exciting time to be in London. Justin did a show in New York without me when I had our first baby, and it was dreadful. I was just at home alone, going 'arrrghh'."

The couple behind Preen are, in every sense, something of a double act: they met, aged 18, at art college on their native Isle of Man; they got together some five years later and opened their first store. Their singular aesthetic is one born of two halves, an almost paradoxical blend of feminine, vintage echoes and a futuristic, clinical minimalism.

"I love sci-fi, I'm completely obsessed," says Thornton, one arm resting on a Star Wars annual lying on their shared desk in the design studio. "But there's two of us and we like the idea of taking two different elements and fusing them together. So we've always had a historical reference and a futuristic one that we've put together. For the last autumn collection, we looked at Beatrix Potter's botanical illustrations and then we needed something to put against that which was really graphic and modern, so we looked at Rothko."

"It's always been about this kind of masculine and feminine, light and soft, fusing and putting together," he continues. "I think that's a key thing, but it's developed into a more streamlined, more grown-up aesthetic in our work. We used to design things that were a bit more youthful or clubby – it was that Britpop time in London and we were out every night, but now all of our friends go to dinner parties and that sort of thing."

But if this sounds at all fusty, perhaps it's more apt to describe their clothes as eminently wearable: Preen is a notoriously flattering label. It makes you feel like you can pull any look off, thanks to Thornton's drapery and Bregazzi's razor-sharp pattern-cutting. It's pragmatic and casual, while classically elegant and glamorous. American sportswear influences jostle with rigid Victorian corsetry and tailoring to create an idiosyncratic and accessible, modern vision of femininity that consistently marries pretty with poise. One of the label's most famous pieces is a bandage-style "power dress", redolent of the Eighties "King of Cling" Hervé Léger but re-imagined at a time when cling was really not the thing. It has become a staple in the collection but not one that either Thornton or Bregazzi are content to leave to stagnate.

"At the time, we were looking at supermodels," explains Thornton, "and how to make clothes that any woman can feel a bit like a supermodel in. So we developed a dress that worked if you had a flat chest, if you had a bust, made your waist two inches smaller…"

"But people weren't doing tight dresses then," adds Bregazzi, "and some of the buyers just said 'oh my god, nobody is going to wear that'. But the buyers that did take the risk, they sold out immediately and wanted to re-order straight away. So clearly, people did want to wear it."

Preen's USP is to provide people with what they want before they know it; just as the duo rehabilitated bodycon so they have also in the past rescued neon pink and aubergine purple from the fashionable hinterlands.

The designers believe that starting off as a small shop, selling one-offs created from re-made vintage pieces and fabric swatches, gave them a taste for what customers were interested in.

"Back before we did shows or anything, Thea really wanted a pair of skinny trousers," says Justin Thornton. "So she spent ages doing a pattern and we did them, and people used to say they could never wear them. But slowly they started buying them, and we used to have a queue outside the shop on a Saturday." Bregazzi still wears her pair to this day, and the label was very much founded on what she and her friends wanted to wear, rather than over-arching trends. She puts this sensibility down to growing up on the Isle of Man.

She said: "They've got a Topshop now, but they didn't have anything then, so me and my friends used to look round second-hand shops and make our own clothes. I didn't even realise then that you could be a fashion designer."

According to Thornton, the multiplicity of their garments has its roots here too. "There was literally one good bar to go to and one club, so we'd go and there'd be 10 minutes of goth music, 10 minutes of punk music, 10 minutes of New Romantics… and everybody mixed and was different but very accepting of each other."

Perhaps the inherent ease of Preen pieces comes from this too: both designers are adamant that their clothes are for real lives lived comfortably, and they suit the sort of woman who has a complex and multi-faceted identity. Delicately printed blouses can be worn with jeans, or with a pencil skirt for "best"; the main line caters to the luxury market, while the diffusion collection Preenline is more laidback. Add to this several successful collaborations with both Topshop and Debenhams and there is some suggestion of how Justin Thornton and Thea Bregazzi understand the importance of catering to the "everywoman".

London will be pleased to have them back.