Jean Cocteau's maxim, that style is a simple way of saying complex things, sums up the effortless grace of Nigel Preston's skilful, subtle clothes design, most particularly in sheepskin, suede and leather, that inspired the fashion world for 30 years from the mid-Seventies. He was famous for his experimentation with decorative, painterly techniques, for his exotic colouring on leather, for his exquisite ornamentation and his patient eye for detail – his biannual collection was eagerly anticipated. Where Preston led, Hermès and Gucci followed. That he was not a household name says more about the vagaries and hype of the fashion industry than it does about his creative talents. The most unvain of men, he was a natural innovator.
It was Preston who first rescued leather from its slick and tough biker-boy, rock'n'roll image, moulding it to the ebb and flow of the body as if it were silk. In his hands, the hard-boiled, Chandleresque trench-coat was transformed into a garment aspiring to the simple lines of a sculpture of Greek antiquity. Yet just when you had him nailed as a neo-classicist, this playful juggler of styles would come up with something like his Napoleon coat, a luxurious rococo triumph of soft, white sheepskin.
Slight, pale and somewhat resembling a classical statue himself, he had a knack for spotting the paradox in things. It sounds, perhaps, paradoxical to say he was a lover of animals but Preston, ever a thin-skinned man himself, understood in his bones that fabric always stands to some extent for the skin of the person beneath it. He used his clothes to accentuate a form of sensual contact with the wearer. He put a magical spin on fashion, creating clothes of undeniable beauty.
He was born in Woking, the place his mother Paddy happened to be visiting when he presented himself, rather suddenly, as a breech birth. But his first sartorial adventures took place in Lahore, Pakistan, where he went, aged 11, with his parents – his father was a manager with Kodak – and where, as the only white boy at Aitchison College, he would set off to school every day in a smart day suit topped with a sea-blue silk turban. This childhood idyll ended when, aged 13, he contracted hepatitis and was sent, with the best of intentions, back to Britain, to a Benedictine school in the Scottish Highlands close to Loch Ness which was cold and light-deprived and where he was miserable.
Letters home spoke of the tireless bullying of its teachers and when his attempts to persuade Paddy to let him leave didn't meet with an instant response – pupils were threatening to take the place by storm and had attempted to burn it down, he warned her, a whole eight years before Lindsay Anderson's cult satire If hit the screen – Nigel concocted his own more gentle form of insurrection. He ran away. His next school, the progressive Dartington Hall in Devon, he loved – its medieval stone, its topiaried gardens, and the painting tutor there who was the first person to tell him that he was first and foremost an artist.
It was the Swinging Sixties and though never a raver, Nigel Preston loved people who were. Like many shy, creative people he was naturally drawn to performers, admiring that sheer quality of nerve required to put oneself out there, but unable to summon it up in himself. Still, at Dartington, he had had some training on drums from the great Jon Hiseman and, in 1966, with his friend the musician Paul Roberts, he decided to form an experimental pop group, the Dreamland Express, practising in a studio provided free by Pete Townshend and even advertised in the first issue of Oz with an illustration of a train puffing out of the clouds.
Later, as the duo Presto and Calico, they performed their only live gig at a church hall in Hampstead supporting Hawkwind. They could have made it, Roberts says: "The Who's record company were very interested. . . But around this time Nigel began thinking that the music business was too tough. He didn't like the hard-nosed A&R people."
For years Preston had been making his own clothes, teaching himself how to make a pattern by taking apart shirts he had bought and refashioning his own. His first entry into the commercial world of fashion was making chamois leather women's tops to sell on Portobello Road during which time he supported himself working for the Hungry Horse Pie Shop in Fulham Road, eschewing the business ethic by giving away more pies than he sold.
In the mid-Seventies Preston opened a shop, Maxfield Parrish, just off the King's Road, named after the illustrator and artist he so admired. Originally making clothes of dandyesque theatricality for men, he soon fused his love for music and fashion by making bespoke clothes for emerging pop stars – Queen, Suzi Quatro, Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Julie Andrews would buy her leather trousers only from Nigel Preston.
The business was transformed from a quirky retail outlet into an international design name with the appearance in 1978 of Brenda, Nigel's flame-haired wife and the mother of his three sons, TomTed, Piers and Blair. Brenda, then running her own fashion PR company, saw the potential for international development and Nigel, with Brenda working at his side to create collections, began showing at the London Designer Collections as Maxfield Parrish.
Nigel Preston remained detached – at his shows in the Eighties and Nineties he was known for his brief half-hour appearances to receive accolades. He conquered the Italian market with his classic chic and in LA he was renowned for high fashion. Washed leather originated with Preston – he developed the technique in the outbuildings of the beautiful Château de Tercey in Normandy that he and Brenda bought in 1980.
Completely self-taught, he was untrammelled by preconceptions. Having invented washed leather, he began experimenting with painting and waxing it, brocading it, trimming it with fur, leaving its edges rough. He developed new techniques to increase its suppleness. To the end he made all his own patterns, tested each new technique and, unless restrained, he would have made each and every sample.
His obsessive interest in what he called "getting it right" could infuriate those who loved him but this perfectionism was always modified by an interest in the world around him. To Preston everything was a potential source of inspiration. He disliked a crowd but, one to one, could talk knowledgeably about architecture, music, literature.
He was always finding new subjects of fascination. The paintings of Frederick Remington inspired a love of cowboy clothes. The duster jackets in a Sergio Leone movie were transformed into his trenchcoat. Before he died he had just discovered the indie pop group Elbow whose music he was looking forward to sharing with his friends. He was, like his clothes, fastidious, discreet, effortlessly simple, naturally harmonious. He was a vibrant presence.
The Nigel Preston label continues under Brenda.
Nigel Edmund Hayter Preston, fashion designer: born Woking, Surrey 25 August 1946; married 1993 Brenda Knight (three sons); died Tercey, France 1 July 2008.