A Decade of Preen

According to Justin Thornton and Thea Bregazzi, it took them all of one evening to come up with the name for a fashion brand: Preen. After all preening is what dressing up is all about. Whether it was also designed to be a cheeky wink, a knowing nod to the fashion industry’s haughty self-regard and propensity for vain posturing or not, the verb has today become a byword for one of London’s most respected labels.

Revered for it’s deconstructed tailoring, utilitarian separates, off-kilter elegance and streamlined sophistication, Preen often resists definition. As if preferring to languish somewhere between complex yet commercial, esoteric yet accessible, alluring yet androgynous, the label has for the past decade, always marched to the beat of it’s own drum.

In 1996, the design duo set up shop in West London’s Portobello Green. It was an unorthodox start-up plan, given that they didn’t at that point have any clothes to sell. Still, it wasn’t long before Justin and Thea’s designs were flying off the rails. Indeed right form the start, their early, one-off creations displayed many of the themes that Preen would revisit over the next decade: Victoriana, recycling, deconstruction, utilitarian clothing.

In fact, Justin and Thea have never paid the blindest bit of notice to trends. Nor do they court celebrity or kick up their heels at fashion bashes. Instead the design duo – who are partners in real life as well as fashion – spend almost every waking hour honing their lovingly crafted creations. They’re also perhaps, the only fashion designers to have come from the Isle of Man. Here they grew up at opposite ends of the island (20 miles apart), meeting first at the age of 18 at an Art Foundation course. Although they both went their separate ways – Justin studied fashion at Winchester School of Art and Thea at the University of Central Lancashire, followed by a spell as a designer for Helen Storey and as a fashion stylist respectively – they reunited on a project for Storey that made them realise what they really wanted to do was work together on their own label.

As sinuous and severe as Preen’s obi-back shirts and tailored, hourglass jackets might appear, the label is, at it’s heart, a decidedly female-friendly one. Indeed many of the garments are designed in such a manner that they can be tied, draped, loosened, cinched or folded in a myriad of ways. It’s an in-built versatility that is borne out of understanding that their customers’ needs come in all different shapes and sizes.

Enhancing the multifunctional nature of their designs, Preen’s garments are also constructed as hybrids of one kind or another. Whether it’s a Crombie coat with a bustle in the back; a silk camisole fused together with fluttering layers of shirt collars; or a plunge-neck swimsuit spliced together with a classic men’s shirt. That such a deconstructive approach displaces many of the original garments’ functional design details (transforming them into pure ornementation), would appear to all part of the fun.

In spite of the fact that tailored menswear has always acted as a launch pad for their women’s pieces, it wasn’t until S/S2003 that the couple actually found time to design their own menswear line. The result is designs for both sexes that employ a fastidious reworking of classic menswear pieces such as a trench coat, a blazer, a crisp men’s shirt. By furthermore contrasting opposites (masculine and feminine, ornamental and utilitarian), Thea and Justin seem to be exploring the nature of what makes a garment iconic. The upshot is a new dialect of clothing that is inherently modern.

That Preen’s latest design’s – all sculptured, draped silk dresses, pinafore-front, cubist-graphic shifts, tailored, cocoon coat dresses – are the culmination and consolidation of themes that have preoccupied The and Justin for the past decade, is of no doubt. However, by responding to the changing undulations in the fashion landscape, the couple have steered their label clear of it’s former gritty, urban deconstructionism in favour of something altogether more chic. While The and Justin are still doing their thing with slithers of recycled fabrics, those pieces have now evolved into fluid wrap dresses, cocktail bustiers and drapey kimono-sleeve coats.

Perhaps this is in part due to the fact that the designers are no longer looking to historical or period references. Instead they are applying an intertextual methodology to the creative process. By deconstructing their own body of work, Preen’s garments are now carefully crafted medleys of spliced together elements from previous collections.

Of course, if there were one factor that has unified Preen’s collections over the past ten years, it would have to be it’s love affair with Victoriana. But, having explored every which way with a puffed sleeve, the two have in recent years, honed their handwriting. Increasingly, they’ve pared back the decoration and original ornamentation that typified their label, reducing any references to Victoriana to the mere hint of a peplum silhouette or rise of a discreet bustle. In many ways, by toning down their signature, it is now resounding more deeply than ever before.

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