Inclusive duo - the Preen husband-and-wife team
Preen husband-and-wife team Justin Thornton and Thea Bregazzi tell our fashion editor about growing their brand, famous fans and why they want to dress "women of all ages and sizes"
The Isle of Man is more famous for its tourism and motorbike racing than it is for style, but two of the most exciting talents to emerge in the fashion world hail from the small island which sits half way between Dublin and Liverpool.
Justin Thornton and Thea Bregazzi met at an art foundation course on the island and 22 years after setting up their own fashion label Preen, they are installed as a firm favourite with ladies who like femininity with a twist - and if you like florals and asymmetrical hems, then all the better.
I went to London to meet the couple who have dressed everyone from Amy Whitehouse and Beyoncé to Rihanna, Emma Stone, Gwyneth Paltrow, Samantha Cameron, Michelle Obama, Kate Middleton and, more recently, Meghan Markle - who wowed in one of their LBDs.
So what are the Preen couple all about?
Married with two daughters - Fauve (nine) and Blythe (five) - they live in west London but also have a country cottage where they love to relax at weekends. Justin says, while they design together, they both bring slightly different elements to the collection.
"Thea is always saying it has to be a piece that's going to make a woman feel good and it has to have a certain effortlessness to it - that is really important.
"We don't want women to feel retro or trussed-up. We want them to feel at ease in our clothes and to feel confident in them and that's really our ethos the whole way," says Justin.
"And of course we love Victoriana and we love what we call the 'happy accident' - when something gets made slightly wrong and we go, 'oh it's slightly inspiring'; or when something gets put on wrong and it is slightly shorter here, longer there. We love all that playing with proportion so sometimes a dress that looks so effortless and so easy, we will often put some little detail or some little uneven hem or a slightly enlarged sleeve or something so it just gives it that modern feeling rather than just looking like a vintage dress."
Their start in the business was quite remarkable. Singer Cher walked in the first day they opened a small shop in Portobello and bought all round her. Before the week was out, Janet Jackson did the same. It's the stuff of dreams and the Preen pair - the word means to prettify - have built up loyal fans, many of whom have grown up with them.
A decade ago, the London fashion scene was wowed by the Preen 'power dress'. "Amy Winehouse wore the citrus one straight from our collection show to the Brits in 2007 and for us that was great. Amy was something that was personally rewarding but when Gwyneth [Paltrow] wore it in black to the Iron Man premiere, we really realised the power of the right celebrity in the right dress at the right time," says Justin.
"Gwyneth had been a bit of a hippy and then suddenly, there she was with this amazing body and tight, black, short dress. For us, that dress stayed in our collection for six years, probably our best-selling dress until we had the 'Finella' dress which the Duchess of Cambridge wore [Canadian State Tour, September 2016.]"
With its nipped-in waist, draped off-shoulder neckline and full skirt, the €1,000 pillar-box red dress sold out worldwide after it was praised for its "chic, mid-Century silhouette."
Samantha Cameron wore Preen for two of the most momentous moments in her husband's career - when he got elected and when he resigned very suddenly after the shock Brexit referendum defeat in 2016.
Interestingly, Michelle Obama first wore Preen as a very diplomatic nod to fashion on an official visit to the UK and since then, has become a major fan. The couple still send her pieces and Michelle chose to wear Preen on her last appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show.
When Justin and Thea received an invite to meet Michelle at The White House, they were allowed two guests, so they brought their proud mothers. Thea's mum was originally a Freeman from Mullinahone in south Tipperary who went nursing on the Isle of Man and met her Italian husband.
Noting an irony, Thea says, "Nobody on the Irish side has red hair but in the village where my dad is from, above Lake Como, apparently, a lot of people there had red hair." Growing up, the young Thea spent summers with her Irish granny in Mullinahone and remembers going on shopping trips to Clonmel.
I meet the husband and wife team in London to mark the launch of their Studio by Preen capsule dress collection for Debenhams. There are 12 options designed to take you from lazy summer days to your best friend's wedding.
Prices run from €77.50 to an eye-watering €330 for a 100pc blue-and-yellow silk dress (pictured above on Amber Le Bon). High price indeed for a high street chain but clearly Debenhams is determined to establish this as the coolest designer collaboration around.
"What we want is for Studio for Preen to get its own fans and customers who come back because it is a good quality, a good fit and because it has its own identity. It is really important that this line has its own identity. We don't want it to be a cheap version of what we do for our main line. What would be the point of that?" asks Justin.
The second thing that is very important to them about this collaboration is the 'every woman' agenda. "Inclusivity is so important," he says. Thea picks up the conversation and adds: "We wanted to dress women of all ages and all sizes as well. We actually go up to size 22 and we are very proud of that."
Examining the various high street looks on a rail beside the DJ - wearing china-blue chiffon - Justin explains their modus operandi. "For us, we love vintage and floral and femininity but we always like to mix it with something or give it a slightly sporty element or a tougher element just to give it a modern feel. So for us, we'll often mix a stripe with a floral or a check with a floral."
They've done just that with a wrap dress with a striped band down the front. Justin explains it's a "lovely soft wiggle because sometimes a harsh line is a bit much for people and when you just bring that softness into it, then it feels like it is folding in around the body and not like this graphic line."
Exploring that thorny question of what suits women, the designers are big fans of the wrap dress "as a great shape that will suit all different body shapes. "We love florals and we always think that a floral is a timeless piece for the summer, but now I think that what's happened is that the floral for the summer has run throughout the whole year and now florals are really working well in the winter, especially dark-based floral. We notice in our own collection that we have florals in every collection, regardless.
"Also, you have to consider it's a global market and we are not just selling to cold countries - we are selling to people in all different weathers so it's great to have pieces that will work throughout your wardrobe for the whole year."
When they are not working, the couple like to enjoy family time in their house in Suffolk. "It's our little saviour, we retreat to it. It's a beautiful little thatched cottage and it is the perfect escape for us to go there."
Acknowledging what fame has brought to their lives since their started their business, Justin tells me: "We have a great life. We have two daughters. I feel we have worked really hard in our careers and we have achieved a lot. We have been to places, met amazing people, have dressed fabulous people and what's great is that we do it together."
I'm curious about how they go about the design process together - it turns out that Thea sketches more and Justin likes to drape more.
"We both design and I think there's probably nothing that goes down the runway that's just me or just Thea, it's always a collaboration between the two of us. I think what's great is that I can have a tendency to get a little bit more elaborate and Thea will talk about it from a more practical level and say to me, 'how's a woman actually going to wear that?'"
So is Thea the pared-back half? Justin rejects the notion while Thea jokes that she "does like a frill now and then". Justin says: "I don't think it's that Thea is the pared-back one, she just wants to make sure that everything we do, as outlandish as it might be, will still be wearable for somebody."
The constant eye on what women want in their wardrobes comes through with their blue-and-white chiffon dress, the print of which was inspired by a vintage china cup in Thea's collection.
"There's a really beautiful blue and white one and we were inspired by that, we thought it looked really fresh."
In the end, they used the fabric not only for a long, floaty dress (pictured above) but for an asymmetrical skirt, which Justin points out, is "very Preen". There's also a blouse with a grandfather collar and pretty ruffle running between the shoulders.
"It's important to have blouses in the collection because everybody wears jeans, and a blouse with jeans is great for going to dinner or for Sundays, hanging around with friends."
Speaking of the asymmetrical hemlines that pop up a lot in their work, Thea says: "When it is not just cut straight across, it is very flattering to your figure - it is quite lengthening and elongating." I as a 5ft 5in creature - destined, it seems, to wear flat shoes for the rest of my life - take immediate note.
We continue to dissect the collection to see what would suit what body shape. The blue dress with striking black and red floral pattern (above far left) is a stand-out for me because of its longer length and sleeves. When I enquire, Justin points out that it is cut with a slightly lantern shape which gives a modern element to it rather than just being flared.
Before I leave, I ask for some tips for dressing. "I think it is important to have fun and not worry too much about it," says Thea. She advocates to just experiment and not take it too seriously.
Justin says some people are frightened of prints and I try desperately not to let arching eyebrows give away that I am one of those print refuseniks. "Prints are so flattering and so timeless in a way, especially a floral, so just go for it. A lot of women go, 'okay I could never wear a floral' but as soon as they get one on, they love it," he says.
On the plane home I'm listening to the tape of our conversation. You know Justin, I might just give those prints and florals a go.