June | Take 5
With Justin Thornton
Co-designer of London’s much-loved label, Justin Thornton, talks about the joy of slowing things down, keeping their clothes grounded in reality and how his kids have spurred the label on take a more responsible approach.Emma Sells
Preen make the kind of beautiful, hard-working clothes that you really, really want to wear. The kind that make you feel incredible every time you slip them on, that garner endless compliments and that, as a result, you pull out of your wardrobe over and over again. The label’s co-founders and designers, Justin Thornton and Thea Bregazzi, have been weaving their magic through the London fashion scene for more than 20 years now, conjuring up swishy dresses, boyish tailoring and an irresistible blend of the ultra-feminine, sports-inspired and brilliantly, colourfully printed.
The pair grew up on the Isle of Man and each had a considered approach to consumption instilled in them by their respective families; when a young Star Wars-obsessed Thornton asked for a much-coveted Death Star, his mother took him to the skip behind their local television shop where they trawled for parts and made their own. And Bregazzi’s grandparents were self-sufficiency pioneers, adept at everything from making their own butter to carding and spinning wool. “Thea and I both grew up with a kind of make-do-and-mend attitude embedded in us,” says Thornton. “But I think we slightly forgot it as we got older and became consumers like the rest of the world. Then our kids started pulling us up constantly and questioning what we were doing and how we were doing it.” They had tried to build sustainability into the label when it first started, but the challenges of growing the business and the evolving demands of online retailers who needed uniform pieces that they could easily sell meant that, although they always tried not to be wasteful or to throw things away, it gradually became less of priority. But four years ago, spurred on by those relentless, probing questions from their children, they decided to refocus. “We’re not 100% sustainable, we don’t believe it’s possible for anyone to be 100% sustainable at the moment,” says Thornton. “But where we can get a sustainable option, we’ll push for it. If we can make a product that someone still loves, still has an emotional reaction to as much as they would any other product but it’s not going to destroy our planet – or not as much as the fashion industry is destroying it already – then that’s our aim.”
"If we can make a product that someone still loves, still has an emotional reaction to as much as they would any other product but it's not going to destroy our planet - or not as much as the fashion industry is destroying it already - then that's our aim."
Right now, a responsible approach in the Preen world means making clothes in Europe rather than China, so that they can reduce their shipping and more closely monitor their factories; using recycled and organic fabrics where they can and hunting down innovative materials – they’re currently working with a factory in Wales that makes biodegradable buttons from nut milk; and making good use of all the remnants that they’ve held onto from past collections. And the change in attitude and mood across even the most stylish circles has helped give them confidence that they’re on the right track. “We’ve really noticed that customers don’t seem as bothered about newness as they used to be,” says Thornton. “Even when you go to events now, nobody’s necessarily wearing the latest thing, people are quite happy to wear something from their wardrobe that they’ve had for eight years. So why shouldn’t we use a load of fabric that we have from three seasons ago and upcycle it?”
They’ve changed their own attitude, too, since Covid, reappraising their work-life balance – or previous lack-therof – and deciding to take things a little more gently. “We don’t feel as tied to the fashion calendar now,” says Thornton. “We used to be on this rollercoaster of doing six collections a year, but it’s made us calm down and decide not to work every minute of every day.We wouldn’t be frightened, now, to not do a collection one season if we don’t feel it’s right, or if we feel that there’s just too much product in the marketplace and we don’t really need to be adding to it.” They’ve given themselves space to work on other projects, too – growing their much-loved homeware line, making costumes for dancers, working on a film with an artist, and being open to anything new that comes along.
Preen has long had a dedicated international following, both high profile (see: Gwyneth Paltrow, Rihanna, Michelle Obama and the Duchess of Cambridge, among others) and otherwise. Thornton and Bregazzi have been spending more time with the women who wear their clothes in recent months, making bespoke ready-to-wear and wedding dresses in their studio and holding intimate trunk shows.
Bregazzi has always made sure that their clothes are grounded in reality, but they’ve found it exciting and inspiring to get up close and personal with their customers. “Our women are very open and honest, sometimes quite shockingly so, about what they really think of our clothes, how they wear them and how they fit into their lives,” says Thornton. “And that’s so important for us. We can all dream up the most romantic notion of who’s going to wear a piece, imagine this absolutely amazing duchess from god knows where with a fairy-tale husband, but actually, the reality is not that.”