About a year ago, designer Heron Preston sent the New York Department of Sanitation an email with the subject line: “Big Idea.”
Preston, who has worked with Kanye West and Nike in the past, was fixated on a different kind of collaboration: one that actually gives back to the city of New York and those who keep it up and running. He didn’t quite have a plan — yet — but he knew two things: One, that he wanted to rework uniforms, and two, that he wanted to influence change.
“I wasn’t sure which uniform I wanted to do,” Preston said weeks before his show at the DNSY Salt Shed in lower Manhattan. “Originally, I wanted to do the Post Office, but then I saw the Vetements DHL shirt. I could see the comments online: ‘Heron copied Vetements!’ So I shelved that idea.”
When Preston learned through a tweet that DSNY actually has an artist-in-residence program, his “big idea” began to take shape. He researched the work of performance artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles, who is the first and only person to fill the residency position — one that she’s held since 1977. Her earliest work involved shaking the hand of every DSNY worker, which took about a year and a half.
“I’d always asked myself what I really cared about,” said Preston. “How can I apply my interests to something that’s important? And then, last summer I was swimming around at the beach in Ibiza and this plastic bag brushed up on my arm. I was like: Oh! I care about the environment and keeping the earth clean.”
One day at the Nada Art Fair, Preston walked past a presentation happening in an adjacent room and noticed a slide projected featuring none-other than Ukeles herself. He hounded the presenter afterwards — being perhaps the only fan-boy the DSNY has ever encountered — and he was finally put in touch with all the right people. And believe it or not, it was the DSNY that suggested he do something during New York Fashion Week.
Tonight, Preston will present a collection of reworked DSNY uniforms at the Salt Shed to raise awareness for New York’s 0x30 initiative, which works to send zero waste to landfills by the year 2030. The pieces include hoodies, vests, gloves, pants, and shirts that Preston himself found at Housing Works, Goodwill, and from actual sanitation workers who donated their uniforms when they learned about the project. He then recycled the goods by hand-printing and embroidering his brand name over them to be sold online and at the event.
“If you walk through touristy areas, it’s easy to come by an FDNY t-shirt or an NYPD hat,” explained Preston. “But you can’t really buy DSNY. You have to dig. There’s a city store down by City Hall where you can buy a hoodie, but it’s not really out there. So that’s also why I wanted to bring these uniforms to the people. Because they’re awesome and they stand for so much.”
The DSNY uniforms are also all basics, unlike the Fire Department or NYPD, which makes them easier to manipulate. Preston has always had a penchant for uniforms, though, and this is not his first-go-round re-interpreting them. For example, his “СТИЛЬ” turtleneck, which can often be seen on everyone from Virgil Abloh to Instagram star Eileen Kelly, is inspired by Russian security guards.
“I’ve had an affinity for uniforms since my childhood,” said Preston. “My father was a police officer in San Francisco, so uniforms were always in the house. I played with his belt and went to his locker room. I loved seeing all the equipment; all the accessories and gadgets. But I’ve never seen a designer do uniforms before, and I wanted to see Sanitation workers in a designer uniform.”
After the collection debuts on Wednesday, Preston hopes to continue his relationship with the DNSY by bringing other designers on board. He said all this while standing on top of a mountain of salt, which the DSNY stores for the winter months when they need to sprinkle on the streets like magic ice-melting dust. The storage space, which is entirely windowless and made of concrete, was designed by Dattner and WXY architects to resemble a crumpled piece of paper.
“I’d always seen this building here. Didn’t know there was salt inside!” Preston said with a smile.