At any given moment, Heron Preston is working on a handful of self-initiated projects that swing between, and often straddle, the worlds of art and fashion, both digital and IRL. Among his current preoccupations are a unisex-clothing collection launched at Men’s Fashion Week, in Paris, this past January (more on that later) and a zine filled with photos that his father, a retired San Francisco police officer, took on the job.
Preston recently dug up hundreds of those pictures, which portray convicts and crime scenes. One particularly graphic image shows a man with a gaping gunshot wound. “He always carried a camera with him,” says Preston of his father. “But he eventually stopped, because he was tired of taking sad photos.”
About two years ago, Preston had a similar come-to-Jesus moment, albeit under far more glamorous circumstances. He was swimming in the Mediterranean when a plastic bag brushed up against him. Back then, Preston was turning out wildly successful “bootleg” T-shirts, which he covered in myriad corporate logos, like those of Coca-Cola and Nascar. He was selling them via Instagram and, wary of potential lawsuits, flipped the Nascar logo upside down, concocting a story that the shirts were factory rejects found in a Tennessee thrift store. He was also DJing at parties and working as an art director for Kanye West, designing tour merchandise and creating the vacuum-sealed garments that served as the invites to West’s Yeezy fashion shows—a thankless job for which Preston stayed up all night, stuffing 800 jackets into a FoodSaver from Target in order to get that perfectly scrunched-up look that Ye liked. Then came the swimming incident, whereby Preston experienced firsthand the sad fact that there is a lot of garbage in the world. Soon thereafter, he discovered that the clothing industry is the second-largest polluter of the planet.
“I didn’t want to contribute to that,” he says. “I love designing, but I wanted to do better. We should all be doing better.”
As the son of a cop, Preston, 34, grew up with a deep admiration for uniforms. He had long dreamed about collaborating with NASA and with the United States Postal Service. (When the French collective Vetements came out with a DHL shirt, he immediately shelved that plan.)
“Then I realized that the New York City Department of Sanitation has a uniformed force that cares about the same things I do,” he says. As it turns out, the DSNY was the first municipal organization to have an artist in residence, beginning in 1978: Mierle Laderman Ukeles, a performance artist obsessed with maintenance, is famous for the piece Touch Sanitation Performance, which entailed shaking the hand of every one of the DSNY’s 8,500 workers and telling them, “Thank you for keeping New York City alive.”
Preston tracked down Vito Turso, a self-appointed “deputy commissioner of explaining stuff” and the man who brought Ukeles on board all those years ago. He sent him an e-mail with the subject line “Big Idea,” and pitched a collection of reworked DSNY uniforms. Once the department realized it could make money off the project to support 0x30, a citywide initiative to eliminate waste sent to local landfills by the year 2030, the officials were sold. “It was actually Vito who suggested we present the collection at Fashion Week,” says Preston. “Apparently, he always thought it would be a fun idea.”
And so this past September, Preston and the DSNY set up shop at the Spring Street Salt Shed, an architecturally striking concrete building that houses the salt used for de-icing streets in the winter, and presented Uniform, a collection of pants, hoodies, jackets, and shirts that had been decommissioned by the DSNY or sourced from Goodwill and printed with Preston’s name and the DSNY logo. The event was a feel-good affair, with models and hipsters mingling with municipal employees and posing together beside Ukeles’s futuristic-looking mirrored garbage truck, The Social Mirror, which originally debuted in 1983 at the New York City Art Parade.
“The collection sold out,” says Preston. “And with some of the money raised, we created the Foundation for New York’s Strongest”—a nod to the department’s nickname—“which will continue to educate people on environmental issues, push the 0x30 initiative, and eventually help the DSNY open a museum.”
Indeed, the project garnered him a lot of attention. But then, Preston, who started his first clothing line in high school, calling it Heron Preston (his first and middle name) instead of Heron Johnson (his actual name) because he thought it sounded more “regal,” has long known how to make a name for himself. In 2004, after moving to New York to attend Parsons School of Design, he started a blog documenting the colorful characters of the downtown scene. Through it, he connected with fellow designer, DJ, and creative consultant Virgil Abloh, who was a contributor to another blog, called The Brilliance!
“We were these nerdy streetwear dudes posting on the same message boards,” Preston recalls. He also caught the attention of Al Moran, founder of the contemporary-art gallery Ohwow, who, in 2008, published The Young and the Banging under the gallery’s imprint. That official “unofficial” downtown New York yearbook features Polaroids of some 200 cool kids, including the artist Lucien Smith and members of the DJ collective Misshapes.
For the launch party, Preston’s friends at Nike, where he would end up working for a handful of years as a marketing specialist and social media director, lent him the store on Elizabeth Street. There, he installed a mock high school set, complete with bleachers and a back-to-school photo booth. The line to get into the event stretched all the way down the block.
In 2012, Abloh came calling, bringing with him fellow Kanye crew members Matthew Williams and Justin Saunders. “They were fresh off the Watch the Throne tour and were like, ‘Yo, we just started throwing parties. It’s called Been Trill; come throw them with us,’ ” Preston recalls. From parties, they soon branched out into clothing and developed an app that allowed users to put the Been Trill logo over their own photos. They also opened a pop-up shop on Canal Street, in a tiny stall normally used to shill knockoff fashion goods, and installed a GIF generator that immediately uploaded shoppers’ images to the brand’s Tumblr account. “Been Trill was an opportunity to experiment,” Preston says. “We really defined and wrote the future as we were going.”
When Abloh broke off to start his own label, Off-White c/o Virgil Abloh, and Williams to start his, Alyx, so did Preston, launching a webshop, HPC Trading Co., to sell various wares. But after the success of the DSNY project, Abloh encouraged him to take things up a notch. “He was like, ‘Dude, you have to merchandise it out—have socks, shirts, sweats; a full look, a full collection.’ I had never thought like that.” Abloh introduced Preston to New Guards Group, a Milan-based company that produces and distributes Off-White, as well as other emerging brands like Marcelo Burlon County of Milan and Palm Angels. They signed a deal in October, leaving Preston just a couple of months to pull together a presentation in time for Paris Fashion Week. “Fortunately, I had a good idea of what I wanted to do,” he says.
Called For You, the World, the 40-piece collection is equal parts industrial and street, with Preston’s burgeoning environmentalism providing the common thread. There are hiking pants and crewneck sweatshirts, as well as bomber jackets with embroidered heron birds and backpacks cut from safety vests, originally made by the National Industries for the Blind. Sprinkled throughout are new pieces from his DSNY collaboration. The brand is not 100 percent sustainable, but Preston is working toward that.
“I don’t have all the answers—I’m kind of learning as I’m going,” he says. “And if I can share what I’ve picked up, that’s a plus.”
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