Heron Preston's New Vision: From DIY to DSNY to NASA
Heron Preston's New Vision: From DIY to DSNY to NASA
- Words Jacob Victorine
- Date June 18, 2019
While fashion designers have long seen workwear as a well of inspiration, they have often pulled from the same buckets—namely denim, military and construction apparel. Over the past five years, buckets have been added, most notably through Vetements’ use of DHL and office apparel and, more recently, through Heron Preston’s reworking of sanitation, and even NASA, uniforms. Although Preston is not yet grouped in the category of young imaginative designers such as Craig Green and Samuel Ross of A-Cold-Wall*, his increasing success speaks to both his unique background in marketing, as a photographer, graphic designer, his public personality and to the growing importance of social media and influencer culture within the fashion industry.
Born and raised in San Francisco, Heron Preston Johnson was inspired at an early age by his police officer father, who sparked Preston’s interest in uniforms and encouraged his education. For his junior and senior years, Preston attended New Technology High School in Napa, California, a school funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that featured glass classroom walls and provided each of its 200 students with a computer. “I remember seeing tours of business people walking through the hallways and I felt like I was in a fishbowl, or in an experiment about some new futuristic world of education. It was in that high school that I learned how to code. I also had a new media class where I learned to use software programs like Photoshop, Illustrator and Dreamweaver,” Preston said to Elle in 2016. Although Preston taught himself to code HTML, he credits the New Tech High with the diverse skill set he accumulated, which inevitably led him into the blogging world that later acted as a springboard for his career.
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A skater and confessed internet nerd, Preston naturally developed an interest in graphic T-shirts as teenager. One of his friend happened to have access to a screen printing factory outside of San Francisco and the two began making T-shirts, Preston’s first foray in fashion design. Along with learning to code, blog and design, Preston’s time at New Tech High helped him hone his social skills, in particular within professional environments. “It was group-based learning. We did a lot of presentations,” Preston said to Freshness in 2006.
In 2004, Preston moved to New York to study at Parsons School of Design, with a desire to make a name for himself in the nation’s cultural capital. “I had ambition. I had confidence. I had a vision that NEEDED to become a reality. I was hungry so I did it. It was time for me to make a move in my life. A big move. Just living in this city opens you up to chances that other people don’t get, and I knew that” he said. Preston immediately recognized the social mobility afforded by nightlife and began documenting downtown cool kids on his blog, through which, in 2006, he connected with Virgil Abloh who had recently been brought on to contribute to the blog, THE BRILLIANCE!, run by Chuck Anderson (of NoPattern Studio) and Benjamin Gott (of Benjamin Edgar, Boxed Water and th-oughts).
Around the same time, Preston also connected with former Supreme ambassador and aNYthing founder Aaron Bondaroff, who recently resigned from the Morán Morán gallery (formerly kown as OHWOW), and the community platform KNOW WAVE, that he co-owned with Al Moran and Mills Moran due to sexual assault allegations. Preston even interviewed Bondaroff for his blog in 2006. “He spoke about New York being a "paradise of opportunity." He was right. This place actually has too much opportunity. You just have to work for it and not be scared. Shit, you can make it out here by going out on a nightly basis,” Preston said. Preston’s opinion proved prophetic. In 2008, OHWOW published Preston’s first book of photography, The Young and the Banging, the “Official ‘Unofficial’ 2008 Downtown NYC Yearbook,” which features hundreds of Polaroids of cool kids such as Lucien Smith and members of the DJ collective Misshapes. Through friends at Nike, Preston was able to hold the book’s launch party at the brand’s iD Studio on 255 Elizabeth Street, where he stayed on theme by installing a high school gym set, including bleachers and a photo booth.
Preston’s gift for cultivating connections continued to prove fruitful. Only a year after throwing his book release party at Nike iD Studio, the brand reached out and offered Preston a position as their fashion and nightlife ambassador for New York, and Preston soon parlayed his ambassadorship into a full-time position. “I worked for Nike for five years. I was the marketing specialist for Nike Sportswear in New York, and then I switched roles and became the Global Digital Strategist for NikeLab. So, I launched all the NikeLab social media and built the NikeLab social media strategy,” he said to SSENSE in 2017.
In 2012, while Preston was still working for Nike, he was approached by Abloh and fellow DONDA employees Matthew Williams and Justin Saunders to join #BEENTRILL#, an art collective and DJ crew the three conceived in London during the European leg of the “Watch the Throne” tour. While #BEENTRILL# started by throwing parties, the team quickly branched out and began dropping clothing, apps, all the while exploring the intersection of high and low-brow design. That juxtaposition is best demonstrated by by the micro-storefront they opened in 2013 on Canal Street and Broadway, a corner in Chinatown famous for its high-fashion bootleggers, in particular knockoff Gucci and Louis Vuitton handbags.
While Preston had been designing since high school, until he joined #BEENTRILL#, his professional career predominantly revolved around documenting and marketing on behalf of other people and brands. The design collective not only rekindled his interest in making his own products, but also influenced his aesthetic and conceptual philosophies, as shown by the mashup, sample-centric approach his work started to take. Preston began experimenting with “Bootleg” designs as early as 2011, which he marketed on Instagram, including a knockoff of Givenchy’s Rottweiler T-shirt that mostly honored the source material apart from a “tag” hand-written in Sharpie. After joining #BEENTRILL#, Preston began pushing his ideas incrementally further. First there was an all-over logo “NASCAR Factory Defect” T-shirt, followed by custom pairs of Nike Air Force 1 Mids, dubbed “Street Sweepers”. Replacing the Nike swoosh with BAPE’s Bapesta logo hand cut from vintage Gucci fabric, the shoe were in all likelihood a DIY replacement for an axed collaboration between Nike and Dapper Dan. While at Nike “[Dapper Dan’s] son contacted me and I really wanted to do this Air Force One project with him and I really wanted to incorporate Dapper Dan and the whole story of just Nike in New York,” Preston said to Highsnobiety in 2017. “It never happened, but I got to meet him through working at Nike and he’s one of the most influential people in my life. He definitely made an impact and paved the way for people like me and other kids who are just DIY, DIY culture.”
In May 2014, Preston debuted his first official collaboration under his own name, teaming up with Nick Knight of SHOWstudio to produce an exclusive “FLAMES WAVES” combo pack which included a T-shirt inspired by John Hamilton Mortimer’s “Death on a Pale Horse” and—more importantly—a turtleneck featuring the word “СТИЛЬ.” Russian for style, the СТИЛЬ logo was inspired by law enforcement uniforms and neck tattoos, and has since become a central component of his aesthetic. Then, in 2016, Preston made the first major step to establish his career as a fashion designer when he launched his online marketplace HPC Trading Co. An online collections of bootlegs, products, and oddities, the e-store was Inspired by irreverent artist Tom Sachs—known for his Prada toilet and Chanel guillotine—who, years prior, had complimented Preston on his blatantly fake iced-out Rolex while Preston was still waiting tables in college.
Just prior to launching HPC Trading Co., Preston had an epiphany that would significantly impact his approach to fashion. While swimming off the coast of Ibiza, a plastic bag brushed against his leg and, for the first time, he consciously grasped the level of pollution in the world, much of which is created by the clothing industry—the second largest polluter on earth—that he was increasingly a part of. This realization came alongside a longtime dream of collaborating with a government agency. “I’ve emailed NASA about stuff to work on,” he said to The New York Times in 2013. “I went to their website, and I emailed the first address that made sense.” Preston felt that USPS was out of the question after seeing Vetements’ DHL T-shirt and NASA was still a far reach, the plastic bag debacle prompted another idea. “I realized that the New York City Department of Sanitation has a uniformed force that cares about the same things I do,” he said to W Magazine in 2017.
While ostensibly a strange-pairing, working with DSNY was not as far-fetched an idea as it would seem. The organization had hosted Artists-in-Residence, since 1977 when performance artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles proposed the idea to then-DSNY public information officer Vito Turso. Inspired by, and nearly forty years after, Ukeles, Preston reached out to Turso, now the deputy commissioner of the DSNY. After realizing his department could make money to support its 0x30 initiative to eliminate waste sent to local landfills by 2030, Turso agreed to Preston’s idea for a collaborative collection of reworked DSNY uniforms.
In September 2016, at the behest of Turso, Preston debuted “Uniform,” his capsule collection with DSNY, at the department’s Spring Street Salt Shed during [New York Fashion Utilizing decommissioned DSNY uniforms, as well as a number from Goodwill, Preston and the DSNY presented a collection of reworked T-shirts, hoodies, jackets and pants alongside Ukeles’ mirrored sanitation truck, entitled The Social Mirror, that was first shown at the New York City Art Parade in 1983.
Then, in January 2017, Preston showed his first full collection, “For You, the World” during Paris Fashion Week Men’s. The Fall/Winter 2017 men’s and women’s collection was inspired by his continued exploration of sustainable fashion and the sixty-odd species of birds that share his name. “As a child [I took] trips to the Marin headlands in California—so the collection explores the nature of herons I always saw in the wild, and brings them to life. It also focuses on labor uniforms and graphic text and imagery. The underlying message is a balance between street and high fashion and a commitment to raising eco-consciousness. I was moved by Eileen Fisher’s famous statement that the apparel industry is the second-largest polluting industry next to oil: This collection is a response to that” he said to Esquire in 2017. Despite being Preston’s runway debut, the collection was a sort of greatest hits, mixing the designer’s SHOWstudio turtleneck with DSNY pieces, revised workwear details and his long-held love for REALTREE camo, all tied together with the autobiographical Heron theme that arguably, minus the Heron T-shirt, was more of a selling point than an actual design inspiration.
During the first half of 2017, Preston designed Future’s wardrobe for his “Nobody’s Safe” tour, which mainly consisted of Heron Preston signature items reworked in Future’s black and yellow color palette. Later that year, Preston presented his follow-up for Spring/Summer 2018, “Show House,” which built upon “For You, the World,” incorporating and riffing on many of his already coveted designs, but under a new autobiographical theme. “When I was little my parents moved out of San Francisco, up to the suburbs, to a new housing development. Before you go, they have these model homes—the interior decoration is super cheesy, like there’s a bowl of fruit glued to the table and there’s kitschy art on the wall, like a kitten playing or, I don’t know, trees blowing in the wind. I looked at cheesy graphics, basically,” he said to Vogue. Preston also continued to establish orange as his signature color and introduced fifty pieces of womenswear.
For Fall/Winter 2018, Preston miraculously achieved his goal of collaborating with NASA on a capsule collection of jackets, sweatshirts and sweatpants that abided by the administration’s strict uniform guidelines while incorporating the famous “worm” logo that was discontinued in 1992. The collection’s overarching theme, “Public Figure,” seems to concurrently satirize and espouse influencer culture, namely through a widely talked about T-shirt featuring the slogan “Influencer Jetstream” alongside a list places influencers frequent (or more accurately, are photographed in), including Coachella and Art Basel. While the collaboration with NASA was groundbreaking, if not in terms of design then for its mere existence, the collection as a whole was not, mainly acting as a revision of Preston’s mix of work and streetwear.
Although Preston has yet to establish himself as a premier designer at this early stage in his career, he has positioned himself as a forward thinker. “Kids don’t want to be scientists. Kids want to be athletes, they want to be rappers, they want to be creative directors, they want to be artists,” Preston said to SSENSE in 2017. “I want to show them what else they can do with that power by collaborating with different industries to create something super special. Bill Nye the Science Guy is getting old. Does he connect with 16-year-olds these days? He connected with me 10, 15 years ago, but who are those new guys that are making science cool? I see that as my role. My purpose is inspiring the next creative directors to understand that potential is limitless.”
Like the theme of his Fall/Winter 2018 collection, Preston seems to thrive in his role as a “Public Figure,” a foreseeable outcome for a designer who was mentored by Virgil Abloh and got his start selling “Bootleg” designs through Instagram. While Preston’s connections have surely helped him, his nose for untapped collaborations and trends is equally responsible for his brand’s immediate and expanding influence over fashion and pop culture, as demonstrated not only by his collaborations with NASA and DSNY but also by garments like the bedazzled rhinestone T-shirt featuring Vladimir Putin in a pair of sunglasses that he released earlier this year in collaboration with Moscow-based concept store KM20.
Way back in 2006, before Preston had even released The Young and the Banging, he told Freshness: “That is exactly what I’m doing with Heron Preston. I don’t want people to figure me out because then I’m boring. They will already know what to expect. If I create a friction with Heron Preston, and do something on Warren Buffet one day, then Keith Huf or Internet security the next, I’ll create a certain fascination that will keep people coming back.” It’s exactly this provocateur ethos that continues to drive Preston well over a decade later. While it seems likely that he will continue to incorporate autobiographical and workwear influences in his designs, pursue new collaborations and explore ways to reduce waste in his collections, it is hard to predict the direction of the man or his brand, as shown by the way he has contradicted himself in recent interviews, both declaring that he “doesn’t give a fuck” about politics and acknowledging his power as a designer to change lives. What is fairly certain is that Preston will find a way to stay in the limelight. With support from New Guards Group, Marcelo Burlon’s fashion group that backs Off-White and Palm Angels, a quickly growing Instagram audience and an array of wealthy and connected friends, Preston has all the necessary tools to not only expand his presence, but also the idea of workwear.