From Heron, To the World
The NYC Designer on Sustainability, Simplicity, and Curiosity
Interview: Adam Wray
Photography: Pablo Attal
There is a modern business maxim that states: “Being on-time is late, and being five minutes early is on-time.” Heron Preston has a knack for being five minutes early. Over a series of one-off projects, the designer has contributed to significant cultural shifts just as they were picking up momentum. In 2013, he produced a coveted long-sleeve t-shirt covered in a mixture of logos including NASCAR, Google, and Home Depot, presaging the post-ironic embrace of corporate imagery. His "Street Sweepers"—custom Air Force 1s with an A Bathing Ape logo cut from deadstock Gucci fabric replacing the Nike swoosh—were an exercise in luxury co-branding years before Louis Vuitton and Supreme shacked up. Recently, though, Preston has found a new professional fixation: the environment. In 2016, he reworked the New York City Department of Sanitation’s uniforms in support of the agency’s zero-waste initiative. His first collection under his own name was just presented during Paris Fashion Week. Titled “For You, The World,” it represents his most complete offering to date, and the beginning of a long-term investigation of sustainable production practices.
Adam Wray spoke with Preston while he was at his studio in Milan, where he is already at work on his second collection.
Adam Wray: You just presented your first fully-realized collection in Paris. How does it feel to get that out there?
Heron Preston: It’s awesome to be able to present a full story instead of a singular item. That’s kind of what I’m known for, singular pieces, like the NASCAR shirt or the "Street Sweeper" Nike Bapes. It’s groundbreaking for me and my career to have had 50 pieces to tell a layered story with. It’s all a big learning experience—learning how to make clothes, mobilize a whole team behind me, and sell this story, because at the end of the day we have to sell this at retail. It’s a whole bunch of new, added layers.
If you had to boil it down, what is the story you’re telling with the new collection?
When you walked into the showroom in Paris there was this big banner that said “Second To Oil, Textile And Apparel Industry Is The Most Polluting In The World, So Let’s Change That.” That’s the main takeaway. I’m in this fashion business—I’m a designer—so I’m actually contributing to that statistic. I’m a part of the problem. So being part of a solution is what I’m really curious about. That banner is made out of PVC. I don’t want to use it in my second showroom, so what do I do with it? I’m gonna cut it up and turn it into bags so it doesn’t end up in a landfill. There are so many different strategies on how to be better. I’m not into being preachy—I’m just curious about what the future of design will be given the state of the environment today. There are all these touch-points on nature and the environment that you’ll see throughout this first collection. I’m obsessed with American hunting culture, so you’ll get the woodland and forest camouflage in there. I’m incorporating the heron, my namesake, into the story of this collection. I’m actually exploring opportunities to work with the National Audubon Society, who are one of the oldest conservationist organizations out there. They use birds as an entry point to the environment.
Yesterday, one of the big pieces of news was that all of these American national park Twitter accounts started tweeting climate change facts that were then getting scrubbed, presumably censored by Trump’s administration.
Yeah, like the Badlands!
Exactly. The National Audubon Society was getting some tweets off, too. It’s interesting how government employees have just been thrust into this role as the new rebels.
It’s real. And it’s crazy that Trump’s suppressing this because of his business interests. It’s fucking scary, man. “Nope, this doesn’t exist, this isn’t happening,” when the whole rest of the world is like, “Bro, yes it is. And it’s been happening, for a very long time.”
“We always want what we can’t have.”
Do you feel that fashion labels and artisans have a responsibility to take a position?
Design and art are very powerful voices today. That’s why I think the project with the Department of Sanitation was a success, because they hooked up with a fashion designer to talk about sending zero waste to landfills by 2030. That’s what that whole project was for, and now people are paying attention because it was my voice. Do designers have a responsibility? Maybe, maybe not. But they do have the fucking power to inspire change, for sure. I hit my 30s, and I had never really cared about getting involved in anything. I was just living life, having fun, doing cool things with no purpose behind them. And one day I was like, “Wait a minute, I’m an official adult now.” What can I do to be more responsible with the voice I have? When designers or artists start to challenge themselves, and figure out what they care about, and realize how powerful their voices are, then they might start to feel like they have a responsibility.
You’ve discovered that you have a voice that resonates with people, especially young people. What do you think it is that attracts people to you?
I’m into helping kids dream through my projects. I’m giving them what they’re not supposed to have. We always want what we can’t have. That’s just human nature. I feel like I’ve always offered that. Breaking the rules, saying “fuck authority,” and being rebellious are such key attributes of youth culture. You get that through my projects, like with the NASCAR shirt—“How did you get away with printing a shirt with all these trademarked logos on them? You didn’t get a cease and desist? No one came after you?” There’s a mystery there, and I think that gets under the skin of the community that follows me. It’s more of a challenge to pull off with a full collection, but I don’t want to lose that because that’s what got me here today.
It’s a really contemporary mode of working, too, being able to stay flexible, stay agile, and create a framework for yourself to just do whatever you’re into at the time.
I’m not into the word ‘no.’ And I’m not into the idea of not having a lot of money. I’ve always been a super resourceful kid. I’ve always figured out how to make it happen. When you’re so passionate about making something and you can’t make it, it makes you go crazy. And I hate going crazy. [Laughs]
“Once you lose your curiosity you get comfortable, you get stale.”
Do you have a dream project?
I really want to work with NASA. There’s no bigger dream in the world than going to space for me. Just the same way I looked at the Department of Sanitation and their uniforms like, “I could wear that stuff,” I look at astronauts, and they have a uniform, as well—it just happens to be a space suit. I want to be involved in that, too. The New York Times did a profile on me that had the coolest headline ever: “Extending Street Cred Into Outer Space.” I was like, “Yes! That is exactly what I wanna do.” Extending street credibility into different industries. 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. 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.
You’re like a freelance public servant.
You used to work for Nike.
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.
What was the most important thing you took from being at the source of all the corporate culture you reference in your one-offs?
Two things: first, planning. Planning is everything. I entered the company not knowing what a fucking plan was. I didn’t know what a deck was. I came to the company with just ideas. Now I understand why my boss kept yelling at me, “Build a plan!” The other thing is keeping it simple. Nike has these maxims, like Nike’s Ten Commandments. You can look them up. The one I remember to this day is just about keeping it simple. You don’t need to complicate things, and that helps you move faster. One of the best employees at the brand was my boss who hired me, his name is Julien Cahn. He’s now the CMO at Converse. Julien was super organized and he would get so much work done by writing the least amount of words in emails. His replies were so short but so specific and so direct. That was one of my biggest take aways: keeping things simple, stripping away the fat, and staying focused.
Success in your field depends on being connected and knowing what’s going on, what’s coming next. How do you make sure you’re doing that?
I stay curious. One of the first weeks I was at Nike I went to the bathroom, and when I came back to my desk there was this printout laying on it that said, “Once you lose your curiosity, it’s over.” I got really nervous and scared, like, “Fuck, am I gonna get fired? Is this a message?” I’ll never forget that. Once you lose your curiosity, you get comfortable, you get stale. It’s a wrap. Curiosity is a super big part of me. I’m not sure why, maybe it’s because I’m an only child. That’s what guided me through the first couple of years living in New York. That’s how I got connected with Aaron Bondaroff at Know Wave, or how I met all the dudes at Supreme. I just wanted to meet people because I was super curious about who they were, and what they did, and how they did it. As long as you keep that curiosity, I really believe your connections will stay fresh, your eyes will stay open, you’ll discover new things all the time, and you’ll have fun doing it.
Interview: Adam Wray
Photography: Pablo Attal