Heron Preston is one of those insider industry people whose name you’ve probably been hearing with increasing frequency. You may know him from the attention he earned last year when he partnered with the New York’s Department of Sanitation on repurposed uniforms that focused on DSNY’s 0x30 initiative to decrease the city’s contribution to landfills. Or perhaps you know him from the cult following he and friends like Virgil Abloh gained as part of art/DJ collective Been Trill. Or maybe you recognize him as a regular from downtown spots like Café Select, where Barneys Buyer Andrew Caldwell met him last week to welcome spring and toast his debut collection over a glass of lemonade.
Andrew Caldwell: Do you live around here?
Heron Preston: I do! A couple of blocks away just off Bowery on Rivington. I’ve been there 4 or 5 years, and I’ve been in the city for 13 years now.
AC: I’ve been here 16, which is crazy. Where are you originally from?
HP: San Francisco.
AC: I feel like I’ve been meeting a lot of interesting people from San Francisco lately…
HP: This city is like a magnet—all my SF friends moved here. I think it’s because of the cultural atmosphere out here and the platform for being creative and making a name for themselves in the art, fashion, and nightlife scenes. New York has that rich heritage. I blame a lot of my fascination with New York on the movies I watched growing up.
AC: What’s your favorite New York movie?
HP: Kids—I was really into that movie, especially growing up as a skater. It painted this picture of a squad of skaters, and I was like, man that’s where I need to be, I want to be a part of that lifestyle.
AC: Have you ever met [director] Larry Clark?
HP: No, I would love to. I’ve actually bought a bunch of his photos from Kids. I was at Lovely Day having lunch one day, and I ran into my friend who had just bought some prints. He told me it was a secret sale of a bunch of prints he took during the making of the movie, and I ran over and bought 4 prints.
AC: That’s amazing! So, I’m a buyer and don’t usually do interviews. Is there a trick to this?
HP: Don’t worry, I’m not a pro at it either! I was just part of this DSNY anti-litter campaign launch this past Saturday. We were at a basketball court on West 4th, and NY1 was there interviewing everyone, and I felt like I totally bombed the interview. Then, the next day they ran the footage, and they had cut my interview!
AC: Laughs. Okay, so we’ll do better than that. So is the DSNY thing ongoing for you?
HP: Last year, when I did the one-off project, we sat down after and were like let’s continue this; let’s make this long term. I really want to focus on projects that promote sustainability and the 0x30 initiative. I really want to include more designers and artists in the conversation.
AC: I think the history of the DNSY and its artist collaborations is fascinating. I recently learned about Mierle Laderman Ukeles who worked with them for decades.
HP: Ukeles, yeah—amazing. She’s been a DSNY artist in resident since the 1970s. All her artwork is about maintenance. She saw her role as a mother raising her kids as an art performance, and she did this big project where she photographed all the janitors of this building she worked in. She approached them by telling that the work they were doing cleaning the buildings was art to her. She showed that work, the DSNY heard about it and wanted them to feature their workers. The DSNY has always felt like nobody cared about them and that there were only ever negative connotations. So, she did an amazing job of celebrating these civic workers, and eventually she became the artist in residence and has been for decades.
AC: So if she was interested in maintenance workers, is your interest in uniforms that drew you into DSNY?
HP: For sure. As a designer, I’ve always been inspired by workwear and uniforms. It comes from my childhood with a father who was a police officer. I’ve always appreciated service workers and uniforms—it’s always been a part of my life. So there’s that, but it’s also more than that. At one point, I became curious about what I really cared about in the world. When I was frustrated with my last job at Nike, my friend asked me what it was that I wanted to apply design to—was it art and fashion only? I realized I was interested in applying it to “wicked issues,” but I didn’t know what it was that I cared enough about. I thought about it all the time. Then, one day I was swimming and this plastic bag brushed against me in the ocean. At that moment, I realized the wicked issue I cared about was the environment—I hate litterbugs! I immediately remembered the DSNY—a uniformed force that cares about the same issues that I do. I had a total epiphany realizing that I wanted to work on and redesign their uniforms.
AC: People talk a lot now about fashion and the waste it creates as an industry. Does that play into your wicked issue?
HP: Absolutely. With the DSNY project, I was so new to this whole world of sustainability that I started reading a lot about it. I also stumbled on to this exhibition at the Cooper Union Design Museum that was called Scraps. It was all about the scraps created by the textile and apparel industries, and these artists that used them to create things. I learned that those industries are the second biggest producers of waste in the world after the oil industry. I realized I was contributing to that, so it really led me to wanting to be better and reduce my impact. Each collection will be a journey on realizing how to produce less waste and be a better designer.
AC: Do you have a master plan with all this?
HP: There’s not like one big thing you can do, there are so many little ways you can contribute. Whether it’s using organic fabrics or rethinking packaging. It’s about producing things that are made to last. It’s about defining what you value and care about and going after that. I’m still learning, and it’s very complex and sometimes overwhelming. That’s the challenge I’ve decided to explore.
AC: Is your end goal to be zero waste?
HP: The end goal is coming up with a system within my design process that I can always implement when creating collections. I want to ultimately reduce my impact.
AC: You wear a lot of hats as fashion designer, DJ, etc. What’s your main thing?
HP: I’ve always come back to creating something wearable and wanting to get my products out in the world, and I guess it’s all been an evolution from that.
AC: How did the interest in style start?
HP: It all started as a skate kid. Skaters are obsessed with style. It’s the street culture. Also, skaters always made a lot of video footage, so style and image was always a component, like right down to how to tie your shoes.
AC: Did you have access to fashion growing up?
HP: Yeah, actually my dad had a sportswear line. His name was Bartholomew, so he called it Bartolo Athletic that he sold out of the back of his Bronco. It was all hockey and baseball jerseys and hats. He was a straight up artist and always carried a camera on the job as a cop, and I recently had an art show in L.A. showcasing his photography. Also, one of my friends in high school had access to a screen printer, and that’s how I started making my own Heron Preston T-shirts. My name is Heron Johnson, but I always used my middle name because Preston sounded nicer. I think the first shirt I ever made was a Tupac thug life tee, where I redrew his tattoos by hand.
AC: This is a weird question, but do you like stores and the retail experience?
HP: I don’t like to shop and browse stores. I always know exactly what I want. That being said, I do think stores are critical still to the story telling of a brand. I value the physical experience of trying things on and touching fabrics. Stores are definitely being challenged. I’m so new to all of it—this is my first proper collection. Previously, I was selling online and mostly through Instagram DMs. I used to put up bootleg T-shirts and sell them that way, so being at Barneys is new.
AC: I think I learned about you on Instagram when I saw my friend Mike wearing one of your tees. I knew I needed to know more. Do you get a lot of DMs?
HP: Yeah, I do. I answer some when they’re really genuine. I’m not above sliding into someone’s DM when I want to work with them! When they introduced that feature, all of a sudden the whole world had each other’s number in a way. But I won’t miss selling clothes that way.