We need to educate consumers on what they are consuming. Designer Heron Preston on presenting a whole new material to the world in coming months
Heron Preston designer
Heron Preston has been designing his last two collections in New York City, an ocean apart from his creative team in Milan. He’s been completely in isolation both times and this has affected his approach to the work.
HP: It’s frustrating not to be with my team, to be in close proximity to my clothes. I haven’t seen anything over the past year, just little trims or samples of materials or fabrics that they’ll ship to me via DHL, so there’s a lot of shipping back and forth – but the final pieces, I haven’t seen them. It’s just been pictures from shoots so it’s been weird, because growing up and before New Guards Group I was hands-on and very DIY. That’s how I learn, and that’s how I love to design by just sinking my teeth into the process. I haven’t been able to be hands-on, and given the circumstances, I have to design from a place of what I remember and already know. For Heron Preston Fall 2021 it was about amplifying the best of what I’ve done in the past by revisiting those pieces and kind of putting a twist on them. I wanted everything to be wearable and as essential to the consumer as possible and that’s what the collection was about, focusing on pieces that I felt were part of an everyday assortment.
The Young and the Banging
LG: Just to take it back a bit, what made you really get into skate culture and streetwear?
HP: Growing up in 1990s San Francisco, the skate culture there was thriving and that was one of the cities that put a stake in the ground when it came to the sport of skateboarding. We attracted some of the best skaters in the world. At the time before social media you didn’t see too many skaters unless they were in front of you, so there was no real exposure to the community yet and so I remember the first time seeing a black skater like Stevie Williams. San Francisco was one of the best cities to see that as a young kid growing up. This also influenced where I wanted to work, in skate shops. I wanted to be a retail rat, in amongst sneakers and the culture. That informed the jobs I was taking in high school, in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood where all the shops were. A lot of the kids that worked here became my friends. We all gravitated to certain things, and a lot of those friends of mine were attracted to culture and skateboarding, that was just the kind of circle I had. In early 2001 and 2002, New York City not only attracted me, but a lot of my friends from San Francisco. We all moved to New York City and all of these kinds of like-minded people are taking the same jobs, working at Supreme, working at Stüssy or Union on Spring Street. I wanted to kind of open up the window to what life was like in New York and so I was taking tons of photos and posting them on my blog, that’s how I got my first book deal. That was called The Young and the Banging and it was a yearbook for New York City. I looked at the people who lived here as the student body, and New York City as a school – so it was for everyone who lived in New York City all shot on polaroid. Everything kind of builds and leads to something else, so this book deal gave way to my job at Nike.
Heron Preston at Nike
LG: There’s a fantastical air to the way you talk about these days with its limitless upward trajectory.
HP: I started getting interviewed to do a job at Nike, this is around the recession of 2008/2009. I was a part of that re-hire. Amongst other things, I was well-connected, a super networker so I kind of knew everybody. They loved that, I was the ear to the street of New York City. For product placement with the first Yeezys that came out I was the guy seeding those throughout New York City and getting visibility. Just having the right people in your network can help amplify what you’re doing. This is the very beginning of ‘influencers’ and me building these ‘influencer plans’ and educating Nike about who the cool people in the city were. I was the influencer out of the company and they loved that I was about starting to usher in this new generation of cool kids. I hit my five-year mark and then started working for Kanye. Throughout all of these day jobs and career moves I had always had my own side-hustles or side projects, I was doing #BeenTrill with Matthew Williams, Justin Saunders and Virgil Abloh, full-on streetwear. We were all working for Kanye, and he was going to the Paris Fashion Week shows and elevating the culture, we were a product of that energy, that’s what we were doing during the #BeenTrill days, elevating streetwear to the levels of Paris. We were DJing Fashion Week parties, this kind of energy I was creating with Virgil, Matt and Justin and Kanye was starting to infiltrate into Paris and Fashion Weeks so that starts to establish streetwear’s presence in fashion, through who we are as individuals as well – we were like a dream team when it came to introducing our culture to fashion. Eventually the band breaks up and we start doing our own things. Virgil starts Off-White, Matthew goes off to Alyx, Justin starts to take Jjjjound a lot more seriously. Then I started taking Heron Preston a lot more seriously too, turning that into a collection.
LG: What made you want to take it there in a professional capacity?
HP: I had started screen printing t-shirts in San Francisco and I was inspired by this t-shirt line back in the day, called Clarendon, the logo was two C’s, but the designer made it look like the interlocking Gucci logo. It was soft, lightweight, and on cotton t-shirts – they were expensive for what t-shirts were selling for at the time so they were kind of luxury streetwear. I loved how he elevated it. I was always screen-printing t-shirts in San Francisco but when I moved to New York I had to stop that operation because I was screen printing by myself. When I lost that control, I didn’t want someone else making my t-shirts, this connection I had with screen printing. I started to miss it, I wanted to bring these t-shirts back and so that’s when I started to dothese bootleg projects, and the first one was this Givenchy bootleg, from that rottweiler t-shirt. After that it was this NASCAR bootleg with all of these big corporate sponsor logos all over.
LG: For anyone around back then, the mere mention of a rottweiler printed shirt should transport them back to Riccardo Tisci’s Givenchy’s 2010 collection. The confluence of fashion and printed imagery goes back further, of course, but the contemporary viewer whose understanding of the streetwear might be limited probably needn’t look back much further. Since these early days, the creeping of graphic screen prints has only gained popularity from the days of rock band merch and t-shirts. The bootleg and DIY aspects that were popular in the 1980s and 1990s, stumbled onto a new concept: the realm of high fashion as a legitimating force. This slowly became a mutual exchange of legitimacy, with high fashion plundering a street-level credibility synonymous with ‘youth culture’, and the same happening vice-versa, albeit different, as what was being transferred to the street-credible was money and access to the hallowed halls of business power. Outward techniques of subversion slowly become marketed exercises in branding, and the maverick repurposing of a t-shirt design becomes a mass-produced line of clothing. From our current point of view however, it’s hard to comprehend being at the eye of this unfolding of events.
HP: Then I moved into footwear, I remixed this Nike Air Force 1, working with a local shoe cobbler to literally take off the Nike swoosh, cut all the stitching and then stitch A Bathing Ape star on using Gucci fabric. I started selling those as a bootleg project on the website, HPC Trading Co. It was more this unexpected, product offering. I was doing that for 2 or 3 years and while I’m doing that Vigil’s doing Off-White. Virgil put this idea in my head of turning the t-shirts into a full collection saying ‘You should go out to Milan and you should go and meet my partners, New Guards Group’. We met and then shortly after that I had this Department of Sanitation New York (DSNY) collaboration in 2016. The New Guards Group guys had come to the event because it was during Fashion Week, and they had told me that they were impressed with my connection to the community. After that collaboration, New Guards Group offered to turn that into a full-on collection, and that informed collection one of Heron Preston with New Guards Group. So it was a DSNY part two from the New York one. That was like an artistic exhibition, it was very limited, everything was hand-made, the entire collection was up-cycled and it was all about emphasizing sustainability and zero waste. We took a lot of that energy and a lot of that philosophy into the first collection and that’s what set the tone for my brand and put a stake in the ground of sustainability. That’s what is meant to define my approach season after season and moving forward.
Heron Preston talks to Lampoon about sustainability
LG: What are the main sustainability angles in the current season?
HP: It’s material. It all starts with materials and used resources in sustainability. I’m big about identifying new materials that are sustainable. The best approach to materials is recycling. Taking what’s already existing and then giving it a whole new life. Looking at organic materials as a second option, if you can’t do recycling, because there are so many challenges with recycled materials, the next best thing is organic. Then it’s looking at how we can apply that across the collection, identifying suppliers and vendors that are supportive and understand what I want to achieve with my collections and always looking at alternatives. We use a lot of nylon and cotton in the collections, so we’re always looking at those material groups that make the biggest impact on my operation. We’re looking at offering sustainable nylon and sustainable cotton. Recycled and organic are the two biggest stories for the collection, and then I also do special projects outside the collection which are a bit more experimental.
LG: Can you tell us more about these visionary projects?
HP: These are projects which I hope one day can be scaled and integrated into the collections, but right now, they’re just projects. One of the last ones was with a team of young engineers in Germany who specialize in sustainable 3-D printing for footwear. They look at recycling bottles. Recyclable TPU, as the source material for printing the shoes. The idea is that you don’t ever have to own multiple pairs of shoes. We eliminated glue, which eliminated the use of chemicals and toxins, and the need to stitch different panels and pieces together which ensured a snug, more efficient fit. That’s all one material. What makes it difficult to recycle is when you include all these different parts and pieces into an object – because then you have to deconstruct it just to recycle it. The metal goes there, and the plastic goes there and you have to take all the glue and dirt off. If it’s just one material, it makes it way easier to break down and then re-print. The philosophy is that whenever you’re done with your shoe, you can send it back, we break down that material and print you a whole new shoe. These are very far-out ideas, but these are the very beginnings of us playing with these concepts that we feel are gonna thrive in the future.
The future of sustainable fashion
LG: These are ideas that haven’t practically taken hold yet in the Heron Preston collection or brand, but were presented at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit in 2020 alongside designers Priya Ahluwalia and Jide Ofisefo. Do you think all this effort will pay off eventually?
HP: In the car industry there was the concept cars before they even come out. That’s what I’m doing. A lot of concepts that are very early stages, with new materials and new technology – I’m building these relationships with what I like to call ‘solution providers’ that may not have necessarily existed in fashion. It’s about inviting them into fashion to achieve much more of a bigger impact and attract a wider audience, because that’s what it’s about. Bringing young people who follow my work on this journey of educating them about sustainability, because it means many things to many different people and there isn’t a proper handbook. It’s such a creative concept, you can be sustainable in so many different ways and that’s the creative challenge for all of us to think about. How do we creatively tackle these large problems that face us as designers, as an industry? We all have to be creative with it – we all have to deeply understand what the is going on in the world and ask truthfully ‘What is sustainability?’ Getting deeper than just the surface level of it all.
The problem of greenwashing in fashion
LG: This question comes in the wake of an analysis by the European Commission to identify breaches in consumer law online. The Commission believes that in sectors such as garments, cosmetics, and household equipment forty-two percent of cases of companies making ‘green’ claims happened to be exaggerated, false or deceptive. Obviously, these present huge hurdles to even the simplest of intentions around sustainable practices.
HP: It’s daunting of an issue and a problem, that it can be so complex that it can be a bit frightening for a lot of people. It’s gonna take a lot of work, you have to do your own part of reading about it and understanding it, because what is interesting is when I invite people in to do projects with me… it’s understanding this balancing act and understanding that we’re not going to be one hundred percent sustainable overnight. It’s about understanding that we’re doing the best that we can right now and that hopefully next season it can be better, and continue to be better. Maybe right now we’re only fifty percent sustainable, and that’s good because we were zero percent sustainable last year. These are all small wins. It’s a balancing act of what it means to be sustainable, and when we start to understand that it frees us from being so rigid.
LG: It’s easy to point fingers when talking about the subject of sustainability, though for a genuine and lasting impact there are gradual structural changes that must first happen and that may not take place immediately.
HP: It’s like if someone is trying to lose weight and diet, you don’t all of a sudden cut out your entire diet and start eating salads every day. It’s not about being full on perfect because the world’s not perfect – so we have to be a little more loose with how we approach sustainability and have some goals and try to hit those goals and use it as an opportunity to explore creative solutions. One day people may start to ask questions on the legitimacy of what true sustainability is. It’s taking people who do it from a point of passion to educate consumers on what it is sustainable. Looking towards introducing levels of transparency into what we do is the next level down from claiming to be sustainable – it’s about proving it and showing it. Designing new ways of being transparent and giving consumers a snapshot deeper into what you’re doing, why and how you’re doing and who you’re working with. Transparency is going to take on an even bigger role in the next year or two when we start to realize greenwashing is a thing that happens. Let’s introduce this and start asking: What do these high levels of transparency look like?
Sustainable business practices
LG: Impact and influence are what you know best and you’ve been readily translating that into an ongoing commitment to sustainable business practices that are greater than the sum of its parts.
HP: What I learned and love with the Department of Sanitation is that waste management and fashion had no real business being together – but there are so many parallels. I found an excuse to bring them together. Those sanitation workers wear uniforms that I thought were cool, and I basically design uniforms. There’re all of these kinds of parallels that you can spin to make it relevant and relatable to the culture.
LG: Collectivity is key in this battle, and having worked from across the globe for two seasons, it’s evident that you have a reliable team behind you and with you.
HP: It’s about staying as connected as possible and ensuring that our very best ideas don’t fall through the cracks between all of these communication platforms that we have. One of those ideas that made it through to the current season is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) certification, the US-based governmental department tasked with enforcing healthy labor practices for workers, which includes setting standards for protective personal equipment. I read a lot of comments and I try to stay as connected as possible, and I’m learning that through the collaborations I’ve done and the projects I’ve done, I’m attracting a much wider audience than I’ve ever had. It’s kind of going beyond the boundaries of my culture, and it’s extending into the culture of workwear – real workwear. My culture is more fashion, which is kind of like enhanced reality, and now it’s extending into the real world, with real people who are starting to now follow my work and understand that I’m doing collaborations with Caterpillar and Carhartt. The brands they wear as an actual uniform. Listening to them, they want to celebrate it and wear it, but it’s not certified to perform on a job site when it comes to ensuring the safety of a worker. What I realized is that I’m not following these guidelines, I’m just doing what I think is cool and so they asked if I could try to certify my fashion to be worn at work. That got to me. To kind of bring these two worlds together where it becomes this seamless integration between fashion and workwear where there are no lines. How do you turn this whole entire runway show into real workwear as well? Another goal is to get more OSHA certified pieces in there. This is all geared around ideas of PPE fashion, a more authentic approach to storytelling.
LG: The big business success of streetwear seems, if not morally, then logistically at odds with a sustainable vision of the future – but the pivot to scientifically-backed textile innovation would appear to be the best use of a skillset and intuitiveness as diverse as yours. How are you planning to take all of this to the next level?
HP: I’m looking to take the brand to a much more sustainable future, and new materials. I’ve been doing the recycled cottons and organic cottons and recycled nylons and now it’s looking to what’s next? What’s next with new material. I’m actively working with a group of scientists. What’s to come in a few months, in the near future, is me introducing a whole new material to my collection range and, hopefully, a whole new material to the world.
American artist, creative director, content creator, designer and DJ. He is one of the co-founders of the mens streetwear brand Been Trill alongside Virgil Abloh and Justin Saunders among others. He has his own brand, Heron Preston.