Heron Preston’s business started with a white lie.
The red-hot streetwear designer admitted that his first independent foray into fashion came when he bootlegged the popular Givenchy Rottweiler T-shirt, reworking it into a deliberate fake by putting the image on a white T-shirt rather than a black one and selling it under the radar through his Instagram post. Since then, Preston has been twisting fashion in a number of unconventional ways that have brought him and his label to the forefront of the popular streetwear movement.
Here, he talks with WWD men’s reporter Aria Hughes about fashion school, pushing boundaries — and where streetwear might be headed next.
WWD: We’re on stage at Parsons where you went to college. How does that make you feel?
Heron Preston: I’m on the same stage where Donna Karan would host these talks with futurists. Now I’m on that stage and it’s kind of trippy. I was a good student because I was excited to have gotten into this school. It was really hard to get into and once I got accepted, I took advantage of all the resources: I was class president, went to all the talks, I really soaked it up.
WWD: You’ve also have written a book, “The Young and the Banging.” How did that come about?
H.P.: When I moved to New York, it felt like a big high school — people hooking up with each other, the parties at the club were like house parties in high school, the yellow taxicabs were like school buses, the streets were like the hallways, the people who were more successful around me were like my teachers. I’m from San Francisco, and I knew how to code and use Photoshop and I brought those two things together and started a blog. I was documenting my life to show my friends in San Francisco what it was like to live in New York as a student. One of the followers was a publisher in Miami who was printing flyers and wanted to start publishing books so he approached me to do a book. I told him I have the best idea: a yearbook of New York. So I photographed 200 kids between Parsons and NYU and it was all documented on Polaroid because Polaroid at the time was going out of business and it was really hard to find that film.
WWD: Did that lead to a job at Nike?
H.P.: Yes. They asked me what the most creative thing was that I’d done and I had that book so I said that.
WWD: Tell us about the Rottweiler T-shirt.
H.P.: The Givenchy Rottweiler was a really popular T-shirt at the time and it had never come in any other colors but black. I wanted to bootleg it, but I wasn’t trying to capitalize on it and make money selling someone something that looked real. I wanted it to look super fake to really get under people’s skin. I was working at Nike and we had machines downstairs where we were customizing things like varsity jackets and screen printing T-shirts, so on one of the down days, I got the real T-shirt, I photographed it and Photoshopped it onto a white T. I wrote people’s names on it with a Sharpie and dated it. I really made it personal.
WWD: What came next?
H.P.: Revving off the excitement of that T-shirt, I did the NASCAR one. With that shirt, those are all proper corporate logos and I didn’t want to take the time to reach out to everyone to get the usage rights. So I said, “How am I going to get away with this if someone sends me a cease and desist and tries to sue me.” So I made up a story about a found factory defect. I was really into the idea of giving people what they’re not supposed to have: Imagine finding two M&Ms stuck together, that’s lightning in a bottle, that never happens. You’re not supposed to have a factory defect, that’s why the logo is flipped upside down.
WWD: So what was the story?
H.P.: The story was: I found these T-shirts that were factory defects in a thrift store in Tennessee — and I had never been in Tennessee ever — but I was thinking about the culture of NASCAR and I’m sure there are a lot of fans in Tennessee and a lot of T-shirts printed there so I said I was in a thrift store and found a dusty box in the corner with these shirts that were factory defects because the logos were flipped upside down, and I asked the store owner if I could buy them. And I just relabeled them and started selling them like crazy through Instagram. I didn’t have a web site because I didn’t want anybody to trace me back. It was all through direct messages and people leaving their PayPal addresses, really sneaky operation. On the back is a Home Depot logo and I made Home Depot cool. I put Google on there and Google is not even involved in NASCAR. So it was really about playing with logos. The New York Times wrote a story about the resurgence of logo culture and that was the centerpiece.
WWD: You did something similar with a Nike shoe, too, right?
H.P.: Yes. The Street Sweeper Air Force 1 also pushes this idea of what we’re not supposed to have. I took an Air Force 1 and removed the Nike swoosh and put A Bathing Ape star cut in Gucci fabric onto the shoe. I totally remixed the shoe. I only made 10 of those and put the Heron Preston label on the insoles. I worked with a cobbler in Chelsea. Again, this was just realizing these dreams inside of my head.
WWD: How do you think the customer has changed since you released these products?
H.P.: They’re way more informed. The access to information is super-fast and the kids just know everything. But at the same time, they don’t know everything and they’re looking to us for information and knowledge. They want to know how people like me and Virgil [Abloh] were able to make it happen.
WWD: Speaking of Virgil, you started Been Trill with him and Matthew Williams and Justin Saunders. Tell us about that?
H.P.: I was programing that customization place at Nike, and Virgil and Matt and Justin were fresh off tour with Kanye in London. They walked into the Bowery space and said, “Heron, do you want to start throwing parties with us, they’re called Been Trill.” I said, “Yeah, it sounds crazy, let’s do it.” The idea came from being bored with nightlife. They were all sitting around in London working and playing music off their laptops and they started asking, “How come we’re not hearing the music we love when we go out to the clubs at night?” Let’s throw our own parties. We have to control our own fun. None of us knew how to DJ, but we just went for it. We took on the identity of a boy band. That’s kind of how the apparel component kicked off. We all started dressing the same, wearing the same T-shirts. They were really cool and the kids started saying they wanted the T-shirts, so we started making them.
WWD: However, you made a deal to sell the line at PacSun that was widely criticized.
H.P.: We signed a deal with PacSun and all of a sudden, our shirts were sold in all the top malls across America. It was a big experiment and we got a lot of backlash because we had a lot of fans who were niche and when we did the PacSun deal, we opened it up to a whole new customer base. The product was a little cheaper. Before, we were selling $100 shoelaces and then we go into PacSun and there was a huge backlash. But we didn’t take it that seriously. We were like, “Whatever, do you not like us anymore?”
WWD: Your brand uses Cyrillic script, what inspired that?
H.P.: Nick Knight was doing product collabs that were connected to the gallery shows he was hosting in London. He invited me to do a T-shirt collab to launch a gallery show for hip-hop photography from the Eighties. Rappers are always rapping about style, and what style meant to me at the time was the Cyrillic alphabet. I loved the tension between knowing the letters and not knowing the letters and I just loved the style of the alphabet so I decided to write “Style” in Cyrillic and I started putting it on hats, Ts — everywhere — and eventually it became my sub-logo. To me, style means more than fashion: You don’t necessarily have to work in fashion to have style. I really embraced that logo a lot and that led to me launching my collection 11 months ago in Moscow.
WWD: You have a project with the New York Department of Sanitation. How did that come about?
H.P.: That collab came after the Street Sweeper and I was really challenging myself to do something unpredictable again. It’s in my DNA. One of my mentors at Parsons did a talk that he was redesigning Australia’s tax system and I’d never heard someone speak about design in that way. I was at Nike, I was frustrated and wanted to move on. I called him and he asked if I was interested in applying my design and innovation to art and fashion or to wicked issues like the health-care industry. I said health care wasn’t my thing, but wicked issues sounded like a challenge that I’ve never really thought about. I would love to apply design innovation to an issue. But the question plagued me for two years: What is the issue that I want to get behind for this challenge? I was on vacation in Ibiza with my girlfriend and some friends and I wound up on this beach I wasn’t supposed to be on and it was trashed by super drunk college kids, there were all these red Solo cups all over the sand. I went swimming and there was this plastic bag that brushed up against my arm and once I realized it was garbage, I realized that’s the wicked issue, the environment, that’s what I want to get behind. I’ve always wanted to redesign uniforms for a work force, so the stars eventually aligned.
WWD: Why the Department of Sanitation?
H.P.: It’s a uniformed workforce that cares about the same things I do: Don’t litter is printed on their trucks; they have really great uniforms that are impossible to get access to. I started researching whether the Department of Sanitation had ever done anything creative because I had this idea to do a T-shirt collaboration with them using vintage and secondhand T-shirts that emphasized recycling and sustainability. I discovered they have an artist in residency. I put this presentation together and at the end was a gift. My thank you was going to be raising money with this T-shirt collab to gift to the department. They called me back the next day and they proposed instead to do the collaboration to raise awareness of their Zero by 30 initiative that they had just launched with the mayor to make a pledge to send zero waste to the landfills by 2030. So we shut down Spring Street for a see-now-buy now event and we presented the product. It was all upcycled from vintage T-shirts or sanitation uniforms that were donated to me that I cleaned up and added new. With the money we raised, we created a foundation.
WWD: Collaborations have become so ubiquitous today, are they still relevant?
H.P.: Kids just want us to help them dream. They dream big and they want to see those dreams come to life. They love product a lot — that’s their second skin, that’s how they identify themselves — and they want their favorite brand to help them dream in these big, big ways. Collaborations are a great opportunity to help kids dream. The Louis Vuitton/Supreme was crazy and Virgil getting hired to do Louis is crazy. Helping kids dream is where you drive these collabs to the next level — and doing the unpredictable like my DSNY helped create new roads we can go down, create new paths, open new doors.
WWD: What other unconventional things do you see in the world that you’d like to put together?
H.P.: I love what Elon Musk is doing with his Boring Company. He’s my ideal person to collaborate with next. I saw his Boring Company made a flamethrower and a week later he shot a rocket across the skies in Los Angeles. I love the quote during the great space race, when JFK said, “We don’t do things because they’re easy, we do things because they’re hard.” The thicker the threshold, the harder the barrier is, the more exciting it is for me to want to do it.
WWD: People are saying that streetwear is dead because it’s become super-commercial. Do you agree?
H.P.: As long as there are young people, there will be streetwear. I always think about kids and what they want and what’s meaningful for them. They’ll always be making things their own, taking risks and being rebellious. I think about one of Virgil’s prints: The Youth Will Always Win. So I think it’ll be twisted and remixed in many forms, but I don’t think it’s going anywhere.
WWD: How do you maintain the link to the youth as you get older?
H.P.: You’ve just got to drink tequila with them and party with them and stay up late and DJ their parties. You’ve got to walk the streets with them. That’s how I stay connected to my friends who are younger than me. I play the music they want to hear. Just be a friend, don’t just look down and study them, but be in the mix.