GREATEST / Heron Preston
The designer talks about his youth growing up, his space obsession and how a plastic bag helped him realize what matters most: sustainability.
Heron Preston, founder and designer of his namesake label, is part of a new breed of fashion creatives doing it on their terms and pushing the limits. Insatiably curious and exploratory, he’s redefining how we think of streetwear, luxury and sustainability. We sat down with Preston to talk about his 80s space obsession, what sustainability really means and bridging the gap between fashion and other worlds.
Let’s start by talking about your NASA collection. I know you’re a huge NASA fan, and it looks like you brought a lot of the graphic and functional aspects to your pieces. I’m curious if you were allowed to use any of the NASA materials or if you got to see them?
The pieces were inspired by NASA materials because the actual materials were just too expensive. I think the spacesuits they wear can cost up to a million dollars.
So what materials did you end up using?
It was like a Gore-Tex and ripstop nylon. There’s 3M and aluminum lining incorporated into the jacket and tech pants. Those are the special pieces that were really inspired by the outer layers of spacesuits. They’re also really, really warm because astronauts have to survive extreme temperatures.
I saw in the video released with your NASA logotype collection that your jacket made it through space, so mission accomplished. [Laughs]
Yeah, it made it all the way through the atmosphere.
Being an 80s baby and space fan, did you ever watch Space Camp?
I definitely saw Space Camp. The 80s was an era of space and science; scientists and astronauts were celebrities. I grew up watching Mr. Wizard and movies like Explorers, which was about three friends who build a spaceship in their bedroom and go to space to meet aliens. Those stories held my curiosity, my drive to explore and discover. Space and science have always been magical for me.
Do those childhood influences go beyond the NASA collection and infiltrate your other creative works or even your process?
Yeah, I think so. I want to experience as much as possible, stay curious and bridge the gaps between fashion and other worlds. It goes back to what I was doing when I was younger. My dad was a San Francisco police officer, and he had this program called Operation Dream that gave kids in the projects opportunities to explore the greater Bay Area. We’d go skiing, whitewater rafting and camping. I think that experience plays a big part in my process. I want to do more, experience more, and story tell in unique and creative ways. I was that kid in high school who was friends with the jocks, the skaters, the nerds who coded, and the goths. Again, bridging the gap between different worlds.
Turning to sustainability, have you noticed an evolution in your design process as you start to incorporate sustainable practices into your brand and clothing?
It definitely has influenced my design process and business practices. I’m noticing that the difference between my first collection and the collection I’m working on now is how much I’m challenging my teams to source more environmentally responsible materials. Cotton uses a lot of water; it’s a very thirsty plant. But even with packaging—the store I’m opening in Hong Kong is asking me if I want to wrap products in tissue paper to look more luxurious. I don’t want to use any of that stuff; it’s just waste. I also do projects to raise awareness for my friends and counterparts, and I see the results in my DMs. Kids will send me their sustainable designs and ideas. They associate sustainability with my brand. That’s one of the most rewarding parts of this whole journey—recognizing that my community is also actively doing something to reduce the impact on the environment.
Have you explored other ways to create more sustainable business practices or develop a sustainable business model?
Yeah, 100%. For example, with my first showroom in Paris, I had this banner that was made out of PVC, and it wrapped around the entire showroom. When the showroom sales campaign was over, that banner went into storage with no plan to use it ever again. So I decided to cut it into little camera bags, and I’m going to sell them in my Hong Kong store. Those kinds of upcycling projects are something I can start to do now with overlooked, overstock or second-hand materials. I’m still figuring out ways to communicate these ideas so people understand where I’m coming from. Like, yeah, it’s faded, but I think that’s part of the beauty.
What’s the story that you want to tell about sustainability?
That I care about the environment, that I respect the environment. Sustainability by definition is strength and growth. That’s my approach with the Heron Preston brand, to make product while reducing the environmental impact. It goes back to my childhood. Those camping and ski trips played a big role in developing my relationship with nature. I want people to understand that the product we’re making goes back into the earth. Everyone wants this utopian world, but we should be challenging ourselves to identify the problems and take action.
That’s actually how it started for me. I was swimming in Ibiza, and there was this plastic bag floating in the ocean. Leading up to that moment, I’d been replaying these questions in my mind, What do I care about? What do I want to do in life? I knew I cared about the big problems of the world, but I hadn’t challenged myself to apply my work to those problems. And then the stars aligned, and it hit me when I saw that bag. It started with wanting to clean up beaches. Then I decided to do a t-shirt collaboration with the DSNY [Department of Sanitation New York] using vintage t-shirts, taking on this “secondhand first” philosophy.
We’re in a special place where we have the power to write new rules. There are a lot of walls being broken down and possibilities pushed because of our achievements in design and fashion.
Do you find it hard to bring sportswear, luxury and sustainability together?
No. I feel like we’re in a special place where we have the power to write new rules. There are a lot of walls being broken down and possibilities pushed because of our achievements in design and fashion. Anything goes. We’re repositioning ideas and saying, “This is what we believe in.” And kids are interested, you know. We have a really loyal fan base that supports these ideas and new ways of working. It’s awesome. We’re influencing change and redefining the industry.
That’s cool. I also wanted to ask you about your work with uniforms. When you bring them into your collections, is your aim to make uniforms fashionable or to make fashion more uniform?
It’s making uniforms more fashionable. I’ve always looked at uniforms as being fashionable, and I think that’s why I’m so influenced by them. I get excited about taking this part of the real world—the construction worker, the police officer, the firefighter—and working with that authenticity. That’s real fashion. When I spent time with the guys at DSNY, they were wearing t-shirts, Timberlands, dope Dickies. They had really cool outerwear. I want to use my platform to bring as much realness into it as possible. Fashion can be so fake at times. I think that’s why streetwear is having this moment. It’s starting at the street level, the source of authenticity, and making its way out into new territory. And I think it’s here to stay in this luxury fashion space because it’s real. It’s from the streets.
The word “influencer” was only used in marketing offices but is now used by the masses to self-identify. People leverage social media to create this entirely fake world that has become a reality.
Do you think there needs to be a new term for fashion? Fashion means endless growth and profit leading to increased turnover. Do we just need an entirely new concept or term to reflect the future of how we’re going to engage with our clothing and the environment?
Yeah, I would love this new word. You know, everything is taking on new meaning. Values are being challenged, storytelling is being challenged. At the street level, kids don’t want to follow rules; they want to break the rules. And I think they want truth, they want realness, they want authenticity. So yeah, is fashion the right word anymore? It’s not. The right word needs to define what we’re up to, what we’re doing, what we’re passionate about. I mean, that’s a really fucking great question.
You’ve used the word “seasonless.” I was happy to hear you shifting away from the idea of seasons in fashion. Do you see yourself turning into a brand that completely discards seasons?
It’s crazy, right? If you want to be sustainable, stop making stuff. Like, to be sustainable, I should just stop my brand. I’m not going to do that, but that’s where my thing with seasons comes from. Like, why do I have to make so many clothes all the time? How many hoodies do we really need? How many t-shirts do we really need? What if I just did one collection a year?
I think we’re doing way too much. As an artist, [being seasonless] also gives me the luxury of not following a schedule and only making things I feel really good about, only when I’m ready and have a great idea. That’s what being an artist is. So yes, seasonless is also a thing I want to start playing with in my Hong Kong store and with Heron Preston.
You’ve always had this rebellious side. You’re not a rule follower. So what’s the next move for you? What are you working on?
I’m continuing this quest by challenging my teams on innovative materials. By the next collection, I want everything to be organic. I also have more plans of doing projects with DSNY in the future, but inviting other designers and creatives to get involved. Also kicking off [repurposing] workshops. And then I have my store I’m opening in Hong Kong. It’s going to have a redesigned section that’s all upcycled—art objects, functional objects—completely upcycled. I’m starting to work with Nike as well. They have a really big initiative, taking old sneakers and turning them into playgrounds for kids and making jerseys out of plastic bottles. So even with the partners I’m collaborating with, it’s about working in innovative ways to reduce our impact on the environment. It’s this ongoing quest. From all these products, I think I’ll finally be able to put together a 10-year plan on how I can affect my way of influencing the system.
INTERVIEW: ANIKA KOZLOWSKI
PHOTOGRAPHY: JASON RODGERS