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Heron Preston in NYC, June 2016
Heron Preston in NYC, June 2016Photography Ava Nirui

Heron Preston is turning bootlegs into art

Making knock off Gucci Nikes and consulting for Kanye, Heron Preston is the multidisciplinary artist blurring the lines between street and luxury, fake and real

TextCalum GordonPhotographyAva Nirui

Heron Preston is a product of the internet. Operating in the creative sub-genre of “What does that guy actually do?” – a decidedly post-internet phenomena in itself – the 32-year-old explains that he now “identifies as an artist.” Of course, like all good post-2000 polymaths, he dabbles in a little bit of everything: he makes sought-after streetwear; he DJs; he does a bit or marketing and art-direction, counting the likes of Kanye West and Nike among his clients; and, in February of this year, he launched HPC Trading Co., an online platform to showcase and sell his work.

A quick browse of Preston’s online art store and you can quickly see why his work is somewhat polarising: it is a unique offering of what could be easily interpreted bric-a-brac or Canal Street cast-offs. But to those in tune with his outlook, one which is laden with niche cultural cues, seemingly banal creations take on a much greater significance. Take, for example, his Street Sweeper sneakers, which look remarkably like a pair of knock-off Gucci/Nike hybrids (and, technically, they are). To aficionados of Preston’s work, these are not merely sneakers, but art – a culmination of reference points distilled into a single shoe, encapsulating at Harlem’s Dapper Dan in the 80s, New York street culture, Japanese designer Nigo’s mid-2000 Bathing Ape behemoth and, by extension, an era almost exclusively soundtracked by Chad Hugo and Pharrell Williams. And for those that get each reference point woven into this seemingly simplistic idea, $850 maybe doesn’t seem too steep.

Born and raised as an only child in San Francisco’s Bay Area, he describes his younger self as “a skate kid” and an “internet nerd.” His father was a police officer and his grandfather a church preacher. Each day, he would attend a high-school funded by The Bill & Melinda Gates foundation, where he was never more than two feet from a computer and he learned to code HTML and use Photoshop. “I didn't really get into so much trouble, I was always kind of home when I had to be home,” he remarks. “The internet was my world, the internet was my streets.”

“I remember rushing home from school, and going to underground message boards, and chatting with people around the world,” Preston recalls, somewhat fittingly, over Skype. “I was going to become a rapper back then. We would freestyle over voice chats, and that was my way of connecting with people who liked the same music as me. I think music was one of the first kind of genres of art that really touched me in a way, creatively and emotionally, that drove me to search out these niche kind of communities, thanks to the internet, that was kind of my life.” In turn, it was Preston’s online presence that would later lay the foundations for where he finds himself today. “I met a lot of the collaborators that I work with now, like Virgil for example, through the internet,” he says.

2004 was when Preston moved to New York to study at Parsons School of Design, but perhaps more significantly, it was also when he started documenting his world and publishing it on the internet. “I picked up a camera and started taking a bunch of photos and videos about my life and then I started moving into expressing myself in other ways, through t-shirts, art, and DJing.” It was while waiting tables that he first encountered the artist Tom Sachs, the “main inspiration behind HPC Trading Co.” – who you’ll probably know for his Prada toilet or Chanel guillotine. Sachs complimented him on his iced-out and blatantly fake Rolex, something which had a lasting effect on the then-design student, radically altering his views on “authenticity”. That attitude is something which has been pervasive in his work ever since, garnering a reputation for his devilishly desirable bootleg products.

“The internet was my world, the internet was my streets.” – Heron Preston

Within a short time he came into contact with A-ron Bondaroff, the Downtown Don, known for being an OG Supreme head, co-founder of streetwear label aNYthing and, at that time, heading up an art project space entitled Off-Bowery. An almost mythical character that seemingly embodied the once burgeoning creativity, hustle and all-round grittiness Lower East Side New York. Bondaroff would go on to found OHWOW Gallery – now named Moran Bondaroff – with Mills and Alan Moran. (You may be familiar with their radio station Know-Wave). It was the later who offered Preston the opportunity to turn his candid shots of kids on New York street corners, which he would post on his blog, into a glossy coffee table book, something he would later describe as his “big break.”

Beyond photography and the internet, however, it has always been clothing which has been the most potent medium for Preston’s creativity. His Nascar t-shirt, which he launched in Spring 2013, emblazoned with an array of corporate logos, from Home Depot to Google, sold out almost instantly and subsequently went super-meta, when reddit users began making their own bootlegs. It is a recurring theme of Preston’s work, to take recognisable trademarks and reinterpret them. But what is it about this that holds such a great appeal for him? In essence, he likes pushing buttons, by “creating things that people are not supposed to see, (or) that should not exist. I think in that space, there's something really sticky about that,” he explains. “It raises questions like, ‘How did he get to do that? Did he get in trouble? Why would you do that?’”

In many ways, Preston’s bootlegs often feel more real than the original items – there’s a soulfulness to his work, in that he takes seemingly everyday items and distills a lifetime of influences into them, each time with the aim of sparking some kind of surprise or intrigue. “I'm always more interested in buying a bootleg of something than the real versions, depending on what it is obviously…I love when things are a little off, or something shouldn't really be there. You ever get really excited when you open up a bag of M&Ms and you get two M&Ms that are stuck together?” he asks with childlike excitement. “It just doesn't happen every day. That's the same type of feeling that I love to see in products,” he breaks off laughing.

You sense that Preston truly values life’s small eccentricities and quirks in a world that’s all too often strictly regimented and pristine. He seeks out dissonance. How does it feel, then, when that moment of inspiration hits? The cadence of his speech quickens slightly: “It gives me butterflies, it makes me walk a little faster to my computer, so I can get the idea down on paper, and so I can start to Photoshop it, it makes me start to dream about how people react when they see it, I'm like, ‘Oh my god, this is going to fuck people up!’”

“I’m always more interested in buying a bootleg of something than the real versions…I love when things are a little off, or something shouldn't really be there” – Heron Preston

While much of Preston’s art has come through the medium of clothing, he says he wants move into other forms of expressing himself. He has, after all, been creating printed t-shirts since he was a teenager. “I remember being at high-school and my friend had access to a screen-printing factory outside San Francisco, and he was like, ‘Hey Heron let's make some t-shirts, I have the plug on t-shirt blanks…’ and to this day it's just been my medium.” But with HPC Trading Co. he has decided to break out of that mould. “(I wanted to) challenge myself, which is why I made a table,” a stark wooden freight box, wrapped in yellow webbing with stainless steel clamps. There was also a NYPD branded brick which he created – playfully describing it as a “paperweight” on his website. It was inherently New York, and typically Heron Preston – part in-the-know reference, part playful irreverence. If you’re after it, though, you’re too late. “I took that off,” he laughs. “I got a cease and desist from the NYPD.”