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Heron Preston for DSNY Lookbook
Heron Preston for DSNY LookbookCourtesy of Heron Preston for DSNY

The artist who staged a fashion show with NYC’s garbage men

Heron Preston discusses his latest project, a partnership with the city’s Department of Sanitation which saw him repurpose uniforms into shoppable garments

Last summer, while swimming off the coast of Ibiza, Heron Preston had an epiphany. Since 2014, the multi-disciplinary artist-slash-designer-slash-creative director had been looking for a change of tact and a way to apply his ideas and practice to something that he felt truly mattered. As it happened, something as innocuous as a plastic bag brushing up against his arm quickly sparked a thought – or, more accurately, a chain of thoughts – that would shape his work for the following 12 months.

Last night, at a salt shed on the west side of Soho which is typically off-limits to the public, Preston presented the culmination of nearly a year of research and collaborative work with the Department of Sanitation New York. The event was billed as a celebration of the men and women of the DSNY who keep the streets of New York clean and, consequently, keep us healthy. All of the profits from the show will be donated to the Foundation for New York’s Strongest, a “nonprofit organisation dedicated to honouring the service of sanitation workers,” which aims to eventually open a museum dedicated to the DSNY. The other cause which took centre-stage last night was the department’s 0x30 campaign, that seeks to raise awareness about the target of zero New York waste going to landfill sites by the year 2030.

Somewhere between an art project and a fashion presentation, Preston’s creations were made from upcycled uniforms from DSNY workers – it was workwear that had actually seen real toil, with no need for expensive washing processes to give it that worn, lived-in effect. Onlookers were then able to purchase garments from the collection directly from a merchandise booth, taking the concept of “See Now, Buy Now” and adding the option of “Wear Now”. In almost every sense, it felt progressive; this was fashion that not only carried a genuine message but one that refused to be bound by convention.

As the fashion industry repeatedly fails to shed its toxic practices – making it the second biggest polluting industry in the world – Preston presented a striking call for change. “This industry needs to be checked, nobody is really checking it,” implored Preston the day prior to the show, his frustration evident. “There’s people like me that are trying to play their part, but we all need to be asking these questions, we all need to be checking the vendors we work with… All of this stuff needs to be re-evaluated.” Preston knows his name doesn’t carry the same weight as some of his peers within fashion, but as someone who has worked on marketing projects for everyone from Nike to Kanye West, he’s also aware of the power he possesses – that if he somehow figures out a way to make sustainability and responsible practices cool, a complete sea change is not unthinkable. Last night, his was a local response to a global problem – the hope is others will follow.

Can you tell me what the motivation for this project with DSNY was?

Heron Preston: Ever since the days of #BEENTRILL#, I’ve contributed to putting thousands and thousands of t-shirts out into the world and I’ve always wondered, ‘Where are all the t-shirts going, where do they end up?’ Then one day, a friend of mine asked me: ‘Where would you like to apply your design and innovation in fashion to? Do you wanna apply it to solving wicked problems like health care, or do you want to apply it to fashion and art?’ That question alone opened up my perspective on how far I could take it and the change that I could influence through fashion, art and design.

Last summer in Ibiza I was swimming and this plastic bag brushed up on my arm, I thought it was a jellyfish at first and kind of freaked out, but when I realised it was garbage, all of these past experiences that I’ve just been talking about collided. I was like, holy shit, I care about littering and keeping beaches clean – that is a wicked issue that I care about.

I’d always wanted to redesign uniforms for service workers, but wasn’t really sure which group of service workers, until that garbage hit me… Then all those desires, wanting to be more responsible and redesign uniforms. Garbage men have the sickest uniforms. And they also care about what I care about: their trucks say don’t litter, they clean up beaches, they keep the city clean and healthy for us.

“Ever since the days of #BEENTRILL#, I’ve contributed to putting thousands and thousands of t-shirts out into the world and I’ve always wondered, ‘Where are all the t-shirts going, where do they end up?’” – Heron Preston

Can you tell me a bit about the process of putting this collection and event together?

Heron Preston: Originally I just wanted to do a t-shirt collab with DSNY, that was the lowest hanging fruit. I was scared that if I approached them with this grandiose idea of redesigning their uniforms for all 8000 of them… I mean, they don’t even know me. They have vendors that have been designing and making uniforms for them for forever, so I didn’t want to step on toes or scare them away.

I approached them with the idea and they were like: ‘We have this Zero By 30 campaign that we’re doing, which is about educating New Yorkers on waste and recycling. Hopefully leading up the year 2030 we’ll have zero waste going to landfills by that time.’ So we decided to do it around that.

How challenging did you find the whole process?

Heron Preston: Making clothes and doing events wasn’t a challenge, I’ve made clothes before and done a tonne of events. The challenge was convincing the DSNY to work with me, to believe in my ideas and to trust me. They’re literally working super hard for something they don’t really quite understand – they’re like, ‘Why do people want our uniforms? When they’re old and they have holes in them, I’d get rid of them. I don’t know why you and your friends want these… but we’re gonna continue to set it up how you want it.’ They’re super supportive.  

I’m reading this book by their in-house anthropologist Robin Nagle called Picking Up, it’s all about the DSNY. She’s spent time with them to understand them and she wrote that they feel invisible. So they don’t know why I wanna do this with them, they feel like they’re not that important and I’m like: ‘No, you guys are important.’ Without them, or any sanitation or waste management in any city, that city would die – you wouldn’t be able to live there, we would all get sick.

On Instagram you mentioned the artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles being a major inspiration for this project, what about her work inspired you?

Heron Preston: When I got back to NY from Ibiza, I immediately started researching the DSNY and if they had done anything creative or artistic ever. I was wondering if I had approached them with this idea, would they even get it? I went to a talk at the City Museum of New York hosted by Robin Nagle. She gave this amazing presentation on New York City’s relationship with waste management from the 1800s up until now, and she dedicated a couple of slides to Mierle, who was their artist in residency in the 70s.

When I discovered that they have an artist in residency, I was like no fucking way! Of course, they’ll understand my ideas then, they’ve already done stuff like this before with her. That really inspired me to take the next step – she gave me the confidence that they would understand this idea. She did a project that was a milestone in the world of performance art at the time – it was in the late 70s and she shook the hand of every single sanitation worker in New York. That was 8000 people at that time and it took her one year to do it. As she shook their hand she said, ‘Thank you for keeping New York alive.’ Mierle and her work totally paved the path for me. I’ve still not met her to this day, I think the first time I’ll meet her will actually be at this event.

Fashion is the world’s second biggest polluting industry, do you feel there needs to be a re-evaluation of the whole industry in regard to the environment?

Heron Preston: Totally. We cannot continue to operate this way, it’s super irresponsible – we’re fucking poisoning and killing the very world we live in. This industry needs to be checked, nobody is really checking it. There are people like me that are trying to play their part but it’s not making a big enough impact.

My girlfriend is starting her own choker company and she’s trying to get some hardware made, and the minimums are like fucking 10,000. Dude, she is only making like 100 chokers. So these young designers are stuck having to buy surplus that they don’t even use, it sits around and collects dust and then eventually ends up in a landfill. For me, this is sort of the beginning of a new way of working, You can’t be 100% perfect, no one can, but you can push for it and hopefully one day something will change.

Where will we be able to buy the clothes from the collection?

Heron Preston: This collection will be available to buy at the event. It’s see now, buy now, wear now. I’ll have a merch booth where people can actually go shop at the event. I’ve never done a fashion show before, but this is the way I’ve always done events, I’ve always just sold shit immediately to people so this is the only thing I know. I know fashion designers don’t typically do this – you need to wait six months for the collection and by that time H&M has the same things on the shelves. Like, this is the future bro: see now, buy now. Come to the show, see it, get psyched and then literally go buy it.