Heron Preston Just Wants To Make Sustainability Sexy

Preston doesn’t want to be ‘that guy’ talking about making fashion more sustainable. He just wants to do it.

It’s Earth Week. From Standing Rock to Flint, from fashion to festivals, we’re diving into the fight for our planet on all fronts.

Heron Preston has made a name for himself in fashion by giving people things they're not supposed to have. Or, rather, things they think they're not supposed to have. He's sold designer bootlegs over the internet, mocked up brand collaborations that would never happen through proper channels, and, for his New York Fashion Week debut, he repurposed bales of clothing resurrected from the garbage. His work with the concept known as "upcycling" — using secondhand clothing as material for new designs — has made sustainable fashion into something no one was sure it could be: a cool commodity.

Preston is perhaps best known for his work with Been Trill — a streetwear brand founded by himself, Matthew Williams, and Virgil Abloh in 2012 that started as an underground label but has since made its way to brands like PacSun and Budweiser. The Heron Preston brand makes genius use of its dexterity: While Been Trill rakes in a solid retail income, Preston maintains a cult following with elusive and exclusive drops like his most quietly ubiquitous to date: a simple turtleneck reading "СТИЛЬ" ("style" in Russian) released in a run so limited that only Kanye, North West, and maybe that cute, obscurely wealthy, impossibly connected girl you follow on Instagram for outfit inspo were the only people who ever got to wear it.

MTV News: Earth Week
The fight for our planet. On a human scale. All week long.

When he announced a partnership with the New York City Department of Sanitation in September 2016 during New York Fashion Week, he captivated the attention of the fashion elite and online streetwear communities alike. The DSNY has had an artist-in-residence before: Mierle Laderman Ukeles, whose Touch Sanitation Performance art piece found her spending the better part of a full calendar year shaking the hands of more than 8,500 sanitation employees. Ukeles was trying to challenge stereotypes about these workers, and extend some personal gratitude to important yet often overlooked individuals. Heron Preston's project helps to do all of the above and then some. With this platform, he was able to indulge his fascination with uniforms and raise the environmental consciousness of his industry and consumers, as the main goal of the collaboration was to bring attention to 0x30, the DSNY's big environmental initiative to contribute zero waste to landfills by the year 2030, and the huge role discarded clothing plays in that effort.

I spoke to Preston over the phone about the beauty in waste, his hatred of litterbugs, and why a lot of young designers are upcycling already, whether they know it or not.

Robin Marchant/Getty Images

I wanted to talk about your partnership with the New York City Department of Sanitation and what you learned from that about fashion and sustainability.

Heron Preston: I don't necessarily consider myself an expert, but I have a basic elementary grade-school understanding of what's right and what's wrong. We throw our trash away at home, and we recycle. Hopefully, all of us have recycling bins. That's, like, basic, basic stuff.

Then, I ended up on a dirty beach in Ibiza, swimming, and this plastic bag brushed against my arm. It was some garbage that had just been floating in the water, but when it had brushed up against me, I thought it was a jellyfish. Once I realized it was garbage, it kind of all hit me.

I hate litterbugs. I hate when I go to beaches, and they're trashed. It's the worst because you want to have a nice time with your friends and your family, and you're sitting next to some red Solo cups in the sand. It fucks up your selfie, it fucks up your pictures, it fucks up the whole scene, it fucks up the vibe. And then, obviously, the bigger message here is that it's fucking up the environment. That's part of how I ended up doing the Department of Sanitation project.

And I remember talking with you about being inspired by uniforms and workwear.

Preston: I'd always wanted to redesign uniforms for someone, but then, when I had that moment on the beach with the garbage, I was like, "Fuck. All right, I want to redesign uniforms. I hate litterbugs. The Department of Sanitation is a uniformed force. It's a uniformed agency of people in New York who care about the same things that I do, which is keeping cities clean, keeping the world clean. They have "Don't Litter" printed on their trucks. I put my interest of redesigning uniforms and my experience coming across litter in the ocean together, and that's how the uniforms for the Department of Sanitation came about. Going back to my basic understanding of recycling, I was like, "All right, if recycling is taking something old and making it new again, I want to take vintage t-shirts and screen print the Department of Sanitation branding on them." I didn't know about upcycling at first — I was calling it "recycling" — but through this project, I learned about upcycling.

Robin Marchant/Getty Images

I feel like your project helped put the concept of "upcycling" on the map. Which makes it especially funny that you were learning about it as you helped elevate it.

Preston: I was literally learning along the way. I had no idea that the apparel and textile industry was the second-most-polluting in the world. Oil is first, and then, the industry that I fucking work in is number two.

What was that moment of discovering that like?

Preston: I think it was right before the DSNY event, and I knew that I was going to have to do a lot of media interviews. There'd be cameras, interviews everywhere. So, I was like, "Fuck, people are probably going to come at me like I'm an expert in this field, and I'm not. I'm just curious about all of this. I should probably learn more about upcycling and waste and the 0x30 initiative," which is what this was all about. So, I started educating myself, and I learned that there was an exhibition up at the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum all about scraps and the apparel and textile industry, and how some designers around the world use scraps and turn them into accessories or apparel.

When I went to [that show], I learned how much the apparel and textile industry was polluting the world, and I literally stood there reading this, and my jaw dropped. "Holy shit, no fucking way. That's crazy. We are the second-most-polluting industry in the world, and I'm contributing to that, and I didn't even know?" When I found out, I was like, "Man, how can I reduce the impact with what I'm doing with Heron Preston to make a positive change in the world?" That's what's driving my curiosity: realizing how bad it is right now.

I'm also learning there are so many different ways that you can reduce waste across the life cycle of a product. If you look at, like, a t-shirt, for example, it starts off with the raw materials, and then, it goes into processing and manufacturing, then, the distribution and packaging of that shirt, and then, it goes to being sold and in the hands of the buyer. After that, it goes through the whole use and lifetime of the t-shirt, the whole wearing of it, and then, when that t-shirt is no longer of use — when someone doesn't want it — it hits the end of that life cycle, where it'll end up in Goodwill or in a vintage store or in a landfill. Across all of those pillars of the life cycle, there are so many ways that someone can be sustainable. Whether it's using recycled fibers at the beginning or using low-waste manufacturing or reducing how many scraps are cut off of materials when you assemble them.

Or maybe you want to use recycled materials for your packaging or figure out ways to reduce the massive packaging materials that you use. I throw my shoe boxes away all the time. Do sneakers really need to have shoe boxes? [This is about] just challenging the traditional ways of working for a better future. You can even go into the use and the life of a garment — designing stuff that people really fucking love and don't want to get rid of, or designing and making stuff that is meant to last forever, instead of cheaply made products. Then, maybe at the end of the life cycle of a t-shirt, it's designing something that could be either recyclable or biodegradable. But that's all so much, you know what I mean? I'm learning that there are so many ways to do it, and I think my sweet spot is upcycling. It's turning to the end of the life cycle, when nobody wants their garments, and asking, "How do you take that garment and make it of higher quality, or of higher value, and make it new again?"

So, that's what I did with the Department of Sanitation project, and that's also what I'd already been doing in the past with the Carhartt jackets that I did or the Street Sweepers that I made using recycled materials from some old Gucci pants. That's all kind of like considered upcycling, and I didn't even know I was upcycling. I was just having fun, but now, I've put it in the context of upcycling and making the world understand you guys are actually helping reduce. All of you guys doing these types of projects — when I say "you guys" I'm talking about young designers or young creatives out there using vintage t-shirts to make something new again. We're all upcycling, but I don't think anyone knows that.

Robin Marchant/Getty Images

It does feel like an aesthetic people have started to latch onto — this DIY look — but they're not realizing it's also really green and better for the planet.

Preston: Exactly, exactly. After I learned about upcycling, I wanted to push the idea and celebrate the process. If no one wants to buy it at Goodwill — which is kind of like the last place — if it's not resold, if no one buys it, then that shit literally ends up in landfills. I feel like that's my sweet spot: being a barrier between [us and] the landfills.

I don't know if you've come across this, but I've read that only 20 percent of the clothes that we put up for donation or reselling actually get sold again, and then the rest, which is the majority, go to landfills here or in other countries.

Preston: I think the last stop is they get bundled up, wrapped up, and then sold by the weight to these middlemen, who then will ship those bales of clothes back to a developing nation. Two years ago I went to South Africa, and I went to this big open-air market in Johannesburg and saw where these bales of clothes end up. They're dumped on the streets, like mini-mountains of clothes, and kids are literally digging through these mounds of clothes looking for good deals. But what happens to all of these mounds of clothes that aren't bought? Then what happens to that stuff?

Or the stuff that's been sitting in that mountain for such a long time that it's dirty now and nobody is going to want it.

Preston: Exactly, nobody is going to pick it up, and then, that shit just sits there. Or someone like me might go and find something. I bought a pair of Wrangler denim, and I brought it all the way back to the States. With that, it's traveling, it's using up extra jet fuel to make it around the world, just to make it back to the U.S., and that's a really wasteful process as well. I think it's really interesting. It's a huge problem, and I feel like the only people speaking to it are speaking to it in … It's not a sexy issue, you know what I mean?

I know. A lot of people still think it's really "crunchy" to be caring about the environment.

Preston: It sucks how it can come off as very tree-hugger or your mom talking to you. Eco-this, friendly that. It can be really corny sometimes, and I feel like that's why people aren't necessarily interested in it, because it comes off corny. So, I wanted to make it kind of cool and attractive and sexy through my project. Just to raise awareness around it, just to make people take notice of what's happening in the world.

You're doing a really good job of bridging that — making it aspirational to young people who want to buy in to something cool, but still influencing this industry that's having a negative impact on the environment at every part of the life cycle of a piece of clothing. Are you actively thinking about how to combat the corniness?

Preston: Oh yeah. I always think about the words I use, my tone of voice, the context that I'm using things in, what the project is that I want to use to speak to it — all of those things are critical in finessing the language to be an attractive message to a young person. I think about all that shit, because I also want to be the guy that actually made it kind of cool to be smart about it. You know what I mean? It didn't come off corny, it didn't come off cheesy. "I heard about it from Heron, and he did a really cool example of it, and now, I'm starting to get it, and now, I'm way more conscious of it."

This is the generation that cares a lot about issues across the board. I remember a huge moment was Obama's election, his first election, the whole world got behind it. Even kids who didn't give a fuck about politics, like I'm not that into politics, but somehow, he had the right strategy on how to message you know, politics…

He did a lot of cool things. He had that Shepard Fairey poster…

Preston: Yeah! You know, he was working with the right people and using those people to be ambassadors for the message. That was his strategy to connect with young people. I think that team were some of the best at making complicated issues and politics digestible for young people who were at a point where they didn't give a fuck about politics.

Right, he was meeting young people where they are.

Preston: For sure. I want to take a similar approach to what he did with getting young people interested in political issues and do the same with the environment. We're all in the community together, we're all creating products on a day-to-day basis, and it's also up to us to educate our manufacturers and our partners about what we believe in, because that will help them help us in the long run. If our partners know what we're interested in, they can start serving us.

You create the demand for it.

Preston: Yes, exactly! We have to create the demand for being better. It starts with the people, and then the companies will follow.

Melodie Jeng/Getty Images

Do you find yourself having a lot of conversations with colleagues about how the fashion industry is negatively impacting the environment and what you can do to change those things?

Preston: I don't really find myself talking about it so much with my friends because I don't want to sound like that guy at the dinner table. Like, the eye rolls, you know what I mean? I do it through my projects, and then use my projects as the tools to create those conversations with my friends. I can say, "Guys, I just did this Department of Sanitation project." And that opens the door for me to come through and speak about recycling. I'm trying to lead by example instead of just talking about it, and do these projects, and then use the projects to talk about it with my friends.

I read an interview where Virgil [Abloh] was defending the price point of Off-White and comparing Zara and Uniqlo to McDonald's. He was talking mostly about the cost of creating globally and paying someone a healthy wage. But price point is also a concern in making clothes sustainably. Do you two ever talk about that or how you're each combating these different issues in the industry from the inside?

Preston: Um, not really. I just joined the same group that he is a part of. It's called New Guards Group, and they're based out of Milan, Italy. The other brands under that group are Marcelo Burlon, Off-White, Hood By Air, Palm Angels, and Unravel Project. I'm really new to the structure of working in this way and the structure of the fashion industry because I've always been so rogue and guerrilla with it.

Right, you were selling stuff in Instagram DMs. Like, you just got an e-commerce site.

Preston: Right, and now that I have a group, I have partners, it's like a real business, real shit. Everything just got so real. So, now that I'm the newest brand to the group, I'm realizing change is going to take time. The changes that I want to be a part of and the changes that I want to make and what I believe in, that shit don't happen overnight. Especially when you are working with a lot more people. So, I see this as a slow process of, first, me learning as I go, but then, taking my group along the way.

The issue is so big that no one person or even one brand could tackle this overnight. And like you were speaking to before, you really have to influence these manufacturers and the people who are supplying your textiles and even all the way back to the farms that are growing the cotton. It's just so massive, but every small effort helps a lot.

Preston: For sure, for sure. So that's how I see my role: taking this by baby steps and slowly but surely getting to a better place. But also, defining what that better place is for my brand and for the groups that I'm a part of. If we could all be thinking in this way, then we could all start creating in this way.

We can all shift the paradigm together.

Preston: Yeah, but again, it's all learning. I think there are very few experts in this field right now, so I'm trying to learn as much as I can and educate myself. If you're the type of person who loves a good challenge, then I feel like this is the challenge that you should take on with your own project. And for me, upcycling just looks really cool.

We've spoken a lot about how there are so many different parts within the life cycle of a piece of clothing that can be changed to make it more sustainable, but what have you found the most challenging about trying to correct those things that you've learned?

Preston: It takes work. And I think that's why no one's talking about it or paying attention to it. I don't wanna say it's hella complex because it's not, but at the same time, it's a lot to take the time to learn about it and educate yourself and then really sinking your teeth in. At the end of the day, you have to be really curious and interested in it. Sometimes I think maybe you have to have a moment like I did — maybe you don't, but that's what really worked for me.

It all went back to a friend challenging me about what I wanted to do with my life. I was working at Nike, and I was really frustrated with working there and wanted to leave. Then, my boy — this older guy — he's a consultant who works with senior-level VPs at some of the biggest corporations in the world. I met him when I was in college, and so, he's been my mentor. I hit him up one day and said, "I'm really frustrated with work, what should I do?" And he was like, "Well, are you interested in applying innovation and design to art and fashion, or are you interested in applying innovation and design to wicked issues?" And I was like, "Whoa, that sounds crazy." Well, you know what? I do care about wicked issues, as a human being and my place in the world. I know I care about stuff, but I wasn't sure what I cared about. It took me two years to really figure it out. But when I went to the beach and that plastic bag of garbage brushed against me, that's when I finally figured out what I cared about. How I got to that point was because my friend challenged me on what I care about. And I feel like people just need to be challenged on what they care about, and that'll really push them to figuring it out on their own.

Robin Marchant/Getty Images

I saw that you were at the U.N. recently. Can you tell me a little bit about what happened there?

Preston: It's funny, going off of the DSNY project and fast-forward to this day, just being more involved in the world and doing things that are of purpose, not just for the aesthetic of making awesome garments, but using my projects to point the finger at what's important in the world. That project with the DS was pointing my finger at the environment. What more can I point at that I care about? I care about a lot of things. World peace, for example. Unity and bringing communities together. I went to Luka [Sabbat]'s show — Hot Mess, at Milk Studios — and my agent was there, and she was with a woman from the U.N. This woman is, like, head of innovation at the U.N. … some awesome title. And she was like, "We should all get some drinks, Heron's got some really cool projects, and I feel like there could be something here." That's basically what it was. It was a meet-and-greet, and I got a tour of the U.N. and to sit down with her, and it was really the beginning stages of seeing what kind of magic can be made when a fashion designer/artist like myself and the U.N. come together. What could we possibly do? That's where we're starting.

Did it open your eyes to other ways you can be involved?

Preston: I'm still trying to sink my teeth into wrapping my head around the U.N., what they value, what is high on their list of priorities, so it's going to take a lot more meetings and brainstormings with them. But I'm excited about the opportunity of injecting some culture into issues.

Any way you can make the Paris Agreement something that young people really give a shit about would be awesome.

Preston: Hell yeah. You know, the U.N. is so awesome. All of the biggest world leaders make all of their speeches there about how they're going to fix the world. Just being a part of innovation, creativity, communities, developing nations, youth, bringing all of that together in a special way — I think it could be really awesome. It's also about new storytelling, and I think that's what made the Department of Sanitation project really special. It just created a whole brand-new story that no one had ever heard before. A waste-management company and a fashion designer coming together to do this project literally paved a whole brand-new lane that had never been paved before.

And I think there's something nice about that partnership, too, in the way that it opens your eyes in a lot of different ways. It opens your eyes to waste management being more about the beautification of the world. Instead of it being about trash, it's about making where you live a cleaner, nicer, more habitable place. And it also opens your eyes to fashion and art having some real meat to them and making a difference, not just in how people think about clothes, but in how they treat waste or what they view as waste.

Preston: For sure. Imagine how many fashion editors and journalists woke up the next morning [after the show] and looked at their sanitation workers a little differently. I know they look at them differently, because I started getting text messages the next morning of people sending me photos of sanitation workers. They literally saw the world a little differently the next day. So, I'm hoping that made them be a little bit more respectful of sanitation workers as well. My message was to celebrate [those] workers because without them, we'd die. We wouldn't be able to live in New York City. Literally, we would die from disease. It'd be really gross. Imagine if your trash was never picked up.

Melodie Jeng/Getty Images

Yeah, isn't that how a lot of pandemics started? Because people used to throw their garbage and septic waste out into the sidewalk?

Preston: You're right. There was a big yellow-fever outbreak back in the 1700s. Back then, NYC was one of the last cities to implement a waste-management plan. Then they learned that cleanliness was linked to health, and they learned that if they simply cleaned up the streets, their loved ones would stop dying. That's why NYC started to clean up trash — because people were just dying too much.

Well, hopefully we're moving toward a similar sort of epiphany with climate change and trying to keep some shit like that from happening.

Preston: I think more and more people are starting to become aware of it, and now I think it's up to people like me to make it cool, make it sexy, and ultimately, make it accessible. Educate whoever we can around us to be better.

How has what you learned changed your behavior in your everyday life, apart from the clothes you create?

Preston: I'm making it my mission to never ask for bags at grocery stores. I go to Whole Foods a lot, so I carry reusable bags. I also, like, yell at kids that litter on the streets. I'm like an old dude, but you know, I notice when people litter all the time, and I get really cringe-y inside. It's all at the top of my mind, more than it was a year ago.

Knowing all of these things, where do you think you're gonna take your line from here? Like, does the upcycling thing happen as just a capsule within the Department of Sanitation collaboration? Or will you start to try and weave that in or find other ways of making your line sustainable in the future?

Preston: I definitely am gearing up to be as sustainable as possible through the means that I have and with the partners that I have. The first collection that I just revealed in Paris back in January, that's going to hit retail this May and June. And the Department of Sanitation is going to be part of that drop. Again, it's also tricky to scale upcycled garments. You're not manufacturing them from scratch, you're just going out and sourcing them instead. I feel like that now is going to be a special project that I do. But I'm also making clothes in Italy, and I'm working with amazing partners that make beautiful garments using high-quality fabrics, trying to make things that are made to last. I took my production out of China, which is where I was making stuff in the past, and now, I'm making stuff in Italy. Now I'm selling at big retailers around the world, and this is the next stage of Heron Preston. Now that I'm not on my own and have way more control and I'm making way more product, how can I take this thinking and apply it to the scale I'm producing at now? Nothing is 100 percent perfect, but I'm trying to work toward it.