Heron Preston doesn’t do things conventionally. The designer has collaborated with the NYC sanitation department (shout out to the artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles who pioneered the department's artist-in-residence program and who Preston cites as his inspiration), NASA and went on tour with his Cyrillic-heavy FW17 collection. So, it’s not exactly surprising that he’s dropped a tourist-inspired capsule featuring an image of Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin.
The tee, which retails for $679, was released alongside a bright orange waist bag, made in collaboration with Moscow-based concept store KM20. It features a picture of Putin, above rhinestone lettering that reads “Mr President.”
The capsule is a play on traditional tourist fashion — which Preston doesn’t even classify as fashion, calling it instead “real style.”
“There's a real difference between fashion and style,” he says. I see that more as style, like that's just the look. It's functional. It's made to move around a city, for people on the go.”
But tourist fashion in Russia, for both Russian tourists abroad and foreign tourists in the country, often means sporting some form of pro-Putin merch. As Highsnobiety contributor Anastasiia Fedorova explained, “Putin T-shirts are very popular as gifts for foreign business partners, and are often worn by Russians while on a holiday in hot countries like Turkey or Spain. It’s a way of cashing in on the country’s new wave of nationalism.”
Calling Putin a controversial figure is an understatement. He’s been accused of having journalists killed, enacted draconian anti-LGBT laws and the Russian Government is currently under investigation by the FBI for allegedly interfering in the 2016 U.S election and aiding Donald Trump’s rise to power. And that's everything, in the last two weeks alone, the Russian government has been accused of an attempted assassination of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the U.K. It’s undoubtedly a strange time for an American designer to release a T-shirt with Putin’s face on it.
“Obviously it's a political statement putting Putin on a T-shirt, but for me, it was never political,” Preston says. “It was more of just fascination with tourist culture and my reflection of what I experienced when I was here." The T-shirt is actually a recreation of one that Preston bought during his first trip to Russia, during his pop-up retail tour back in summer of last year.
Preston says that he wasn’t aware of the current political climate revolving Russia, saying “I'm trying to stay away from any politics, as crazy as that might sound.” However, he does concede that releasing this capsule, especially now, has caught him in the political “crossfire.” “There's been some backlash, Preston says. “You can go and literally look at my comments on my Instagram right now and see what people are saying. It's a little split. You win some, you lose some. You can't please them all.”
Some of the more negative comments include: “that’s so fashion forward basically praising a dictator!” “Glamourising Putin utterly ignorant or a tasteless troll,” and “Why the F would I want to wear a Tshirt w Putin. Seriously this is gross and absolutely disgusting.”
For his part, when asked how he would feel if someone made a similar Trump-inspired T-shirt, Preston is firm on the need for freedom of expression in fashion: “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Again, I think that's the beautiful thing about just fashion and just expressing yourself. Fuck, if you want to fucking go and make a Trump tee, go for it.”
While Preston may have landed himself in the middle of a political firestorm, the designer tells us that he simply wanted to make a T-shirt memorializing his trip to Russia. When asked about what he wants people to take from this capsule, it’s not a political message but the desire to travel: "to go out and explore different cities. Put on your tourist hat.”
Russia has always been a source of fascination for Preston. Growing up, he viewed the country from a position as an outsider, seeing depictions of Russians from American cinema movies with Jean-Claude Van Damme “where they portrayed Russians to be really scary, scary people.”
But Preston says this outsider view — of Russia but also in fashion — is the basis of his work. “Outsiders bring a different perspective, they enter into a space with fresh eyes,” he says.
“A lot of my work is stepping outside of my zone and including and working with people who aren't necessarily in the fashion world," Preston explains. "That's where the NASA collaboration came from and that's where the Department of Sanitation collaboration came from."
For Preston, his outsider perspective allows him to work outside his comfort zone, but when you're re-appropriating something from a country you've only visited, an outsider status can be both a blessing and a curse.
The designer's distance allows him to play with a complicated aspect of Russia culture, but for people living in the country — one that is plagued by human rights violations, corruption and a lack of journalistic freedom — this T-shirt represents a lot more than just a kitschy souvenir.
Preston's detached stance on global politics allows him to produce a capsule that skirts wider context and focuses on aesthetics, but — whether intentional or not — there's no avoiding the politics of selling a $679 T-shirt with Vladimir Putin's face on it.
In other style news, why is Russia obsessed with Vladimir Putin merch?