Fashion Week’s Most Unlikely Show Was a Celebration of New York’s Sanitation Workers

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Heron Preston.Photo: Sam Deitch/BFA.com

Down on Washington Street, the Department of Sanitation Pipes and Drums band ran through a quick practice of “America the Beautiful,” tucked away behind a string of metal barriers. Walking toward the west side toward the monolithic Spring Street Salt Shed, one could hear the faint sound of the bagpipers practicing, the melody of a bygone era of New York; one could just barely make out their kilts and berets, signs of a bygone era of somewhere farther away. An hour later, after the musicians marched from the West Side Highway into the salt shed, their breezy music was replaced by something at least half the crowd was more accustomed to: the Cure, the Smiths, Nirvana. Police lined the area, tasked with languidly protecting the trespassers on the warm summer night.

The Spring Street Salt Shed was a perfect yet unlikely location for a fashion show, the first-ever collaboration between a designer and New York’s Department of Sanitation. Perfect because the building itself was described by the New York Times as the city’s “best new public sculpture,” unlikely because a salt shed is ground zero for a thankless job performed by an uncool department in a city that couldn’t survive without them — quite the opposite of the fashion industry. Wednesday night was the first time in history that New York City’s fashion elite were invited to the same party as the people who collected their trash, and there was a sense that both groups were performing cosplay of each other. Young friends of Heron Preston, the night’s celebrated designer and Kanye West collaborator, wore hardy Carhartt work pants rolled up at the ankles, loose-fitting army-toned bomber jackets, and scuffed sneakers, while many of the DSNY staff donned slick suits and chic cocktail dresses. Preston himself looked casual in a long-sleeve orange T-shirt of his own design: an upcycled hybrid of a streetwear standard and a classic piece of the DSNY’s uniform.

UNIFORM, after all, was the name of the show. The idea came to Preston while swimming in Ibiza and a stray bag grazed his arm. He realized streetwear was rife with “vacant messaging,” and he became eager to find a service-oriented department with which to align his work. “We’ve always thought about doing a fashion show with things that were donated from our ReFashion program,” Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia told me as we stood behind a pallet of flattened cotton T-shirts. “Heron came to us, saying, ‘I want to work with you in a collaborative process.’ We were both thinking about textiles in a very different way. I remember thinking, ‘A really cool fashion designer wants to work with us?’”

The results were displayed on several clothing racks interspersed through the open-air salt-shed space: jackets, T-shirts, sweatshirts, bags, and more, all embroidered in white thread that read “Heron Preston for DSNY.” Some of the pieces were so similar to traditional sanitation worker uniforms that several workers at the event told me they would never wear these designs outside of their jobs. “I’m out of my uniform usually after an 8-hour or 12-hour shift,” Joe Rodriguez, a 26-year vet of the DSNY explained while dressed in army-green coveralls. But he still found the fanfare around the DSNY exciting. “I’m just impressed that people want to come by and wear our shirts and wear our pants. It makes you feel good, working for this department and being recognized. I thought we’d never see something like this.”

Throughout the night, Preston’s friends filtered in, smiling and posing in front of the pallet of T-shirts that cheekily played stand-in for a step-and-repeat. Waris Ahluwalia came, A$AP Ferg came, Kitty Cash, Lion Babe, and Ricky and Dee Jackson came. In casual interviews, several of the fashion in-crowd mentioned how cool they found Preston’s commitment to the cause. Preston himself noted, “My goal was to educate the youth about sustainability.” Guests drank cocktails and nibbled on Milk Bar’s signature compost cookies, one of the slyest examples of synergy I’ve seen in a while. Toward the end of the evening, one of the DSNY chiefs posed for a photograph with a model wearing above-the-knee patent-leather boots, a rare sign of inter-group mingling, with the grand exception of Preston, who was amenable and friendly to everyone. He made it perfectly clear that he actually did care about the cause of sustainability, even if he had to go all the way to Ibiza to realize it.

At a party whose RSVP list included Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, one would assume celebrities would be the highlight. But New Yorkers love to hate fawning over famous people, so the clear guest of honor was the salt shed itself. In the shed’s enormous atrium, the pinkish-brownish crystals were the backdrop for more selfies than any other area of the party all night. When I snuck my own photo, a DSNY worker standing next to me chuckled. “That’s going to be a nice photo.” She told me she could not believe how amazed these people were at a big pile of salt. “I see this much salt every day,” she said. “This isn’t even that much salt, really. This shed isn’t even full.”

Kanye and Kim never did show up, and people started to filter out around 8:30 p.m. Minosca Alcantara, an engineering consultant who works on projects with city construction workers, said the high price tag on some of the designs had her thinking about breaking out the sewing machine herself. “$1,200 for a bag made of vests? I know what I’m doing with all my guys’ old uniforms.”

At the show’s exit, two kind staff members from DSNY’s recycling department handed out information on the city’s Zero Waste by 2030 program and sealed brown paper bags packed full with New York City compost. Many people quizzically assessed the bags, then moved on empty-handed. The $130 upcycled sanitation T-shirts may have sold to attendees like hotcakes, but a bag of free dirt? That had no place at a fashion show.