Designer Spotlight: Daniel Silverstein
It was election day in the U.S., and Daniel Silverstein and I were both happy to have something to distract us from the news. Instead we were talking about our favorite subject: Zero Waste Fashion. Daniel’s natural charm is enhanced by the fact that he is sewing while we chat. (During the brief pauses in our discussion, I hear the whirring of his sewing machine in the background and the occasional “snip” of a scissors.) We start at the beginning, after Daniel’s graduation from the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York.
“I graduated in the top 10 of my class,” Daniel recalls. “I got placed at Carolina Herrera and got a letter of recommendation from Mrs. Herrera. I started my own line, making cocktail and evening [wear]. I did the whole showroom thing and the trade shows. For so many reasons, that business model ended up not working for me.”
Daniel hit on the idea of recovering textiles that would otherwise be wasted. “People always say, ‘Everything in fashion has already been done before,’” Daniel explains. “I thought why not do this one thing that hasn’t?”
He began collecting scraps from local factories and creating a flat textile from them. He then cut his own designs from this newly created yardage, which resulted in a striking effect. Meanwhile he was diverting textile waste from the landfill. So far this year, Daniel estimates that his company, Zero Waste Daniel, has diverted roughly 2,000 pounds—literally a ton—of material.
(The Council for Textile Recycling estimates that each person in the U.S. generates 82 pounds of textiles per year. Of that only 15% is donated or recycled, leaving over 21 billion pounds going to landfill just this year.)
He describes more about why this business model works so well, from an economic standpoint as well as a sustainability one:
“We collect materials from the factories we work with at no additional cost. That means we’re able to invest in labor rather than materials. We hire [fashion design] students, all kinds of cool New Yorkers in the 20-27 range. It’s hard to find a job right now.”
I ask Daniel when his interest in Zero Waste started, noting that his enthusiasm for fashion design began very early. (Daniel started sewing as a child and, by high school, was making prom dresses for his friends.)
“They were sort of simultaneous,” Daniel remembers. “and a lot of it is generational, I think. We just grew up with ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle!’ So when I got into the industry, I thought ‘That’s ass-backwards. It’s not what they taught us.’ It genuinely bothered me on a core level.”
But Daniel doesn’t pigeonhole himself as a green designer. “I’m less of a sustainability person and more of an innovator,” he insists. “But they’re not mutually exclusive. A lot of the new innovations are about sustainability.”
Zero Waste Daniel has grown over the past six years, but there have been moments when the company wasn’t profitable, and Daniel was losing hope. At one point, he felt he had reached a crisis, forced to reckon with the calling he was beginning to doubt.
After four and a half years of wholesaling, I had a very dramatic moment where I gathered everything I’d collected for seven years and was marching toward the dumpster, weeping. I threw the bag on the ground and all this nice fabric fell out. I looked down and thought ‘Hey, that fabric’s kinda cool!’ I took the rest of the afternoon and made a shirt. For years I’d been trying to grow my social media. I posted ‘Oh, I made this shirt’ and got the most likes by like a hundred. People were asking ‘Can I order one?!’
Daniel returned to his original concept, and the decision paid off.
“Now I have this really relatable, affordable product,” Daniel declares with obvious satisfaction. “The whole trend right now is direct-to-consumer and the artisan revolution. I sampled the shirt in a few colors, and a little more than a year ago, I launched it as a holiday gift item. We sold a couple thousand dollars worth just through social media.”
Around that same time, Julia Valencikova found her way to Daniel. Originally an intern, Julia is now Operations Manager at the company. Daniel recalls: