Musician, producer and environmental activist Will.i.am put it best when he said “waste is only waste if we waste it.” It’s a statement that likely rings true with New York-based apparel designer Daniel Silverstein.
“There are hundreds and hundreds of thousands of millions of pounds of pre-consumer textile waste going into New York City landfills,” the zero-waste advocate said, recounting a recent meeting with the city’s Department of Sanitation. “It’s horrendously wasteful!”
And unfortunately, it’s the norm.
When Silverstein graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in 2010 and started working as an assistant designer with a major retailer, he was shocked to discover during a costing meeting that 20 percent of what was being knit would end up in a landfill in China.
“In pattern making class you’re meant to make patterns that don’t waste any fabric. Why is that not a thing [in the industry]? If professors are talking about it—and we’re in the top two fashion schools in the country—then why can’t we do it?”
So he made what he now calls a “super rash and naïve decision” and quit his job to start his own line with the help of some seed money “because other people thought there was a real opportunity to do something about a problem.”
Not to mention, there was an overseas demand for American-made threads. His first trade show was Capsule New York and he picked up a big order from a Japanese retailer—but because he didn’t have the money to hire someone to produce it, he and three interns wound up sewing 100 dresses in his bedroom using one sewing machine.
Shortly thereafter, Silverstein appeared as a contestant on the second season of “Fashion Star” (NBC’s short-lived take on “Project Runway”), making it as far as the finale, and when he finished filming he moved his business from his boudoir to Manhattan’s Garment District.
“The show was proof positive that I could be a commercially viable designer,” he shared, “but I started running myself completely ragged. I could not keep up with the demand and everyone wanted something cheaper, something a little different from each other. And because I stayed really committed to zero-waste design the whole time my production was a nightmare.”
As there’s no real infrastructure in place for scalable zero-waste design, he was spending most of his time creating it, instead of designing clothes. “I was working like 90 hours a week and everyone wanted it for less and I couldn’t make that happen,” he said. “I got totally burned out from doing that.”
Waste not, want not
Today, Silverstein’s situation looks a lot brighter. After deciding a do-over was in order, he moved his studio from Manhattan to Manufacture New York’s space in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park last year and since starting to work side by side with the other designers there he’s learned “that community and having the support of other people around me has been an enormous help in so many ways.”
“When I decided to close my studio in the Garment District and move here and figure out a new version of my business model, what I envisioned was going out into the world using the research and work I had done to start having a larger scale impact,” he said. “And to me what that meant was identifying factories, finding waste, interfering with the waste stream before it gets to landfill. Not only are Manufacture New York’s team supportive of that, but they’ve introduced me to factories and given me the ability to save a thousand tons of fabric scrap.”
Cutting room leftovers that he then uses to hand-make one-of-a-kind sweatshirts (in gray, black or white) that he sells for $85 on his website and ships from Manufacture New York in glass mason jars.
“A lot of people will look at some of my pieces and think that’s so much work. Bob Bland (Manufacture New York’s founder) put it perfectly when she said, ‘Yeah it’s a lot of work—if that’s a lot of work for you.’ I find this incredibly fun,” Silverstein said, noting, “I think that one of my biggest challenges is that I am almost creative to a fault. I can’t envision a way of not being able to do this. I just dig deeper.”
While the lack of infrastructure is still an issue, it’s one that he’s working to tackle head-on in 2016 through an internship program as well as putting together a plan that will spur job creation and market growth.
“The market demands so much of our textile industry to create more and more and this is a way for us to create a ton more without demanding anything on the raw materials,” he said, noting that he’s also a big fan of direct-to-consumer sales. “As a designer, waiting for a store to pay has almost put me out of business three times… You can just see that wholesale is not doing well and the market needs something else. Being able to give someone a quality product that’s made in New York and sell it at a reasonable price is not easy, so cutting out that middleman is a way better model for me.”