Whether you’re an avid reality television viewer or a follower of eco-fashion, the name Daniel Silverstein is probably on your radar. The charismatic, near-prodigy level graduate of the Fashion Institute of Technology (whose portfolio was lauded when he was only 14 years old) and finalist of NBC’s Fashion Star, is pioneering a new realm of design, one that benefits people and the planet. Ecouterre sat down with Daniel and his brand manager and longtime friend, Chris Anderson, after his Fall/Winter 2014 presentation at Launch NYC Fashion Week to talk about his start, the label’s past four years, and the future of sustainable fashion.
Let’s start at the beginning. How did you become interested in fashion?
Silverstein: All I ever wanted to do was be a designer in NYC, but there weren’t many options for a 16-year-old boy in Madison, New Jersey. I had been taking weekend classes at FIT for several years during high school and they had told me a couple of times, “you have a portfolio that we would accept now, but we can’t consider you until you have a high school diploma.” I participated in a student volunteer program so I could graduate sooner and give back to the community. And that’s how I met Chris.
How did you two come together?
Anderson: I was the executive director of Dress for Success in Madison and Daniel was my intern. We worked on a vintage-inspired fundraiser fashion show together, and became friends from there. The theme was “Workwear from the Last Century.” And Daniel did a design for 2050; it was incredible.
Silverstein: We did so many things to bring that event together. We had high school students in the community model the designs. We made handbags. The event was a tremendous success and we had so much fun doing it that we were like, whoa, we’re pretty good at bringing concepts together and fundraising; we should do this more often.
What was the trajectory from that Dress to Success event to Daniel Silverstein the label?
Silverstein: I had run in to Chris again shortly after I graduated from F.I.T. I was working at a giant corporate company and not really loving it. Good product, good people who taught me a lot, but I couldn’t see myself making an impact there.
One of the meetings I had the privilege of sitting in on was on costing, and a primary element that drives up the cost of a garment is how much fabric you use. The company was using traditional pattern cutting and sewing and there was a lot of wasted material. And it kind of clicked for me there. We were using wasteful traditional patterns, cutting out tons of fabric in a mill in China, throwing 15 percent or more of that fabric away, and charging people because our consumption was irresponsible.
So when I saw Chris, I said, “I really think I can make these zero-waste patterns that fit together like puzzle pieces, and that’s how we’re going to make clothes. I think it’s the future.” Every production run wastes thousands of yards of fabric. That’s not a little bit. What are we doing to the earth?
And who’s making it, and in what conditions…?
Silverstein: Exactly. And what is the toll of those materials? All of those things matter.
What was the initial aim of the label? And what is the primary message now?
Silverstein: We set out with a pretty lofty goal: We wanted to be everything to everyone. The line was going to be vegan, organic, zero waste, everything. And as we began to speak with people in the fashion realm about the line, we realized that with the industry being what it is right now, we needed to focus our message. Eventually, we will be able to make Daniel Silverstein everything we want it to be. But right now, our mission is to make wearable zero-waste clothing. Some of our pieces are organic. Some are made from recycled material. Some are conventional materials. They run the gamut. But everything is zero waste or less than one percent.
You’re known as the evangelist of “zero waste” design. What does the term mean, exactly?
Silverstein: Zero waste means that very time we cut fabric, we use the entire piece to make that garment. So, instead of having leftovers, there’s little-to-no byproduct. For some techniques, it’s inevitable to have a small amount of scrap fabric, but we never throw those away. The minimal scraps we do have – and I mean minimal – we use for other projects. We are working on a rug for our studio space using scraps. We tie bundles with scraps. We donate to a designer who only works with reclaimed materials. Scraps are never thrown away.
Where are your garments made?
Silverstein: (Gestures to studio) Everything is made in there. By hand. Here in the U.S.A.
You’re a handmade in the U.S.A., zero-waste label; that ticks a lot of boxes.
Silverstein: This is something else I could talk about at length. There’s a lack of understanding and respect for a skill in our country. Fashion is a lot like food. It’s something you put on your body. Food, clothing, and shelter are our basic needs, and we don’t really value the people who cook or clean or make clothes for us, and we’re always looking for ways to further cheapen those trades.
Most of fashion is done offshore, by people who are exploited or aren’t taught the trade. I am really passionate about creating a safe place for people who want to work with their hands and forge a career to come and work.