In a stark white studio tucked into N.Y.C.’s garment district, Daniel Silverstein begins to sketch. The Post-it he moves a pencil along is a substitution for fabric and on it he outlines the pattern for a shirt. The blueprint Silverstein drafts doesn’t leave any space for wasted fabric. The 25-year-old designer, who launched his namesake label in 2010, has developed a series of zero-waste design techniques that account for every single scrap.
“It’s a shift in the design process but I never treat zero waste as a challenge: It’s become part of my aesthetic,” Silverstein says of his handmade apparel which ranges from $300 – $1,275. Instead of taking a cookie-cutter approach, the designer utilizes more of the fabric’s surface area by cutting it as if each garment was a jigsaw puzzle. The leftover pieces, however few there are, aren’t merely converted into an excess of appliqués—they evolve into structural components like the spine of a dress or beautifully braided straps.
Silverstein’s compulsion towards fashion was first evident at age 3. “I began to sketch but would only draw dresses. I couldn’t keep my hands off of my sister’s Barbie dolls, either. All I wanted to do was make clothing for them,” he recalls with a laugh. “Tissues, tin foil—anything I could get my hands on became fabric.”
To feed Silverstein’s growing interest, his family moved from Pennsylvania to New Jersey. The proximity to New York City allowed him to take summer courses at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), where he would eventually be accepted as a full-time student at 16 after completing an accelerated high school program. Before graduating summa cum laude in 2010, Silverstein honed his craft through prestigious internships alongside designers like Carolina Herrera and Carmen Marc Valvo.
Heaps of leftover fabric that littered the work rooms at FIT planted the zero-waste seed, but Silverstein’s first post-college job as an assistant sweater designer motivated him to take action. During a costing meeting where colleagues analyzed the rationale behind the price of a garment, Silverstein realized that 32 percent of the fabric wasn’t being used. “I had that TV moment, the one when you suddenly realize you’re the bad guy,” he says. “I was leaving a pile of trash off-shore and I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I continued.” Two weeks later, he quit.
Among the sustainable fashion trailblazers to champion Silverstein’s vision is supermodel Amber Valletta, the current face of H&M’s Conscious Collection. “We want things to be designed in a way that they don’t just build up in landfills,” she says in the four-part documentary series Thread: Driving Fashion Forward, which features Silverstein’s work. “Collectively we’re all in it together, so the only way to solve it is to collectively raise our awareness and start thinking outside of the box.”
As Silverstein’s brand continues to grow, he hopes to implement organic, fair trade, recycled and upcycled textiles into his collections and above all, hopes fashion schools begin teaching zero waste to the next generation of designers. “Fashion illustrator Steven Stipelman once told me that great designers change the way people dress,” Silverstein recalled. And as we exited the building only to be confronted by stores that brimmed with bolts of fabric, Daniel’s contribution to change felt undeniable.