Daniel Silverstein and I have known each other for a number of years and I am a full on fan. Not only do I love his aesthetics and his commitment to zero waste, I love the positivity that seems to radiate from him. Being an indie designer is no easy feat but Daniel has managed to do it with grace and style. Add his business partner/husband Mario into the mix and you feel that these two are truly unstoppable. Having said that, 2020 has been as challenging for them as it has been for all of us both here in Brooklyn and across the globe.
Thinking about who to profile next on No Kill I was struck by the fact that although we’ve written about Daniel’s shows, I’ve never actually sat down and spoken with him for the site. So I decided to fix that and we had a lovely ZOOM convo. I’ve edited out the really juicy bits (kidding. sort of.–though he’s no gossip by nature) and instead decided to highlight the parts of the conversation that I think you will find most interesting.
So below are some of my favorite bits of what Daniel said…
The Million Dollar Idea part one
In school we were taught the history of fashion– the designers who came before us and the trails they blazed– and something i found really disheartening was this near constant underlying message “everything has been done and so every season you’re just copying, reinterpreting tweaking what goes around comes around”. That was the attitude at school. That was going to be our future. Recycling trends. Reinterpreting trends.
I felt really uncomfortable with the idea that that was my future and that there was no where to go and that the best I could do was copy something that I see somewhere and reinterpret it. I wasn’t going to settle for that.
And at the same time I was learning about marking, and marking is where you take a pattern and lay it out so it’s going to fit onto your fabric and maximize the amount of material so that your yield is the highest possible. Sandra Marquez, my professor in pattern making 101 made a little off the cuff remark that if someone could make a pattern where there’s no waste they would be a millionaire and I was like “Well why is no one trying to do that? Why is it that we’re all so comfortable with the horrible pay in fashion and no one’s trying to do this million dollar idea?”
So I filed that away in my internal rolodex.
The Million Dollar Idea part two
The same semester I did an internship with Carmen Marc Valvo who had a million dollar dress –meaning it was the first dress whose style sold a million dollars worth. So I am aware of this idea of a million dollar pattern, a million dollar dress. That is something that stuck with me in my mind. With that idea and knowing this is possible I just kind of went about my business and in the second to last semester of school I had an opportunity to use those ideas in a design challenge to make a sustainable pair of jeans. It was for the Clinton Global Initiative and FIT was competing on behalf of the United States and my year was the year that was competing so everyone in my year had to turn in something for the competition.
Zero Waste is the American Way
And I thought, “We’re America so let’s do something that resonates with America”. Growing up I was taught a lot of Native American history and one of the things that stuck with me as being very American is this idea of using every part of the animal. The hide to make clothes, you use the fat to make soap, you use the sinews to make bow and arrow, laces, needle and thread…all of these different things have value.
And that was my idea for my design: I’m going to treat my material like my animal and use every part of it. And that was the spin I put on it. And my professor said “You did not win, but this is a good idea and you should work on that. There’s no one I’ve seen in the years I’ve been teaching that is doing this.”
And I was like PRESTO. This is something I’ve heard before should be done and I’m getting feedback firsthand that it’s connecting with someone and that it was going to be something that could set me apart, could be a competitive advantage. And so that’s where I began my zero waste design career. Within about 6 months of graduating I had begun draping and pattern making using this technique. And about 3 years into that I became aware of zero waste lifestyle as something I could do to further my mission and about 2 years after that I really transitioned to a fully zero waste lifestyle. So I’ve been living fully zero waste for about 5 years.
The Biggest Challenge of the Zero Waste Lifestyle
For me the biggest challenge is I can’t control my environment. I have a personal commitment to controlling what I can in the world. Doing what I can with my purchasing power, my recycling power, and the things that I can control but I didn’t design the world we live in, I didn’t choose the world we live in and I also can’t control the people around me.
So there’s a lot of people who mean well but waste shows up in my life all the time. Like there’s a super generous person in my life who wants to give me a gift. That gift comes with packaged waste. I don’t want to be a jerk and say “no I’m not going to accept this kind offering.”
Between zero waste and hoarding
I have an emotional attachment and a personal commitment that slows me down from just trashing things, but I have limited time and resources. I have to decide if I’m going to save something what the likelihood is that I’ll really be able to use it is. And if I’m going to recycle something what is the likelihood that it will actually be recycled.
When I speak of zero waste I can only speak about my own commitment and what I choose to do in the world and I felt like I was really getting to a Zen master place with it right before Covid hit and now I’m being tested in a different way where I don’t want to waste my energy. I want to conserve my mental health and if that means of letting go of disposables in a moment when people are scared, they’re using them to protect their health and safety, they’re using them to reduce their overhead for their businesses I’m just really trying to let go and allow that to be okay right now because it’s beyond my control.
2020 is not about you. 2020 is about us.
2020…What I will say about that is my mom is big into horoscopes and she reads me my horoscope for my birthday each year. So February 2nd, really early in the year. Everyone knew about the pandemic, no one knew it was in the states yet, and my horoscope said “Despite what you think and the wave you’ve been riding, 2020 is not your year. Wait until 2021.”
And I thought that feels really off for me because I feel like I’m really picking up momentum and this feels like it’s going to be my year! And of course what I realized (as we all have) is that this year is not about personal success.
This year is about exposing flaws and taking things down that have been crumbling for a long time and if it’s not your year that means you’re on the right side of history and you’ll be around next year when there will be airtime for you. This year is just kind of about keeping our nose to the grindstone and getting through.
The Barriers are Falling
The big picture is sort of the same but I feel like a lot of barriers have been broken down for me. By the world. Like in one way it’s really sad there is no more Barneys. It was very inspiring and part of our lexicon about what fashion in New York was. But at the same time there’s no gatekeeper. So that barrier’s gone. The world took care of it for me. There’s less of a need to convince someone that what I am doing is viable and why they should shop with me and all the more reason for people to talk about me – because Barneys is closed! But I’m open! LOL
On the death of fashion
In February I did my show and I felt like it was the first season that I wasn’t doing something to be doing something but the first time I was pushing myself to really use my voice in a really open way and I felt really nervous. That’s okay because I feel like if I’m not pushing myself to that point where I’m a little nervous to show then maybe I’m still in my comfort zone.
Any way I was making a big statement about the death of fashion and I knew that people might disagree or there could be a lot of push back. So I felt nervous but excited to say what was on my mind and to really share in a very open way what I thought was happening and what’s been so wild is I feel like the universe has doubled down on my statement.
What it means to be a designer in 2020
I don’t care what you do in 2020 –if you’re a creative of any kind, you have to be an expert at it. AND you have to be aware of politics and history and your tone. Whatever you do, you need to bring that awareness to it and you have to realize that you are, in addition, now a full time content creator.
So you need digital skills, you need marketing skills, you need editing skills, you need graphic design skills and all that goes into every single one of our platforms and there’s no accounting for taste and there’s no predicting the future and so above all of those things the most important thing is you have to be authentic.
Because everyone is chasing likes and views but the only recipe for getting them is originality. So it’s a time when you have to be increasingly raw and vulnerable but at the same time using skills that you might not even have. It’s a very hard and uncertain thing and the weirdest part is if you’re smart and good at what you do you can build a business with or without those things but you can’t build a reputation without them. The only way to build a business without using any of those skills is to use a marketplace platform like Etsy. But they will limit your reach so it’s a tradeoff and a choice.
On Burn Out + Finding a Partner
I have an unholy will to work. It’s the first thing I think about in the morning and the last thing before I go to bed. Some days are better than others but most days it’s all consuming.
Knowing I couldn’t do it all and having permission to get help was key for me. And I’ve tried to find help in a lot of ways but when you find the right partner they’re as excited as you are about it and your approach towards things changes. Because up until meeting Mario everyone I worked with was excited and willing and happy to help me but they were there to help. Or for a paycheck. Or to help “this much”. And when you meet someone who is really invested in it and really sees themselves benefitting from the success of the whole then things are different.
When I met Mario I could tell that he was getting a different kind of joy from working on this business than most people do. It was fun for him to stay up until 3 am to redecorate the store, he had ideas for what to do next for the brand, he had experience for how to streamline our production and our customer service and working with him is the only way I can avoid burning out.
I have burned out multiple times prior to having a real partnership and you know you burn out, you deplete, you build yourself up and try again but it’s not cute and I don’t recommend it.
3 Ways To Avoid Burn Out
One of the things we do really well is work in separate spaces sometimes. Something I think a lot of creative people can relate to is that I love what I do so when I’m in the zone it doesn’t feel like work. So sometimes when I want to relax I work. And what that means for me is being alone in my studio, having my music or a podcast that I like playing, being in my happy place and being able to do my meditative work. Because piecing things together, cutting out little shapes using my hands….hours and hours and hours of my life can go by and it’s so fulfilling and I feel rejuvenated by it.
When it’s back to back appointments, and meeting after meeting and someone trying to take a picture, and “can I get one of these” and “can I have a discount” and “where’s my order?” and all these things you need help to tune out all those voices. So another thing we do is just take some no phone time. Just being beholden to my phone – I think a lot of people can relate to hearing it buzz and feeling – I feel like it’s yelling at me and don’t want that! so I think unplugging is one of the things that is really restorative and the third thing I’d say is we sleep. We work really hard but we also sleep really hard.
Work in separate spaces (or have some alone time)
Turn off the phone
Diversity in fashion
You did my first ZWD shoot and the whole concept was this bulky black guy and skinny white girl and they were gonna wear each others clothes. And we’re gonna prove anyone can wear it. That’s always been a part of the mission of this brand. When you talk about early American Apparel, for all their flaws they were very inclusive in their heyday. That was something that spoke to me. There were a lot of brands that I liked, I liked the design work but I didn’t feel represented by. I mean I’m a CiS gendered white guy and I felt marginalized by the fashion industry. So imagine if I do what people outside of that like “norm” feel? I thought it would be radically optimistic if I could show people they could wear the same thing as someone who looks nothing like them! And I think we’ve done a good job of that so far.
Addressing the historical moment on social media
Well I am in this slightly weird space of being both a person and a brand. One of the reasons I think I’ve been able to navigate sensitive issues is because I’ve been able to personally address my audience. So I had to ask myself how do I participate authentically – that it’s not just succumbing to some peer pressure that “oh everyone is doing it”
One of my mentors for communication has always been my dad. He is a total whackadoo and he’s a really great communicator because he listens a lot and speaks very little. And he has always told me “Write out everything you want to say and then delete everything you don’t have to say.” And so after George Floyd, when I deleted everything I didn’t have to say all that was really left was “Hey black lives DO matter. It’s not okay to believe that they don’t and it’s not okay to treat people differently because of the color of their skin.” and you have to hear me saying that to know that I really believe that. And that’s all there is to say! The rest is said through my work which backs up this belief.
On Calling People Out
I’ve had many many opportunities to call people out on various things and I don’t take them. I don’t take them for two reasons.
1. It’s not productive, right? Tearing other people down doesn’t build me up. It’s like schoolyard bullying, we know this and so when I think about the people on a personal level I’d like to tear down the best way to tear them down is to be happy in my own life. And I am. And no one can take that away from me. So that’s something that I come back to often when I’m feeling…jealous or frustrated or that I wanna tear someone down.
2. Engaging in it is so consuming. The energy that goes into it – it just takes so much and being spread so thin I really relish my time off and so I just don’t find the time in the day to take the effort to tear people down or join that movement. The worst it ever gets with me is a little gossip among friends… we really do work at being the change that we want to see and by not engaging in it well…you’ll see going through the comments on our page there’s no hate there. We’re so transparent about what we do and we’re so focused on our own work and our customers and community that there’s just nothing to take down!
Teach by example and be the gateway
I’ve learned it’s off putting to be fanatical about something. If you want people to be open to you and your lifestyle and the way you do things you have to be openminded to the fact that they aren’t coming to you fully formed. Or perfect. So if you’re going to look at someone and say “you’re not zero waste enough to shop here” then no one’s going to come in. But if you’re willing to be a gateway then you have to be willing to meet everyone where they are! So meeting people where they are from a zero waste perspective has helped me meet people where they are in everything I do! And if you’re a fanatic just talk about what you love because love is contagious!
Parting Advice from Mario’s Mother
My mom often gives great advice but not about the right thing’ You have to save it and use it later. Once I was complaining to her about something – i don’t even remember what it was – but she was like
“You know, sometimes people have an agenda and all they want to do is push it. And no matter what, they’re not gonna listen because they’re too busy pushing their agenda.” So it’s your choice to either listen and take from it what they’re giving you or not. But sometimes giving feedback isn’t going to help.”
Save that advice for when you need it 😉 )