Danielle Elsener: DECODE is in the details
For Danielle Elsener (B.F.A., fashion, 2013), a time of global tumult has been anything but idle. Since receiving the Evian Activate Movement Program grant in July 2020, the visionary designer was a featured exhibitor with the ZWDO collective at COP26 UN Climate Change Conference; collaborated with popular Portland, Oregon legacy brand Settlemier’s Jackets; set up her zero-waste manufacturing facility DECODE MFG in Brooklyn Navy Yard; and headlined the ongoing exhibition “Design and Healing: Creative Responses to Epidemics” at the Smithsonian’s Cooper Hewitt museum.
She also found time to get hitched to her sweetheart and business partner, Clay. Way to go, Danielle!
In fall 2020, a SCAD graduate, Julia Blandford (B.F.A., fashion marketing and management, 2020), asked if she could interview me for her podcast Seeking Sustainability. Stephen Campbell from Settlemier’s Jackets heard it and got in touch. Settlemier’s are a third-generation-owned company who were still working off of cardboard patterns. I digitized their patterns on a software called CLO3D, then we began the process of designing a zero-waste varsity jacket, which meant figuring out how to retain components like wool trim and snap fronts. We’ve been able to design a jacket with all the key details. It’s led to significant interest and sizable orders.
Collaborating with Settlemier’s was wonderful, and when I decided to move to New York, I wanted to keep working with them. Since we opened our DECODE manufacturing facility, we’ve been able to take some overflow work from them to fill orders for zero-waste varsity jackets. It was really the first backing we needed to make the decision that yes, opening our own facility is feasible.
Zero-waste design is a methodology that takes existing objects and reworks them in a manner that uses 100% of the material, without sacrificing design. In the world of manufacturing, it’s hard to get people to change how they do things. Yet, with the current challenges in the global supply chain, right now there are a huge number of American companies looking for domestic manufacturers. I realized that to create this world that I want of zero-waste design, I needed to open a facility and do manufacturing myself.
At DECODE, we’ve been hiring skilled laborers — specifically production sewers who know how to use industrial sewing machines and understand techniques for efficiency. I’ve found great people. We are building up our zero-waste basics line: t-shirts, hoodies, sweatpants. There are tons of companies out there looking for a t-shirt that’s good to print on, but there isn’t a zero-waste one that you can buy commercially. Once we have that solid foundation, I’ll flex my design muscles and start making collections and capsules and collaborations with artists — all that fun stuff.
With Zero Waste Design Online (ZWDO), we are a collective of four women from around the world who all practice zero-waste design. For COP26, we worked with Sustainable Fashion Scotland to create a group exhibit called Generation of Waste that represented all the stages that take place in the typical fashion lifecycle. We were the only fashion-related exhibition in the delegate zone at COP26, which brings legitimacy in the minds of policy makers, who see that what we’re presenting is actionable. This can bring about significant change.
DECODE Is are a sustainable business that makes sustainable products. We also need to be a self-sustaining business where we have enough orders coming in. There’s so much need in manufacturing right now that I’m getting phone calls from people, like, “We need 200 skirts by next week!” I have to remember I opened DECODE MFG for a reason. I want to stick to that purpose, or else what’s the point of becoming just another manufacturing facility? As a business owner, it’s about keeping everyone here involved in the purpose of what we’re doing. It’s a really exciting time.
Learn more about this pattern master in our previous post from 2020.