Meet the Brand Turning Apple Waste into Luxury Shoes
By: Valeria Ramos
Casey Dworkin was born on Earth Day and has been dedicated to sustainable practices from a young age as a result. She is the founder and creative director of Sylven New York, a sustainable, luxury footwear brand founded in 2017. Before launching her own line, Dworkin spent her professional career working within small footwear and fashion companies, and attributes a lot of her early knowledge and experience to “being thrown in the deep end.”
When she decided to launch a company of her own, she felt compelled to base her brand equally on craftsmanship and mission—finally getting to combine her affinities for both fashion and sustainability. Recently, Casey joined us on Office Chats with Madame Blue to discuss how she’s redesigning footwear from the inside out—focusing on materials such as apple leather (a vegan material made from organic apple waste), linings made from wheat and corn byproducts, leathers treated naturally with tree barks, and vegan leathers derived from 100% recycled fibers.
Why did you choose footwear, specifically, as the focus of your design career?
I’ve always been obsessed with shoes and felt like they were the one item that I had to have to complete an outfit and express myself. I studied industrial design at Drexel University in Philadelphia and began putting together a shoe portfolio. I always think of shoes as the punctuation of an outfit—sometimes you end a sentence with a period, sometimes you’ve got an exclamation point on the end, or if you’re feeling crazy, it could be a question mark. You could wear a ball gown and wear it with a pair of sneakers and that would create a different look than a pair of pumps would. To me, shoes are the most expressive part of fashion. From a more technical standpoint, footwear is very mechanical. I’m not only designing a beautiful object that’s going to accentuate your outfit, I need to create something that is going to support the full weight of a person when they’re going places, traveling, or running down the New York City streets. There’s a very cool engineering aspect to footwear—it’s a very challenging product, and that is something that has always drawn me to shoe design as well.
What inspired you to create your own brand?
Because I didn’t have a footwear-specific education, I wanted to find a position at a shoe company that I admired and respected. I always felt like I would do my own thing eventually, but I wanted to see the inner workings of how shoes get made and what the day-to-day of running a shoe company looked like. So I spent the first few years of my career working for small, shoe brands and learning the ins and outs.
Can you tell us about the unique materials you’re using to make shoes?
It’s been an interesting journey as more and more materials are on the market. When I started in 2017, the landscape for materials was entirely different. Today, we’re in the Golden Age of material development, but a few years ago, I wouldn’t work with vegan materials because they were all plastic. In doing research, I discovered more plant-based, vegan materials becoming available. Today, one of my favorite things that I work with is my apple “leather,” which is a fully vegan material made from organic apple waste. It’s been fun to be at the forefront and take these new materials that my factories have never touched before and say, ‘How do we make shoes out of them?’
How exactly do you turn apple waste into shoes?
Our apple “leather” comes from a region in Northern Italy called Tyrol—it is the largest producer of edible apple products in the European Union. What they can’t use in a lot of their food products are the apple core and skins. My material supplier takes that waste and transforms it. They take the discarded cores and skins, dry them, and turn them into a powder that creates the apple leather. It is bound with other materials—some of which are still synthetic—it’s not a perfect product, but it’s still made from more than 50 percent organic apple waste. Once the materials are bound, it creates a fruit-based leather (think a healthy Fruit Roll-Up) that can be rolled out into sheets and cut to size. To mimic the skin of real leather, they stamp the apple leather so that it has a similar texture. We’re diverting food waste from landfills and repurposing it into something beautiful.
What advice do you have for someone looking to start their own brand?
Go for it! Think very clearly about what inspires you and what you have to offer. Make sure it’s something you’re passionate about because you’re going to be spending a lot of time doing it. I believe where there’s a will there’s a way, even if you start small. Find a way to start—it could be a sketch, a thought, or a to-fo list—anything that is going to get an idea out of you and into motion.