Handcrafted in Italy with
Intentionally designed to standout
Recently, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Casey Dworkin, Founder and CEO of Sylven New York. Sylven New York creates sustainable vegan leather shoes, made from innovative plant-based fabrics, like apple leather sourced from organic apple waste and linings created from corn and wheat-based by-products. Launched in 2017 by Casey Dworkin, then just 25, Sylven New York continues to lead the way when it comes to innovative footwear. Today Casey mentions that sustainability is an often-used term, yet it is universally undefined – especially when it comes to fashion. For the company, “sustainability” means defending and protecting our natural resources, and minimizing the environmental impact of our consumption and decision-making to help preserve our planet for future generations. We dove deeper to explore how this played out in her business and what we learned was fascinating.
Vegan Luxury Footwear
That Combines Craftsmanship and Innovation
Casey Dworkin joked that with her earth day birthday, she has pretty much been a sustainable activist for her entire life. As a young child, she started environmental clubs, led community cleanups, and made sure her school was recycling. Though she had a love for sustainability, she never thought there was a place for sustainability in fashion because it wasn’t something she saw being prioritized when she was growing up. However, as her interest in fashion grew, she found herself considering her values and what she wanted to stand for. She asked herself important questions like “what’s the kind of business that I wish existed, but maybe I haven’t seen the blueprint for?” And also “what’s important for me that’s going to make a difference in the world?” The answers to those questions brought her back to her roots and her sustainable values, and she committed to creating a company that was as earth-conscious as possible.
I asked Casey what it was like getting such an innovative business off the ground? She shared that she had always had a love for fashion and footwear and decided at just nineteen years old that she wanted to become a shoe designer. With this budding determination, she started her professional career in footwear, working with small emerging brands, helping brands to relaunch, and shared that she even got to be a part of a team of brands that were starting from scratch. Though she gained a lot of industry experience, she has always had an entrepreneurial spirit ingrained in her. After spending a few years working in the footwear industry for various companies, and experiencing a lot of loss and grief, she began to reassess her life. Taking time to examine what was important for her, she decided that making shoes was what she loved and what she wanted to do. And so, Sylven New York was born.
The Future of Fashion
Today, Sylven is quickly becoming a leader amongst emerging plant-based footwear brands, predominantly using a material called apple leather in their products. Apple leather is a bio-based leather alternative made using organic apple waste originating in Tyrol, a town nestled at the base of the Italian Alps. Using plant-based, bio-based, renewable, recycled, and organic vegan materials and components is a smart business move for Sylven. According to the Business News Daily, researchers said 72% of respondents reported that they were actively buying more environmentally friendly products than they did five years ago.
Building such an innovative business and launching it shortly before a global pandemic has brought its share of challenges. Casey shares that as a small company, sourcing sustainable and ethical materials and vendors is complicated; in fact, for her, it’s one of the hardest parts of the business. Using innovative fabrics requires a lot more prototyping and getting factories to work with new materials has been a fun challenge. Since launching Sylven New York, the material landscape has changed so much in just the last few years. Today, there are more vegan products to explore, like cactus, mushroom leather, apple leather, and all sorts of materials being made from mostly plant or bio-based sources as opposed to plastic and synthetic materials.
Creating A Nimble Brand
Casey shares that she is really happy to see that alternative sources are being explored that are more earth-friendly. She stated that there is so much funding going into material development right now, which has allowed her brand to evolve as business has grown. When she first launched, Sylven was one of the first brands to be using apple leather for footwear and as a result, it was a slow launch process. In fact, it took Casey over two years to seek, source, research, test, and wait on samples. Some of the materials available today were just not on the market when she launched, so her vision required patience and perseverance. However, because she is a part of such an emerging sector of the footwear industry, she is always looking to see what’s available and what will be best for the shoes she is designing. Though the process can take years from start to finish (fun fact, it took three and a half years for Casey to put out a sneaker that was fully vegan and plant-based), Casey loves that her work remains exciting and innovative, though not without its challenges.
I wanted to understand a bit more about Sylven’s sustainability practices. Dworkin shared that although her supply chain is international, all of her manufacturing is done in Italy by family owned, multi-generational factories. From the apples for the leather, to the factories, everything is done together in Italy, and because of this, she is able to lower her company’s carbon footprint by keeping a tight supply chain. As a result of keeping her manufacturing and logistics concise, she has been able to respond quickly to the wants and needs of her consumers, an advantage for a small company, which has ultimately led to her business’s success today. Casey shared that today, so much of shoemaking comes from Europe and regions outside of the U.S., so for her, building a successful business has been about finding factories that share her values and ethics in regard to quality sustainability.
I checked in to inquire about what it was like to launch her own brand at just twenty-five? Casey expressed that one of the most important things she’s learned as a new entrepreneur is that “you just have to start.” As information and resources become available you can make changes, but getting started with the time and financial resources you have currently is important. She shared that for her business, having patience has also been important. She had a strong vision in mind and waited two years to launch her first vegan footwear styles. Casey has learned over time that sustainability and veganism are not synonymous, so to truly remain ethical, one’s goals must constantly shift as the industry evolves.
Casey maintains the integrity of a sustainable brand with progressive packaging solutions and keeps mindfulness at the forefront of her decision-making process. She has eliminated the use of plastic, uses recyclable paper when necessary and has eliminated unnecessary shoe stuffing for her brand. This is an important logistical shift when selling to conscious consumers. Today, consumers in North America, Asia and Europe want eco-friendly packaging. 77% of respondents said plastic is the least environmentally responsible type of packaging. Paper was deemed the most environmentally safe material.
As a company, I really appreciated this attention to detail. At Renewal Logistics, our fulfillment and distribution operations are an extension of the brand’s we work with, so our goal is to collaborate and find the most cost efficient and sustainable ways to pick and pack orders, while still making sure every delivery is shipped on time. While many people just go with the status quo, we both agreed that exploring the why behind the work and letting the why drive your mission is a sure way to remain in alignment with your company’s goals. For newer companies, who may not be familiar with sustainable packaging options, we’ve seen on a global level how it works so we can guide you through the process from start to finish.
As the Founder, CEO, and head designer of Sylven, New York, I was curious as to how she managed to start and grow her business in the midst of a global pandemic. Casey shared that she had to slow down physically and mentally, but this slowed pace eventually brought her a lot of clarity in business. In February of 2020, she was scheduled to launch a spring /summer collection which was completely halted as production ceased with factories having to shut down. She was a product-based business that couldn’t push products and found herself asking “what else do I have left?” This level of curiosity and inquiry led her to promote all that she had left: her story and values of sustainability and earth consciousness.
Casey spent much of 2020 and 2021 doing press outreach and focusing on her story as her greatest asset. Though this was a financially challenging time for her business, the pandemic also proved instrumental as it helped her to hone in on who she was and wanted to become as a brand. During COVID 19, Sylven New York shifted to be fully vegan, making a bold move to step away from working with any type of animal-derived products or leather goods. Although she didn’t run any advertising during this time, when she finally launched one new shoe in 2021, she found this launch to be her biggest press year to date. This launch introduced the world to a unisex sneaker that could be worn year-round. This affirmed to Casey that staying true to your values and why is what matters most in business.
Today, sustainability is growing at a rapid pace and larger companies are starting to take note. Casey predicted that more large brands will begin to explore more earth-conscious options as consumers are asking for sustainable products more and more. Money talks and as ar result, there is starting to be more of a focus on making natural products and moving away from animal products and plastic/synthetic materials. She notes that big companies like Hermes launched a mushroom leather bag, Prada is now working with recycled materials, H&M is exploring cactus nylon and Adidas and Nike are both exploring vegan leather alternatives like mushroom and pineapple leather. A lot of brands are dipping their toes into the plant-based industry, and as a result, billions of dollars are being invested in material development. She believes that more and more brands will have to step up and do things in a more meaningful way or risk getting called out for not keeping up with sustainability.
To learn more about Sylven New York and to shop their current selection of sustainable vegan leather shoes, visit their website at sylvennewyork.com.
Meet The Founder
Casey Dworkin was born on Earth Day, and has been dedicated to sustainable practices from a young age as a result often joking that sustainability is “in her blood”. Her creative interests led her to pursue fashion, and she completed a degree from Drexel University in a combination of Product Design and Fashion Merchandising. Her alma mater recently recognized her for her work in sustainable shoe design and production in their 40 Under 40 profile.
Separate from her love and reverence of nature, she has also spent the past fifteen years working in the fashion and retail industries within a variety of emerging shoe and accessory brands.
When she decided to launch Sylven New York in 2017, she felt compelled to base her brand equally on craftsmanship, design, and mission – finally getting the opportunity to combine her affinities for both fashion and sustainability.