A Conversation with Nashville Designer And Musician Maria Silver
Raised in the vibrant Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens, New York, Maria “Poni” Silver has long had an appetite for opportunities that reward intrepid creatives. After receiving a degree from the Fashion Institute of Technology, she worked for years on Broadway in costume design, eventually moving to L.A. to pursue a career in television wardrobe. In 2004, Silver co-launched The Ettes, a garage-rock trio that soon gained a global following for its signature mix of retro, girly vocals and amped-up guitars. After three full-length albums, a handful of EPs and years of touring across the globe, the peregrinating polymath decided to channel her energies toward her own distinctive streetwear line, Black by Maria Silver.
Currently based in Nashville, Silver describes the line as “minimalism for the maximalist”—as evidenced by its blend of clean design, unfussy fabrics and dramatic splashes of exuberant color. With her newest line, “Soulflower,” ’70s ease meets seductive bustiers and fitted trousers.
We sat down to discuss it all with Silver mid-May, right before she headed back to her own home turf with a string of pop-up shows in Brooklyn.
How did you go about settling in Nashville as your home base for Black By Maria Silver? I’ve interviewed other designers from the town, and the fashion scene is really exploding.
It was actually an accident [laughs]. A very fortunate one. Our band was on tour from LA, and we were on the road so much that we put our stuff in storage. We had two months of summer tour that were canceled, and we had exhausted our couch-surfing opportunities. A friend who was a native was house-sitting and said we could come stay for a few months. We just fell in love with how charming and affordable Nashville is. When we got back on the road, we just decided to make Nashville our base. And now it’s been almost nine years that I’ve been here.
Your aesthetic often mingles a kind of boxy, androgynous frame with a chic softness and elegance. Your new line, Soulflower, especially seems to capitalize on these polarities. What informs this look?
I’m Dominican, so a lot of the look is influenced by Dominican folklore—and definitely the new line. I’ve also been reading a lot about the Mirabal sisters—these four sisters who were all part of the resistance against Rafael Trujillo, who was in power for almost fifty years. Three of them were assassinated by the regime. So there’s a whimsical island look to Soulflower with a bit of androgyny dashed in. I’m a pants-and-trench-coat person myself, so I mix stuff that I’m going to wear and feel comfortable in.
What’s your design process like?
With anything I make, I take the samples out for a ride and see what it feels like. Can I take a nap in them and wake up and be fine? These factors are all really important to me, and with pants in particular. Pants are really hard, especially for a small designer, and for a long time I avoided fitted pants for that reason. But I wear pants day in and day out, so it wasn’t true to myself to exclude them. The new pants I’ve designed, called La Mariposas, is named for the code name in the rebellion for the Mirabal sisters and means “butterflies.”
The collection actually took a while for me to get out, because I was working on the fitted pants for almost six months. I did like, ten samples. Fortunately, there’s a company in Nashville now called Prange Apparel, a low-minimums production house started by a woman named Megan Prange. It has been incredibly helpful. Otherwise, everything is made in-house.
That comes back to the collaborative creative nature of Nashville—something that seems to be really expanding. It’s becoming a fashion center outside of Los Angeles and New York.
It’s exciting. I think budding designers these days need to go elsewhere, especially with the decline of the garment district in New York. I left there in 2003, and at the time, they were all fabric shops, but now so many have moved out. There are initiatives to bring it back, and I hope they work. In smaller fashion hubs like Nashville, shopping for textiles can be one of the bigger challenges. There are no wholesale fabric shops.
Fabric seems really crucial to your design methods—especially with your nap-test approach! What kind of textiles do you gravitate towards in general, especially given the lack of ready resources available?
It partly depends on the inspiration for the collection. The current one has hints of tropical prints to it, but what sometimes makes it more challenging for me is that I really try to buy fabrics from outlet stores as leftovers. One of my goals is to eliminate a little bit of the carbon footprint. There are so many clothes in the world, and a lot of designers overbuy their fabrics and there’s a lot of waste. With my patchwork pants, I’ve been going out and thrifting pants. I read this article that when you donate stuff to Goodwill, only about 20 percent is even sellable, and the rest winds up in textile-recycling wastelands. So for a while I was screen-printing on thrifted sweaters and t-shirts, and buying really hideous jeans that had a really cool wash, cutting them up to make the patchwork pants.
So repurposing garments that would otherwise end up in these clothing graveyards?
Right. Like, the striped fabric on the trench coat in my current collection is something I used last season, and I’m going to keep using it till the bolt is done. Most designers think that they can use a fabric for only one season and never use it again. But I try to repurpose all of it.
If you love the fabric and chose it begin with, why not try to keep using it and do something different with it? That striped fabric was in a jumpsuit last season, and now it’s a trench coat, a trouser and a skirt. A lot of the ethical companies are very minimalist, which is not so much what I do. My stuff is wearable, but is not super clean minimalist in design.
Do you envision a particular individual who would wear your line?
I design for the girl who would wear the gold caftan out at night. An eccentric girl who’s on the go and travels. For that reason I wrinkle-test everything. I don’t like fabrics that wrinkle a lot, so I try to pick fabrics that could crumple up in a suitcase but be pulled out and look great. I think that comes from years of touring, pulling out clothes and knowing that I have to wear them that night and they have to be fine.
The swimsuit in your latest collection is also really striking.
Thanks! I never thought I’d go into swimwear, but this one was partially influenced by my years living in South Florida. I don’t intentionally do this, but I think there’s also bit of a ’70s disco element to anything I do.
Maybe the high waists? Or the idea of clothing that is sensual, yet relaxed, and somehow free?
I have an obsession with ’70s sportswear—back when sportswear meant “ready-to-wear.” Like Pierre Cardin and Calvin Klein. The outfits were so complete, and I try to do the same thing now. I love the matching pants, the matching suit idea, which was really big back then. With my swimsuit for this season, there’s also an element of art deco to it.
I can also see how your background as a costume designer informs what you do. There’s real drama, real fantasy. The clothes seem eminently wearable, but with a flourish, whether it be the sleeves or collars.
Exactly. It’s wearable drama [laughs]. I just recently did some costume design for a new show called “The Seven Deadly Sins” for the Nashville Ballet and it was amazing. I actually cried at the show. Everyone’s wearing these flesh-tone silk chiffon jumpsuits with other layers on top of them to represent the layers of guilt each dancer carries around with them. The silk chiffon is floating around them, but then on the ankles are these cuffs representing the shackles that keep the layers on. For a designer, it was a fascinating and amazing opportunity.
For someone like you, who has lived on both coasts, how has living in the heartland influenced your mindset or process of making?
I think living here has maybe slowed me down a little bit—which doesn’t make any sense because I still work a million hours a week running my own business [laughs]. But I’m not running around in four-inch heels everywhere anymore. There’s a sense of ease, I suppose. It’s hard to think of how it affects my design, because I didn’t have a collection when I lived in other cities. But being in a smaller community where everybody actually talks to each other and gets involved is also really helpful.
What are you most excited about right now?
I’m really excited about the decisions I’ve made for my business. I’ve given up on following the typical fashion calendar. I’m working on my own schedule—not “Fall / Winter” or “Spring / Summer”—and it’s been a huge weight off my shoulders. I have the time now to actually dive into the inspiration of each collection, resource fabrics and thrift apparel that are high enough quality to make clothes the exact way I want to make them. That decision to no longer rush collections has been really liberating.
I’m also trying to branch out with the brand—like with my pop-up shows in New York. In the future, I’m hoping to extend to cities like Atlanta and St. Louis. Slow and steady, I’m building up Black By Maria Silver, and that’s so exciting.
All photos courtesy of Maria Silver.