Dillon Eisman was 14-years-old when he first visited the Los Angeles LGBT Center and saw homeless kids his age struggling to get by.
"Seeing kids my own age with not even clothes that they could really wear to school really broke my heart," said Eisman.
In fact, it bothered him so much that he decided to do something about it.
“I 'upcycle' clothes for the homeless population through multiple shelters in Southern California," said Eisman.
Los Angeles has the largest homeless population of any metropolitan area in the country.
He does it through his nonprofit, Sew Swag. "Upcycling" means he takes ripped clothes, seals the holes, but he doesn't stop there. He adds a little "swag," or flare, so kids can feel confident in school and adults can wear the clothes to something like a job interview. The now 17-year-old runs his nonprofit out of a spare room in his parents' home in Malibu, California.
Eisman gets boxes of donations from thrift stores or retailers, like Patagonia and Brandy Melville, and sews for about two hours a day.
"Sometimes I get things that are super dated," he says, "and they need, like, a complete redesigning process."
"You don't want to be walking around with dirty clothes on—no zippers, no buttons."
He even has custom-made "Sew Swag" tags that he adds to every finished garment. He drops off the "upcycled" items at shelters across the Los Angeles area at least once a week. The designer has chosen to take on quite an undertaking—Los Angeles has the second largest homeless population of any metropolitan area in the country, according to the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development. And it's growing. The number of homeless people increased by 23% in Los Angeles County in the last year alone.
For some recipients, the clothes are about making a good impression on potential employers.
"You don't want to be walking around with dirty clothes on—no zippers, no buttons," said Visionary, a homeless woman who picked out some clothes from a mobile clothing rack Eisman set up in Downtown Los Angeles, in partnership with Project Narnia, another nonprofit that provides clothes to the homeless.
Eisman says his favorite part of Sew Swag is when he gets to deliver clothes to kids.
"When [the clothes] go out to people in need, it really has a massive effect on them," said Eisman.
They probably wouldn't be able to guess that Eisman knew nothing about fashion when he started.
"Everything I've learned so far is through the internet, like YouTube and wikiHow," said Eisman.
He says it's hard to find people his age who know how to sew, but he's looking for them. He hopes his one-man operation will one day be a nationwide movement.
"I’m trying to reach out to other fashion institutions like Parsons or FIDM and see if I can start program over there so people who are studying fashion design at their school can start getting involved.”
"There's like 65,000 homeless people alone in Los Angeles, so the more I can help, the more I can give back," says Eisman.
Related stories on Circa:
These mobile showers are giving homeless people a clean start
How this once-homeless man's colorful art project transformed this neighborhood
A man was told to stop hosting slumber parties for the homeless