A market sewn up | Refried Apparel’s sustainable industrial revolution

hands at a textile cutting table score a branded sports t shirt along a ruler with a pair of scissors

A market sewn up | Refried Apparel’s sustainable industrial revolution

It’s approaching the end of March 2024 and Mark Litos, the co-founder of Refried Apparel, has just rescued 50,000 pairs of jeans from going up in flames. 

There’s nothing wrong with the haul. They’re all above board and perfectly wearable. They’re simply a ‘glitch in the system.’ An overseas mass retailer over-ordered on their stock for that season and is now looking for a way to ditch its ‘waste’. It takes 10,000 litres of water to make one single pair of jeans alone, yet sending 50,000 pairs of them to the incinerators seems to be a preferred method.

That is, until Refried Apparel gets their hands on them.

The Massachusetts team field calls like this nearly every day. Dead stock, damages, failed designs on garments, over orders, and glitches in systems; palettes upon palettes of perfectly good textile simply destined for landfill or destruction. For Refried, however, this dead stock is valuable resource, and this resource is helping to bring textile manufacturing back to the United States of America.

Headquartered in New Bedford, Massachusetts, Refried Apparel is situated in what was once the textile capital of the world. The city has a pool of skilled talent in the fashion, textiles, and garment sector that sprawls across the area and into its neighbouring city of Fall River. It makes for perfect pickings. Because for the business model Refried Apparel operates on, skilled talent is crucial.

Re-writing fashion’s ending

Refried Apparel, as the name might suggest, is a disruptive business model operating in the up-cycling game by rescuing dead stock destined for landfill or incineration and using it to create unique, hand-crafted, American-made, one-of-a-kind garments, bags, or accessories. Its team is highly skilled, highly creative, and fundamentally, highly motivated. Described by Mark as a “team of artists, picking colours and textures from their palettes” the Refried Apparel outfit designs, sews, and distributes a sustainable answer to fashion and textiles’ long-standing issue with being… well, unsustainable.

According to the most recent EPA data, the US generates over 17 million tonnes of textile waste per year. It’s an alarming fact that 66% of all unwanted clothing in the region ends up in landfill, while less than 15% of it is recycled. It’s no secret that the fashion industry is in crisis.

Playing its part to provide one solution, Refried Apparel now works with some of the best-known brands on the planet, from Major League Baseball and the NFL to Macy’s and the Girl Scouts of America. From these companies, the team will acquire ‘dead stock’, use it to create unique pieces – be it clothing or bags – and sell back to retail at a premium, where it “flies off the shelves”. 

“And believe me, these brands and companies, they create a tonne of dead stock,” says Mark. He’s putting it mildly, of course. 50,000 pairs of jeans rescued in March is a one-off catch for the team. More regular are the palettes of failed designs, past-season clothing, and obsolete sports uniforms. Heck, Refried Apparel has even taken discarded banner material from sporting stadiums themselves to be up-cycled and transformed into something desirable.

“The pieces we create, they are all really unique,” says Mark. “It could be a run of 50 or 5,000 items made with inventory we’ve been sent, but the brands will know that each will be unique from the last as our creatives dive into our stocks of textiles to produce items that really capture retailer’s attention.”

The profitability of textile waste

Commendable enough is that Refried Apparel has unlocked value in waste. But perhaps the close-knit, family-owned business’ biggest win is its impact on the brands around it. This is a company now helping some of the planet’s biggest brands (and biggest culprits for over-ordering and over-producing) change their view on waste. 

“And it was all started by my wife Lisa,” admits Mark. “She has always been creative with her fashion and hates throwing things away. One day, I notice she is wearing a new skirt… made from one of my shirts. I couldn’t believe it. It was one of my favourites.”

Demand for Lisa’s skill set grew as did demand for the unique numbers she could create (as well as the strain on Mark’s personal wardrobe inventory) and soon enough, after ‘killing it’ on the local farmers’ market scene, the pair launched their serious business venture at the International Surf Show in Orlando, Florida. It was from here, the pair started to gain the attention of the big brands. 

“It started with an application to pitch on Shark Tank,” says Mark. “While preparing for that, we were approached by an industry veteran and previous owner of a prominent golf wear brand. As a visionary, it didn’t take him long to see the potential, calling it ‘one of the best apparel concepts he’d seen in years.’ The next minute we had our ‘shark’ and his full support. It was this that gave us a seat at the table with some very big sporting names.”

Today, Refried Apparel works in licensed and non-licensed goods with resorts, professional sport brands, corporate brands, and their upcycle programme has spread like wildfire across the collegiate scene.

“This is an area that has just exploded,” says Mark. “Colleges and Universities today are very engaged in sustainability – most schools place us into a royalty-exempt category for licensing simply because the goods they send us to be Upcycled have already earned a royalty, and those same goods have already been approved for licensing. So, for them, they know working with us is the right thing to do and keeping it viable and affordable for us to do what we do is important to that.” 

“We’re at a place where they now see us as a partner or as being a part of a programme. Retailers and brands love our programme and our sell through is amazing. Giving items of unsalable clothing a new, upcycled, up-market, and unique lease of life just captures everyone’s attention.

“But we operate on the dead stock we can get our hands on. So, it’s about being flexible and the brands we work with understanding our non-traditional processes and methods. And the brands we work with today? They have been amazing. They really see the benefit of what we do.”

And well they might. It’s no secret that the screws are starting to tighten around legislation in the US and new rules adopted by the Securities and Exchange Commission will now soon act to enhance and standardise climate-related disclosures by public companies. It’s recognition of this that, today, puts a company like Refried Apparel and its team of talented textile upcyclers in a very favourable position.

“We’ve got the team; we have a three-storey warehouse and factory that runs the length of the street; and we have the space, skills, and desire to start working with brands in the wider entertainment industries,” says Mark. “We’re putting Massachusetts back on the map, we’re bringing textile industry back to the US, and we’re here to disrupt business models wherever we can.”

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