Not too long ago, Lisa and Mark Litos found themselves climbing the ladder to the attic of a 100-year-old building used by the Boston Red Sox. As far as the eye could see in every direction were boxes upon boxes of dead stock. They couldn’t believe what they were seeing. “It’s a massive building. We’re in a massive attic, walking down dark aisles, boxes piled high. ‘Can you use these?’ the Red Sox store manager asked. ‘Yes.’”
How Lisa and Mark came to be walking through the attic where the Red Sox store unsold merchandise is a fascinating story that all started one day five years ago when Mark turned around and saw his wife wearing one of his favorite articles of clothing — a Harley Davidson t-shirt. She wore it differently though. It was not on her torso, but covering her thighs. Come to think of it, it wasn’t a t-shirt anymore — it was a skirt.
Lisa had taken his t-shirt (to be fair, it had a hole in it), cut it up and created a new eye-catching garment for herself. (Any marital arguments that may have ensued from this event are not within the scope of this article.)
The Harley Davidson skirt made a big splash among Lisa’s friends. Soon, she made a few more similar garments. The activity appealed to her design aesthetic and sense of fashion, but also to the couple’s interest in upcycling and sustainability. Friends started to bring Lisa their favorite t-shirts. She started gathering clothing from second-hand stores, upcycling them into fun and unique pieces, and selling them at the farmers’ market.
“We’re on to something,” they said. “Let’s build a brand together.”
Refried Apparel launched at the International Surf Show in Orlando. “It was a big hit,” says Mark. There, they met Ken Shwartz, the past founder of golf apparel company Ahead, who took an interest in the business and became an investor and advisor. “It’s like having our own shark,” he says.
The deeper they got into the business, the more they realized how much dead stock brands have. “You have no idea. It’s astounding how much surplus inventory is out there. A big retailer or wholesaler may have 2 million items in dead stock. A small retailer might have 50 shirts in the back room.”
So what does Refried Apparel do? It custom prints on surplus material (Refried calls this once-baked), and it also transforms already existing decorated and non-decorated surplus into one of about 24 of its own apparel and accessory styles (Refried calls this twice-baked). It uses the logos and graphics in clever and surprising ways, interspersed in patchwork patterns with other colorful fabrics, each item unique, with its short skirt and tank dress two of its top sellers. Many of Refried’s unique styles are patented and patent pending.
Looked at from another perspective, the company takes dead stock that is eating up valuable real estate in warehouses and back rooms — and eventually landfills — and gives it new life. “We take their coal and we turn it into diamonds. These are unsellable goods,” says Mark.
The company started in the resort space, and then, through past relationships of their shark’s, Refried Apparel found its way into sports licensing with professional sports leagues. It now has licenses with the NFL and the MLB, turning their dead stock into brand new creations. “There’s so much dead stock in sports. Eventually it can end up in places that can be damaging to a brand or league — or end up in a landfill.”
Think about it. A team trades a player. Now, what do you do with all of the jerseys and other clothing items that have been printed with a name and number? “Traded players, logo changes, uniform changes, not to mention damaged goods. It’s just nuts how much dead stock is produced in the sports business,” says Mark. “We take it and slice it and dice it and create something that not only eliminates waste but that is fashionable, high-end and custom crafted.” It’s also allowing the sports leagues to be more environmentally sustainable, which they appreciate, he says. “An MLB green tag that designates our products as upcycled is stitched on the outside of every item we make. We made history. They’ve never had that before,” he says.
Another interesting avenue: with the MLB, Refried has launched a new category of ‘game-used’ designs that incorporate articles of clothing actually worn in games. Those pieces fetch a high price, and receive an authenticator tag that a consumer can scan to find out the name of the player and game in which the item was played in. “We started with Detroit, and now we are doing these with the Red Sox, Phillies and the Twins,” says Mark.
The company is located in an old textile building in New Bedford, Mass., a former hotbed of the apparel industry, still home to apparel businesses such as Joseph Abboud and Ahead. Fortunately, there’s a “huge pool of talent” in the area to support the pace of change that occurred when Refried started to scale up. It recently expanded its production facility, which handles both smaller orders (say, 150 pieces), and larger orders of thousands that come from big customers including Fanatics and many professional sports and non-sports retailers. This spring, Refried entered into a strategic partnership with family-owned MV Sport, wherein MV Sport will market to the college sports, resort and corporate marketplaces and provide Refried with operational support.
Most recently, Refried launched its own direct-to-consumer website. Customers can now send their favorite t-shirts and have them recreated into the garment they desire.
“This business is extremely rewarding,” says Mark. “We’re really solving a problem. We are green, we upcycle, we are ‘reimagined in America.’ It’s amazing how we are helping retailers and wholesalers cycle dead stock back into the marketplace. There are so many opportunities ahead for this business.”
Jordan K. Speer is editor in chief of Apparel. She can be reached at [email protected].
Editor's Note: Check back later this month for our full Top Innovators Report!