By Terry Lefton
In New Bedford, Mass., once the “textile capital of the world,” across the street from where the looming Joseph Abboud factory churns out 1,000 suits daily, a much smaller firm is looking to change the face of licensed sports apparel.
Refried Apparel takes distressed inventory and artfully “upcycles” it into licensed apparel and accessories for women and men.
Like much of the apparel trade, sports licensing is a business with substantial “dead stock.” Every time a player is traded, a team changes colors or logos, or event merchandise doesn’t find its audience, there’s excess inventory with scant value. Refried acquires those leftovers and uses them to make its own take on licensed products. Given the relatively low cost of those materials, it offers both high margins for retailers and consumer price points ($40-$120) that are reasonable for any portion of the sports licensed-apparel business, especially because its products are so unique.
“When I’m wearing one of our skirts people ask, ‘Where can I get one of those?’ and it’s fun to tell them they can’t,’’ said Lisa Litos, who started Refried after she’d repurposed some of her husband Mark’s favorite T-shirts. “They can get something almost the same, but every piece is a little different.”
Refried’s story is a classic tale of a business that grew out of a hobby on a dining room table. It now occupies 13,000 square feet within a 100-year-old manufacturing space in the heart of what was once the nation’s textile manufacturing center.
After seeing what she’d fashioned from her husband’s old tees, friends and family started pushing Litos to apply her design acumen and repurpose their old apparel. As the business grew, it subsumed the Litos’ dining room and then a spare bedroom. Sales efforts moved from friends and family connections to local farmers markets. Eventually Refried’s success there elicited a cease-and-desist letter from one of the leagues — a sure sign people were noticing.
“I knew Lisa was on to something, so I worked on a business plan, knowing we could build a brand,” said Mark Litos, who’s owned a marketing and branding agency for more than 30 years and now runs Refried’s sales and marketing.
Refried divides its apparel into two segments: “Once Baked,” in which it prints custom graphics on styles that incorporate surplus material, and “Twice Baked,” wherein its form of alchemy transforms already-decorated garments into its own stylish pieces.
“The sustainability story is unique, but they are distinctive because of [Lisa’s] vision and creativity,’’ said Scott Saklad, GM of the Red Sox Team Store adjacent to Fenway Park, the first MLB team shop to sell Refried. “She’s like a chef who gets random ingredients, yet still somehow creates something memorable.”
WHAT THEY DO: “Upcycle” distressed or outdated “dead stock” of licensed sports apparel into new garments.
LAUNCHED: 2015, as a resort wear brand at the Surf Expo in Orlando
HEADQUARTERS: New Bedford, Mass.NO. OF EMPLOYEES: 12 full-time and additional part-time home seamstresses.
Lisa Litos, founder and president
Mark Litos, head of sales and marketing
Ken Shwartz, investor and adviser
Five years after selling them from a farmers market stall, Refried has licenses from MLB and the NFL, deals with NHL and NBA teams, college licenses through investor MV Sport, and is selling its apparel at retailers ranging from boutiques and team shops to Fanatics.com.
Refried launched officially at the 2015 Surf Show in Orlando as a resort wear brand. A chance meeting there with Ken Shwartz, founder of golf apparel company Ahead, moved them into licensed sports apparel. Shwartz became a key investor and a close adviser.
“What excites me about Refried is positioning it as a solution and resource for an industry than has all this surplus and nothing to do with it,” Shwartz said. “I can easily see a time when retailers have an upcycled section instead of a sales rack.”
The apparel industry is beset by waste and sustainability. On the front end, cotton requires an inordinate amount of water. By one estimate, it takes more than 700 gallons of water to grow enough cotton for a single T-shirt. When that T-shirt is no longer wanted, it becomes part of the 35 billion pounds of textiles disposed of in America annually — it’s one of the biggest categories of items jamming landfills. Consider all those Majestic-labeled MLB jerseys that will be pulled off shelves when Nike picks up those rights next year. A lot of them will likely end up in New Bedford, where they’ll become unique stylish apparel items.
“For the trade, we offer a solution that’s really timely,” Mark Litos said. “For consumers, it’s a story that’s really resonating, because everyone’s talking about sustainability.”
Since Refried’s raw materials and manufacturing are domestic, there’s none of the problems with transoceanic shipping, nor tariffs.
“Their sustainability vision is solid, but so are their products,’’ said Gene Goldberg, a 29-year NFL licensing executive, now an independent consultant with Refried among his clients. “The epiphany has been how receptive the teams have been, because they all have excess inventory.”
Refried’s MLB license, granted in 2017, has been enough of a success that it’s been extended both in years and with an expanded reach across different kinds of retail. While mum on financials regarding the closely-held company, Litos allows that Refried more than doubled sales in each of the last three years. With an NFL license this year that includes some rights for men’s apparel, that should continue.
“We’ve got our dining room back,” Lisa Litos said, “but I’m not there much anymore.”
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