Tucked away in a coastal Massachusetts town, the crafty Lisa Litos designs an innovative new beach cover up. According to Lisa’s husband and business partner Mark, Lisa has a track record of taking unwanted materials and giving them a second life. Her beach cover up, made from one of Mark’s old tee shirts, was one such craft. Only this time, Lisa hit upon something that was getting noticed each time she wore it. People started asking her where she got it. She continued to make more and she created new styles and the compliments kept coming.
Lisa Litos: Next thing you know, people started sending me their families’ tee shirts, and I’d make them their own items. I made them for neighbors and family. It just escalated. I then sold my styles at a local farmer’s market every week. I had scores of women bringing me shirts to upcycle into skirts, dresses and even tops. I always had a long line of fans before the market opened and would sell out every time. After a number of these “sell outs” Mark and I started to talk more seriously about my hobby. At first, my dining room was a sewing workshop. For the first year I sewed every day. Then we moved to a space for the next few years. Once we hired sales reps we moved to an even bigger space.
“All In” The Family
Interestingly, Lisa’s husband Mark is more than the average sounding board. He is a branding and marketing professional who owned and operated his own agency. After some serious discussion and financial analysis, Lisa and Mark made the commitment to go “all in”. Mark was clearly prepared to support his wife’s business operation on many levels. He closed his agency, and began working on Refried Tees to bring it to the next level.
Lisa Litos: After the decision was made, we applied for design patents, began the branding process of creating and naming different themes, created our logo, thought through our messaging, and designed a variety of styles. Scaling the process took a significant amount of time; experimenting and designing over and over again in order to create with efficiency and at marketable price points and margins. Once we had our ducks in a row we officially launched at the International Surf Expo in Florida. Attending that show led us to an angel investor who has enabled us to take everything to another level.
What were some of the initial steps you took to scale the business? How did you keep up with the increasing demand for product?
Lisa Litos: I went on a search for home sewers. Being based in Massachusetts, there are lots of textile mills around us that are no longer in operation, but plenty of retired home sewers who were available for piece work, some of whom I still work with today. We also outsource larger runs to a local female –owned, cut and stitch manufacturing facility.
What were some of the factors that helped you take this from a hobby to a full-time enterprise?
Lisa Litos: I was in banking for quite a while. I think that experience was certainly useful. I was a regional manager, with 30 employees reporting to me across five branches. I didn’t go back after we started a family because daycare was too expensive. Being at home with my children and adjusting to one salary made it easier to say “why not”. I don’t think I would have done this 15 or 20 years ago. It’s one thing to have the idea, but for me it has been important to have the know-how as well. Also, seeing the interest and the excitement from people first hand made very rewarding and was a driving factor.
What was going through your head when you realized this was your new job and full-time commitment?
Lisa Litos: My mindset definitely changed after we were all in. We would be sacrificing family time and adjusting to our new finances. Now the mindset is that there is no turning back, it has to work. We work harder and longer to make it all happen. This is our present and our future. It’s how we’ll send our kids to college. It’s our retirement.
What do you ultimately envision for Refried Tees?
Lisa Litos: We want to continue to be an upcycling resource. We want organizations to send us their surplus tee shirts and soft goods, because there is a lot of waste out there. The garment industry has the second highest environmental impact behind energy. The amount of impact on the world’s natural resources is significant. Beyond the environment, creating jobs in Massachusetts is also very important. And we’re proud to contribute to our local economy even if in a small way.
What has working with your husband been like?
Lisa Litos: It’s been positive. We each have our own styles, but fortunately they’re complementary. He understands the demands of the business. The biggest plus is that he knows how important it is to put time into it. He understands how busy I am and will not only do his part from a business perspective, but also take on more from our personal lives, like taking the children out when I need to work on the weekends.
Let’s take a minute to get Mark’s perspective on this. Mark, what did you think of Lisa’s hobby at first?
Mark Litos: Lisa has always been very good at making great creations out of discarded material. She’s a natural upcycler. Once I saw my personal tee shirts make the transformation I realized she was making what I ended up branding as “Refried Tees”.
What did you think needed to happen next in order to scale the business?
Mark Litos: Once we started to talk seriously, we actually considered Shark Tank. I knew that we needed an investor or this would forever be a limited opportunity. Fast forward and we found our own “shark”- a successful industry professional with deep industry knowledge, experience and – most important –valuable relationships. He saw the potential particularly in sports licensed apparel, and put us in touch with consultants that could get us to the table with pro sports leagues including MLB and NBA. There are many reasons why sports retailers and licensees end up with significant amounts of surplus inventory. When you consider traded players, damaged goods, overruns, the losing team in a playoff series, it all adds up to dead-stock inventory. Refried Tees innovative design and upcycling methods provides an innovative solution to an industry-wide problem by upcycling that otherwise unsellable inventory.
Today we have licensing arrangements with MLB, NBA and Periscope Productions for a many iconic bands and artists – and we expect to have others as well. And it’s worth noting that we are now MLB’s official upcycling resource helping sports retailers cycle their dead-stock inventory back into the marketplace. Such an arrangement is unprecedented and we are proud to make history as part of MLB’s Green initiative.
Beyond sports, the same dead stock problem exists across retailers of every stripe. As example, we have found in the resort business, millions of tee shirts that are no longer relevant, sitting stockrooms and warehouses – destined for landfills. Essentially, we are a green or eco-friendly solution for the apparel industry with a first-of-a-kind offering that has many upside benefits. Give us your failed designs, damaged goods, dated inventory and we’ll refry it. With our innovative design and upcycling processes, Refried Tees is sustainable fashion at its best.
What is the best way for readers to get their hands on some of your great designs?
Mark Litos: In the past, we’ve been selling wholesale to boutique retailers throughout the US. However, we will be launching an e-commerce website to sell direct to consumers. We hope to launch this site in Fall 2018. In the meantime, consumers can order any items – music, non-sports and sports – by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Consumers can also order Refried Tees sports items at MBL.com, NBA.com and Fanatics.com – http://www.refriedtees.com/refried-tees-shop/
You’re In Good Company with Lisa and Mark Litos of Refried Tees! Join us in wishing them every success!
Such an inspiring story of going after your passion! and I absolutely love the “green” side of the company. Congratulations!