Sustainability is more than a buzzword - it’s a necessity for the growing number of people who realize that making the world a better place is everyone’s responsibility. It’s fitting then to know that this very idea is the philosophy behind ReFleece, the Boston-based company that makes accessories out of reclaimed fleece fabrics. These fabric accessories range from iPad sleeves to their signature Zip-It travel bags.
Sam Palmer and Jennifer Feller, the husband and wife team behind the brand, started ReFleece in 2012. Palmer, an engineer and inventor by trade, leads the design and manufacturing side of the operation. Feller, a former consultant with a decade of nonprofit education experience, runs the front end of the company, leading all sales, marketing and finances. With degrees from Yale, Harvard and Stanford between the two, they’re well-suited for this kind of entrepreneurial venture.
Jennifer Feller and Sam Palmer, co-founders of ReFleece
ReFleece works with partner-brand heavyweights, including Woolrich, Polartec, and Patagonia. These brands commit to save their excess fabrics, damaged garments, and scraps. Instead of throwing them away, they donate them to Palmer and Feller, who are looking for high-quality fabrics to implement into their products. The products themselves feature one side made of fleece, and the other made of a recycled plastic fabric.
We spoke with Palmer and Feller about their personal histories, why they decided to start their own company, and their upcoming Black Friday collaboration with Ministry of Supply.
What are your backgrounds and how did they lead you to start ReFleece?
Sam and I met when we were working at Patagonia part-time, on Newbury Street, way back in 1995. He was in grad school for aeronautic engineering, and I was starting a renewable energy non-profit. He actually stayed at Patagonia for 5 years, moving to Ventura (their headquarters) and working on a special project to design a more environmentally friendly surfboard. It eventually became Patagonia's surfboard - they're still using some of the machinery that Sam built today!
Sam ended up going on to a wonderful program in design at Stanford, and then went into product design at IDEO. I moved into the field of social impact enterprise - specifically, with a focus on charter schools. I consulted with start-up groups around the country, helping them with everything from budget and design to governance and growth strategies.
In terms of inspiration, that was really from Sam's dad. He took a lot of risks to start his own manufacturing business, and their family risked everything to get it going. He ran that factory for many years, and Sam worked on the floor there in the summers as he was growing up. Starting a business that makes things was kind of in Sam's blood. I had been coaching people for so long, I wanted to give start-up a try myself! So, we went in together.
What inspires you and your products?
We're inspired by the textiles that our partners create, and by our mutual appreciation for the preciousness of the earth's resources. Our partner companies put so much time and effort into them; they care about what they look like, feel like, how long they last. And every textile demands hundreds of gallons of fresh water, dyes, and other chemicals that go into their creation. So, to just throw them away seems insane.
Bales of post-consumer fleece on ReFleece factory floor ready for sorting.
Our design team is focused on simplicity: how can we make products that will last? We want to create designs that will let the textile itself shine. Sam, who leads the design team, has always been a fan of simplicity and functionality - letting the function dictate shape, letting the usefulness and utility dictate the design choices. I'd say the words that best characterize our designs are simplicity and universality.
We also have a lot of fun with the designs. Like with [Ministry of Supply's] Aero pants, it's awesome to be able to build a pocket into the Zip-Its - a little peek at what the fabric used to be. I love seeing the old labels, the seams, the history of the clothes reflected in the final product that we create.
How did the collaboration with Ministry of Supply and the Aero Zip-Its come about?
We were introduced to Ministry of Supply through the Mass Challenge. Both Sam and I look for clothes that can go from bike, to office or kid pick-up, to meeting - without a hitch. So, Ministry clothes just make sense.
Sam also just really liked the folks at Ministry, and right away we started thinking about how we could collaborate. It's been really fun bringing some of their leftovers back to life, giving them new value. I feel like our companies share some of the same core values, so it's been easy to work together.
What's next for ReFleece? Is there anything exciting that you're working on in the near future?
Right now we are excited to be getting our facility in Lawrence, MA, up and going. We are working with a new vendor there, 99Degrees Custom, and it's exciting to be part of bringing manufacturing back to Lawrence. It's fun to be in an old mill, and our next project is to fit it out, hire staff, and create a home for us there. We've also got some great new products in the works: lunch bags, desk trays, and tote bags. Finally, we're working on streamlining our own processes to eliminate as much waste as possible, and creating ways to upcycle trimmings such as zippers, buckles and straps.
A visual look at the ReFleece story (via Vimeo)