When Senior Sustainability Reporter Whitney Bauck published Fashionista's inaugural "deadstock" explainer in 2017, the term was still largely unknown among sustainability advocates and fashion generalists alike. "It seemed like everywhere I looked," she wrote at the time, "I was coming across proud assertions from brands about their deadstock fabric usage."
Deadstock, or the fabric that goes unused by the mill or brand that fabricated it, has now grown into a relatively ubiquitous entry-point for those labels looking to combat the industry's waste crisis — and perhaps, one day, even working toward circularity. Sourcing deadstock, however, requires a bit more expertise than simply negotiating with one's factory partner to pocket all its scraps. But in the years since deadstock first formally entered our collective fashion vernacular, a new spate of apparel companies have cropped up to do things right. They've also maybe, just maybe, made the planet's estimated 92 million tons of annual textile waste even a pocket less mountainous.
For Oddli, a Los Angeles-based upcycled clothing line that launched this past November, the health and wellbeing of the planet is the brand's nucleus. It is also Oddli's greatest and most joyful inspiration, and that is what the brand believes will set it apart.
Oddli comes courtesy of Ellie Chen and Jensen Neff, best friends who only just graduated from Stanford University this spring. While Chen and Neff grew up in neighboring areas in Northern California, both spending their respective childhoods swaddled in Patagonia fleece and painting flowers out of watercolors, they didn't meet until arriving on campus, striking up conversation outside a freshman dining hall.
"Even then, we just connected in our spirit," says Neff, the brand's Chief Creative Officer, with her CEO counterpart Chen beside her on speaker. "It was so cool to find someone who shares the same passion of saving the planet, but also of good design."
Neither Chen nor Neff are trained clothing designers in a classical sense, but rather come from product-design backgrounds, having cut their teeth at their alma mater's Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, more commonly known as the "D. School." For four years, both in and out of the classroom, the duo continued returning to one principle, which Neff summarizes: "How can we create products with high craftsmanship that also don't harm and can even help the planet?"
Clothing, they say, wasn't always in the cards, though by their senior year, their paths crossed with the kind of force that can't be forgotten so easily — one with a sprawling, ocean-side headquarters in a crunchy little town called Ventura, Calif. As Chen and Neff began ideating on their final "capstone project" (the D. School equivalent of a senior thesis), they had the good fortune of being connected with Patagonia's color designer. So over their spring break, as the world around them had begun shutting down in the face of a pandemic, they visited Patagonia's headquarters, and that's where apparel — and deadstock, specifically — entered the picture.
"There's something so beautiful that comes from deadstock," Chen says. "We're able to use it in a way that really celebrates the uniqueness of each of our materials, and celebrates that it's okay all of our materials don't look the same. Patagonia planted that for us, and we came back to our capstone class with an idea of how we can take some of those values of what we saw there and apply it to a brand that Jensen and I want to wear every day."
In their final weeks as college students, Chen and Neff began dreaming up a new kind of clothing line, with functional roots that came planted in their time at Patagonia's creative headquarters. But emotionally, they looked a little bit closer to home, and as Oddli began to take shape, their moodboards became less about a specific aesthetic and more simply about a feeling.
"Our dream day-to-day closet is full of color and surprise and quirkiness, and we weren't finding that in sustainable clothing brands," says Neff. "We wanted something we were excited to wear that morning when you wake up and are like, 'I have something so fun going on today!' We always want our first choice of what to wear to be really sustainable, and part of [the motivation for creating Oddli] came from not being able to find that."
The co-founders learned at Stanford that of the 15 million tons of textile waste generated in the U.S. alone each year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, only 15% of that actually gets recycled. When faced with the numerical data, the reality is grim: Per 2016 research from McKinsey & Company, the average consumer bought 60% more clothing in 2014 than in 2000, but kept each garment half as long. And what happens when shoppers no longer keep their garments? On average, Americans throw away 81 pounds of textiles per person per year, as reported by the same McKinsey study.
"We were shocked at how unregulated the fashion industry is in terms of sustainability," Neff says. "In the beginning, Ellie and I were just like, 'Why the heck are more of our clothes not made out of deadstock?' That is an absurd fact, that this much material is being burned or landfilled. And from there, with this disgust of how much waste there was, we dove into learning why it's so hard to tip these scales."
While deadstock is by no means a catch-all solution, it's an impactful path forward nonetheless: Because the brand uses material that already exists, Chen and Neff use no water in the creation of their garments. Oddli's shirts alone each save about one pound of material from being landfilled or burned.
Oddli entered the world with an optimistic bent this summer, in a sort of beta launch that offered hand-sewn, made-to-order halter tops, bucket hats and board-style shorts, all of which are unisex. Still at Stanford, Chen and Neff sourced the deadstock locally, weaving it into a sunny, retro patchwork, each happy square of which was cut from a different piece of deadstock. With such extensive deadstock use, no two garments are identical — and while that can certainly make it difficult for more conventional brands to scale, Oddli is leaning all the way in: The brand has a trademark pending for the term "ColorGrid," which it uses to describe its signature patchwork.
Following their (virtual) commencement in June, the co-founders hightailed the 320-odd miles down the Pacific Coast Highway to Los Angeles, where, facing an economic downturn and accordingly uncertain job market, they decided to pursue Oddli full-time. They had already received a bit of a boost: With a very-Generation-Z aptitude for digital media, Chen and Neff made sure to get on TikTok as early as they were able. And in August, one of their videos went viral. "We're only a couple months in," Neff says in a voiceover, "but it's already been incredible. We would absolutely love if you followed our journey of building this brand." At press time, the clip has clocked more than 2 million views and nearly 600,000 likes.
"There's a huge difference between people who just follow your TikTok, and people who take the effort to not only follow your Instagram, too, but then go to your website and sign up for a pre-release," Chen says. "We've seen other TikToks with hundreds of thousands of views and still only a couple thousand followers on Instagram, but overnight, more than 15,000 people followed through to our Instagram."
With the internet now on their side, Chen and Neff set out to create a supply chain that was just as ecologically mindful as its locally-sourced deadstock. The pair works with seamstresses in the city's Fashion District (paying them a $20 hourly wage), who patch the individual textiles into a quilt. The quilts then get dropped off at Oddli's small-batch manufacturer, which physically produces each piece.
In November, nearly eight months after the co-founders' first trip to Patagonia HQ, Oddli was ready to enter the big leagues — via Kickstarter. Chen and Neff surpassed their initial $30,000 goal in under 24 hours, using the creative-funding platform as a pre-order site for "backers" to shop. While a somewhat unorthodox way to get a fashion business off the ground, the pair came by this decision strategically.
"There's something so exhilarating — and kind of scary — about how uplifting Kickstarter is," Chen says. "We could take pre-orders on our website and operate under a similar model, but Kickstarter expands your demographic." While most of Oddli's 18,000 Instagram followers are women, Chen mentions that Kickstarter's demographic is 70% males in their thirties, and for a gender-neutral brand like Oddli, that's not to be overlooked. "Jensen and I are following our own rulebook in terms of putting ourselves out there, and we see Kickstarter as one way to get our story out."
Their rulebook is objectively appealing on a lot of levels. That viral TikTok smartly edited together dreamy splices of Chen and Neff's rich friendship — bike-riding down an autumnal path; dancing on a sunlit rooftop with a bottle of wine in hand — with more official brand imagery. It was all as if to say: Yes, sustainability can be this fun.
"There's a certain energy that goes along with wearing one of our pieces that we've seen, even just from our shoots, or putting them on ourselves and feeling it," Neff says. "We want to see that in a lot more places. There's a lot of material left to reimagine and to reuse."