A 22-year-old CEO turns outdated apparel and textiles into fresh products.
Many collegians agree that sophomore year tends to be the least stressful following the stupor of the freshman experience, with graduate school admissions and job applications far on the horizon. But Emily Neville, then 19, saw her second year at N.C. State University as an opportune time to launch her own company.
Three years later, her Raleigh-based Reborn Clothing has grown into a 15-employee enterprise, including four full-time staffers, with expected annual revenue of about $500,000. Reborn has licensing agreements with more than 50 universities and partners with some major companies — including Burlington-based outdoor-fabric manufacturer Sunbrella — to repurpose surplus or outdated jerseys, banners and other fabric into sweatshirts, duffel bags, teddy bears, dog beds and other products. Just a year ago, the company was working with three universities.
The idea stems from Neville’s interest in updating her own closet and shopping at sustainable-clothing companies such as Everlane and Eileen Fisher.
“I noticed this gap in the clothing industry where it was very wasteful, but sustainable fashion options were expensive,” she says. “I thought a business solution could solve it. Naively, I started Reborn, not realizing how much [work] a business was. As soon as I started, I realized there was no end date, and this was really a career now.”
A native of Linden, a town of about 130 in Cumberland County, Neville worked as a restaurant hostess, swim instructor and secretary to raise her initial capital. She hasn’t relied on close friends or family for financing.
Her first investor and longtime mentor was Steve Mangano, founder of CurEat, a Raleigh-based app that promotes the restaurant industry. The two met while Neville was working the front desk at The Loading Dock, a coworking space in Raleigh. Mangano led Neville’s initial fundraising of $60,000 in the fall of 2018. Marcus Hall, an N.C. State grad who owns The Cowfish Sushi Burger Bar restaurants, also invested.
“What set Emily and Reborn apart was her willingness to adapt her vision to the suggestions of others,” Mangano says. “She understood from the first day that to succeed, you need many people around the table and [you] can create the most sustainable company by actively seeking input from others. While this may seem simple, it is rare, and her ability to consume information and adapt to the needs of the customer or marketplace has been why Reborn continues to succeed.”
Nearly two years later, Neville has raised a total of $500,000. She is now seeking more money, with a target of $1 million from angel investors.
“Ours is a better solution than recycling because a lot of the partners we work with might already be landfill free,” Neville says, meaning they shred their textile waste to be used for pillows and other items. That still wastes resources that could be repurposed into something more lucrative.
Discarded clothing and other textiles have major negative environmental impacts. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 3.2 million tons of textile waste was combusted in 2017, and 11.2 million tons ended up in landfills. Only 2.6 million tons was recycled.
Textile waste “shows up at every point in the supply chain,” Neville says. “No matter the way you lay out a roll of fabric, you’re going to have parts that aren’t touched.” That’s where Reborn comes in, helping companies “upcycle,” as Neville calls it.
Neville has had difficulty finding investors in the wake of COVID-19, although she says the company has continued to add business and attract new vendors. “We’re working with five to six manufacturers to make sure we have backup if a vendor can’t get us what we need. We also diversified our revenue stream, adding high school and prep schools and hospital gift shops.”
Challenges don’t dispirit the 22-year-old. “More than anything, my age has been going against me, especially when it comes to raising investment capital because people want to see experience,” Neville says. “However, I can say, ‘Look what we’ve done with limited resources and such a young team.’ Imagine what we could do with more.” ■