Knit gloves, scarfs and balaclavas in colorful, graphic patterns made by Verloop are sold at museum shops across the US, from New York City’s MoMA, to de Young in San Francisco. The modern knit creations are made in part with surplus yarns from a manufacturing factory just outside Manila, the capital of the Philippines.
Ten years ago, the extra yarn from knitwear orders was routinely tossed into this factory storage room, forever forgotten or thrown out. When Ella Lim discovered a cache of deadstock yarn in the factory, which is run by her mother, she transformed them into quirky, fun knitwear pieces, which was the beginning of Verloop.
One of Verloop’s big hits has been the “Pair and Spare” gloves, a set of three slightly different patterned gloves in the same coloway that sell at acclaimed design-centric retailers, along with mainstream chains like Nordstom, in North America. Verloop’s pieces, which also include vibrant hats, wraps, bags and homewares–even funky ribbed bottle and planter sleeves–sell from $28 to $160.
Consumer attitudes around fashion sustainability have changed radically since Verloop launched a decade ago. Lim, who now lives in Hong Kong after a long stint in the United States, recalls Verloop’s positioning in the early days as, “We’re your modern knit company.” Broadcasting the use of deadstock yarn didn’t impress, according to Lim; instead it solicited snide comments like, “Eh, this is leftover yarn? You must be making a lot of money.”
Today, incorporating leftover yarn into pieces is a Verloop selling point. “Interest in our business has grown when we tweaked our messaging a bit,” says Lim. The use of deadstock materials, repurposing, “is front and center in how we present the company.”
Verloop’s seven-person team is spread out over the US, Hong Kong and the Philippines. While Verloop has access to the family-owned factory’s deadstock yarn, Verloop is an entirely different company, and has the same relationship to the factory’s production team, approximately 100 full time workers, as other knitwear customers. According to Lim, Verloop has been profitable and has been averaging 30% growth in sales every year since launching, without any outside investors.
Lin sat down for an e-discussion from Hong Kong with Times of E to talk about Verloop’s evolution as a sustainable designer brand.
Nina Roberts: How did Verloop come to be? The name sounds Dutch, the designs look very northern European. Do you have some connection?
Ella Lim: I’ve just always been inspired by design. Everything from mid-century modern furniture to Bauhaus type stuff, the latest industrial designers, I follow all of it. I love the Belgian designers like Ann Demeulemeester, Dries van Noten. I made up the name Verloop (it is a Dutch word) but I randomly chose it because I wanted a name with “loop.” I have been inspired by working with so many Dutch designers in the past.
NR: When did you work with Dutch designers?
EL: I went to business school in the US and after I joined a company called Artecnica in Los Angeles as a business manager. It was a distributor of design products, lighting and fixtures. They brought in this Dutch designer named Tord Boontje who made all these colorful laser-cut lamps and lights. It was very niche, colorful, really fun; quite popular in the late aughts.
NR: Going back, were you artistic as a kid?
EL: I was always creative growing up, I considered a career in the arts. But I come from a business-oriented family, a family of entrepreneurs. My family has been involved in knitwear manufacturing for many years. The factory where Verloop is made was founded by my grandfather back in the 80s in the Philippines.
My mother took that business over when I was eight-, nine-years-old. I accompanied her there after school, spent my afternoons there and got to know the business that way. But I never had any desire to join the business! It was just something I did as a kid to help out.
NR: Now your pieces are manufactured there, how did that happen?
EL: I got married and around 2010 we headed back to New York. I was looking for a job but not a lot of people were hiring because of the financial crisis. I decided it was a good opportunity for me to help out my mom with sales, liaising with clients and drumming up new business for the factory.
When I took a trip back to the Philippines and visited the factory—God knows how long it had been, I think since I was in high school—I was surprised to find this huge amount of stock inventory yarn, all these different colors, just sitting in the closet in this inventory warehouse. I instinctively said, “We have to do something with this!” I was just really inspired by seeing all the yarn and thinking what we could do with it.
At first, it was just a side project, just playing around. But I soon knew I wanted to design modern knitwear—less handmade, crunchy; more bright, graphic.
NR: When was Verloop officially launched?
EL: Our first trade show was in 2012. In my first year in business, I was very lucky, Anthropologie placed an order. The big thing back then was infinity scarves, remember those?
NR: One big loop scarf.
EL: Yes, so we came up with these crazy infinity loops, each scarf had maybe eight colors in them. They were all from this deadstock inventory. But at that time, we definitely didn’t market them that way, I just never thought to say, “Oh, this is made completely of deadstock.”
NR: Wow, now it’s a selling point! Attitudes have shifted so dramatically about sustainability efforts in fashion and design.
We had a pillow made out of pompoms, a big hit. Some people said things like, “I could do that. It shouldn’t cost that much. Why does it cost so much?” The advantages of using deadstock just wasn’t a thing back then, nobody thought it was cool. Really.
NR: But you continued using deadstock yarn, what changed?
EL: There’s definitely been a very big shift in the market since I’ve been in business. People are just so much more appreciative of creativity, repurposing and they really want to know how these things are made. The feedback now is more, “Oh, that’s really cool.”
If you are a designer thinking about sustainability, you’re not an outlier now, it’s sort of baked into the profession.
NR: What’s your design process using deadstock, how does it work?
EL: Most designers look at trend boards, see what’s there and come up with the most wonderful, amazing designs; it comes from the top down. We flip it around. We start with what materials are available and start putting things together that way. The Verloop line is definitely quirky, I think it’s a result of making the most out of what’s there. I’ve also used leftover foam from a mattress factory to make laptop cases, used surplus carabiners and rope for keychains and bags.
NR: The prevalence of social media and e-commerce makes a huge difference in how designers can launch businesses, market and sell products.
EL: It’s so different now. It’s a celebration of nicheness and uniqueness. There’s much more diversity in the types of merchants and retailers we have in the market today. When I started, the market wasn’t well-segmented, it was fashion with a capital F.
NR: Is every Verloop piece made with 100% leftover yarn?
EL: Some items are 100% deadstock, but with the sorts of volumes that we do now, we definitely have to introduce some virgin material into the process, we fill in with virgin yarn. However, we really live for the excess yarn! It’s a source of inspiration.
NR: That must be a fun, creative challenge, like a puzzle.
EL: It’s really the best part for me. And knitwear is produced in a very efficient way, you can knit in small batches, as needed, there’s not much wastage. We even created a pompom machine that cuts the yarn to size, so there’s no excess cutting. We’re not trying to save the world or anything, we’re just doing our small little part.
NR: Do you hand knit?
EL: No, I can’t hand knit, but I can program a machine. [laughs] I think Verloop works because of my background in manufacturing.
NR: So much manufacturing has left the US. There are efforts to bring some back.
EL: The US was so quick to shut all of it down, business people just saw dollar signs when Asia opened up—and we’re the beneficiary of that. But you can’t just pluck workers and drop them into a factory, it takes generations for expertise to develop. Some of our guys have been with us for 30, 40, years. It’s set up like a co-op so that employees have full negotiating power over their wages and benefits; there is a familial, collegial work environment. Except during the pandemic, I usually design with the folks on the floor of the factory. They are very talented, we’ll do it together.
This Q&A had been edited and condensed for clarity.