Advertisement

Meet the Fabric Detectives Digging Up the World’s Best Deadstock

Svetlana HOVANESSIAN

“I think there are only one or two people who smoke here, but everyone has a lighter,” Karen Beglarian, a deadstock fabric supplier, told me. “Do you know why?”

He was FaceTiming me from the warehouse office of Beglarian Fabrics, outside Lyon, France. In one hand, he held a cigarette lighter, and in the other, a piece of fabric. “We just burn a little piece, and we know what composition it is.” The flame tickled the edge of a silky, colorful, printed swatch. Blowing out the flame, Karen noted that the fabric burned like paper, so it was likely a viscose (made from plant fibers). If it had bubbled and given off a sweet smell without black smoke, that would mean polyester, while fabrics that smell like singed feathers are silk. This is the sort of detective work Beglarian Fabrics does every day in order to ensure the unlabeled rolls of deadstock fabric the company buys from luxury mills and designers are legit. Customers include thousands of designers from all over the world, who depend on Karen and his team to correctly identify every scrap of fabric that is resold.

When Karen Beglarian and his wife, Elena, left Russia and moved to France in 2013, terms like circular economy and embodied carbon were far from their minds. But 10 and a half years after they first arrived to this suburb on the outskirts of Lyon, they’ve managed to amass a loyal following of deadstock aficionados, all the while reducing literal metric tons of waste.

There’s a growing consensus from consumers, brands, and governments that the fashion industry needs to make clothes more sustainably, and that means using what we already have instead of making more stuff. For progressive designers and their clued-up customers, deadstock is not waste, but something more rare, ethical, and even cooler than new fabric. Witness the rise of brands like Bode, Mfpen, Collina Strada, Robyn Lynch, and Eckhaus Latta, whose repurposing of scraps into limited-edition pieces has got every cool dude you know calling his closet an “archive” and hunting for old quilts on eBay. The problem is that until very recently, deadstock was fashion’s best-kept secret, and today nobody knows exactly how much is out there; there’s not even an official industry definition of the term.

<cite class="credit">Svetlana HOVANESSIAN</cite>
Svetlana HOVANESSIAN

What the experts I spoke to could agree on is that waste has always been a part of the fashion system, and there’s now more of it than ever. According to Stephanie Benedetto, CEO of deadstock inventory and resale platform Queen of Raw, 15% of the fabric produced every year goes unsold. “There’s $288 billion [in] excess fabric currently sitting in warehouses,” Benedetto told me. And if this fabric isn’t repurposed, “it gets burned or sent to landfill.” Despite the excess supply and the eager demand, it’s extremely difficult for designers to get ahold of the specific deadstock fabrics they’re looking for, which is where companies like Beglarian Fabrics come in.

Every day, fabrics arrive on trucks to the back of the Beglarians’ 10,000-square-foot warehouse. Forklifts unload pallets, piled up with rolls of fabric held together with many yards of plastic wrap. “Sometimes they have some labels and sometimes they have nothing,” Karen said as he took me on a virtual tour of his warehouse. Behind him was a recently received pyramid of fabric rolls from Jil Sander. “You see? Everything mixed up,” he added.

To get the best prices, deadstock wholesalers buy fabric not just from famous European mills like the Albini Group or Holland & Sherry, but from the designer brands who need to get rid of their old leftover fabric to make room for the latest season. But because these brands often don’t know exactly what they have, companies like Beglarian Fabrics take a risk, buying at ultra-low prices with the idea that at least some of what they get they can resell for far more than they paid. The business logic is somewhere between financial arbitrage and the reality-TV show Storage Wars.

With new arrivals, the first step is to check for defects. Rolls are loaded onto a machine that unspools and respools the fabric like a cassette tape while workers scan it under overhead light. Sometimes, the Beglarian team (many employees are extended family members) will find rips or stains that make fabrics unsellable, but other times they will literally strike gold. Karen recalled once buying a fabric from a Parisian couture house with 10% metal content that could be folded like origami paper and keep its shape. Amid the gray worsted wools and polyester linings, he’s found gorgeous French tweeds, handmade lace, pure-gold embroidery, and even a 15-foot python skin. Once, while inspecting a roll of white velvet from Hermès, he discovered a 10-foot section in the center of the roll decorated with the brand’s oversized horse motifs. Because of the Hermès copyright, he couldn’t resell it, “but I suppose I can keep it for me,” he chuckled. The fabric now hangs behind his desk like a royal tapestry.

<cite class="credit">Svetlana HOVANESSIAN</cite>
Svetlana HOVANESSIAN

Growing up in post-Soviet Russia, Elena Beglarian always thought of fashion as “something that was far far from me,” she said. When she and Karen moved to France, their first thought was not Paris Fashion Week, but making enough money to support their growing family. While Elena raised their children, Karen worked on an assembly line and had a series of failed businesses, exporting French pastry equipment and importing fish from Norway among them. Their fashion journey only began in 2018, when a friend back in Russia asked for help sourcing French fabrics. Their first shipping center was their apartment.

“It was very difficult in the beginning,” Karen remembered. While Italian mills and brands are known for being commercial, “the French are much more conservative,” he said, and nobody wanted to sell to him. “I call 10, 15, 30 times to every single supplier,” he went on, “and then, one by one, we started to find suppliers to find more fabrics to sell.”

At another work station, Karen showed me how each roll of fabric is tagged with composition and other technical specs and then photographed from afar and close-up to capture the patterns and texture. His workers even shoot videos of each fabric to show clients the way it drapes and moves. “Even the sound is important,” he said.

Every Monday, the company uploads a drop of around 200 fabrics to their catalog of over 3,500 offerings. “When the newsletter comes out it feels like a bit of a race to the shopping cart,” said artist and designer Winston Chmielinski, who first began compulsively ordering fabrics from Beglarian in 2022 because of the quality and affordability compared to what he was used to buying at Mood in New York. “Here, I have my pick of one-of-a-kind textiles for unbelievably low prices,” he said, “so it still feels like a secret.”

Other customers explained how using deadstock fabrics had become a part of their brand identity. “When [customers] hear the background story, they appreciate the ideas behind using deadstock fabric,” said Ali Abdul-Rahim, founder of Amsterdam-based brand Mai-Gidah. “It feels better to use something that was already there, and turn it into a garment that will be worn and loved by someone instead of using even more resources.”

<cite class="credit">Svetlana HOVANESSIAN</cite>
Svetlana HOVANESSIAN

And those resources are being used up at an astonishing pace. The fashion industry is estimated to produce up to 10% of the world’s carbon emissions, not to mention the water usage and chemical pollution. A recent sustainability progress report by WRAP showed that despite improvements in manufacturing efficiency, companies are making so many more clothes that the climate benefits have been wiped out.

“We have to start to reduce this to change our consumption habits and attitude,” Karen told me. “This is like a bubble,” he continued. “We're close to the limit.”

If deadstock can play a small role in making the fashion industry more sustainable, the Beglarians are happy to help. And as virgin materials like cashmere and wool get more expensive and demand for deadstock continues to grow, Karen sees the future only getting brighter. Still, he hopes for a day when the industry has reduced waste by so much that there isn’t enough leftover fabric to resell, even if it eventually puts him out of business. “For me, it will be enough,” he said.

Originally Appeared on GQ


More Great Style Stories From GQ