Earthworms Castings

Kelly Stewart

By Jean Ponzi

Ragman Revered

I see him in my mind with wild red hair, a gangly skeezix kind of guy, in slick jeans and a vintage leather-sleeved letter jacket.

Kelly Stewart was a Tom Sawyer type, with that Hey, come on, LET’S DO THIS charisma that pulled in friends and strangers who became companions in his Rags-to-Resources corner of the Green trades. His enterprise sense tapped worth in what, without him, would have stupidly gone to waste. Through his work in textile recycling, and beyond.

Kelly liked clothes, especially the brands and styles that stay in timeless taste: Polo, Levis, Brooks Brothers. When high school pals were hitting college books and bars, Kelly Stewart was collecting old clothes, driving around in an old step van. In 1981 he opened a store to hawk his hauls. Style that Remains in Style was an instant destination. Dapper dudes who sought vintage that would never look weird dubbed the place, simply and suavely, Remains.

In the 80’s, classic U.S. clothing styles were storming Japan. Japanese buyers picking coastal American resale stores heard that St. Louis had Remains. Kelly proposed an efficient deal. He became a picker for the Japanese. With pockets full of cash, he drove a five-state region, digging into folks’ attics and barns and buying up bags full of clothing castoffs, taking the useless with the good.

Ragman Kelly Stewart supported his growing family of three little kids. He also got into property, recycling houses decades before “flipping” was a trend. The basement of a four-family flat, one of Kelly’s overhauls, was a temporary warehouse for his growing vintage wholesale operation.

About that time, his friend Paul Wight was between jobs. “Come over and help me out on the truck for a couple weeks,” Kelly said. Paul’s head for facts and figures fleshed out the vision for Remains, where, as Director of Operations, he’s been a decent helper for 30 years.

“Kelly was a tinkerer, an innovator, a planner,” Paul proclaims. When he joined the enterprise, fabric flotsam was fast outpacing quality picks. Solution? “We got into textile recycling! Kelly figured out how to broker the tide of stuff he had to acquire to get the vintage gems.”

Remains grew into an essential niche in the textile sector of a global recycling industry. As a consolidator, Remains moves the unwanted, unsellable “goods” we donate to charities. Especially for small non-profits, the cost of having to landfill this scrap could bust their budgets. Win, win, Green win.

Turning profit from waste did not make Kelly Stewart rich, but it enabled his company to hire and support 25+ full-time employees, with benefits and family picnics; to develop side-ventures that locally transformed cotton scrap into a fine-art Arch Paper product line and coffeeshop burlap sacks into archery targets; to try recycling kids’ car seats (a problematic, prolific mixed-material waste item); to host Outdoor Wear Warehouse events to distribute saved-up racks of quality heavy-weight clothing through job-placement charities; and to annually give barrels of coats and blankets to unhoused people through Epworth Street Patrol.

Remains first real warehouse, on Meramec in South St. Louis, was where I met Kelly Stewart. Stacked wooden bins lined the walls, piled with meticulously sorted stuff: men’s, women’s and children’s denim, plaid flannel shirts, Pendleton woolens, sports team and sorority shirts, letter jackets, and much more. I came to interview him about the business, and Kelly let me scrounge in his bins. I wrote a good piece and came away with a beautiful Woolrich Fair Isle vest and some crazy chromatic flannels.

Invested in that memory are hearty thanks for a guy who valued stuff woven and stitched, grown from sun and soil and plants on the Earth he loved, and fashioned by human hands – and human-made gizmos – into shapes that allow us to move in style, working and dancing, through life’s challenges and gifts.

In a space where waste is not an option, the great spirit of Kelly Stewart remains.

Join Jean Ponzi for Green conversations on her long-running Earthworms show, podcasting through KDHX.org. Remains merged in 2022 into Whitehouse & Schapiro, a longtime customer and 5th generation textile recycling company; they continue working as Remains, LLC, based in South St. Louis.