During his junior year at Princeton, Christian Birky ’13 received an email from the Pace Center about a program that matched student tutors with inmates at a local prison. After participating in the program for a semester, Birky said he was so “blown away” by the scope of the prison crisis in the United States that he decided to write his senior thesis on prison policy.
“And so I continued to learn about how dysfunctional the entire criminal-justice system is here in the states,” Birky said. “When I was working with the guys, they would say over and over again that they had no idea how they were going to get a job when they get out.”
Meanwhile, Birky also was involved with the Sustainable Fashion Initiative, a student group dedicated to developing a “culture of sustainability in the fashion industry.” Birky said he had never considered a career in fashion before college, but after graduation, he moved to Detroit and started Lazlo, a sustainable men’s clothing line.
“There’s basically no way to make cheap clothing and still do things right,” Birky said. “So what we’re thinking is, ‘we’re going to go in the opposite direction — if fast fashion, labor abuse, and disposable clothing is at one end of the spectrum, we’re going to see how far in the other direction we can go.’”
Lazlo’s goal is to provide high-quality and durable clothing for men while ensuring its products are manufactured in the most ethical and sustainable ways possible. And to do that, Birky plans to hire former inmates from the Michigan prison system.
Because the Michigan department of corrections has several sewing training programs for prisoners on good behavior, Birky reached out to officials within the prison system to get connected with former inmates. He plans to hire Lazlo’s first sewer this fall.
“We want to work with men that have been trained to sew but have also taken advantage of educational opportunities and who are ready to get out and stay out,” Birky said. “Everyone deserves access to living-wage jobs, and this is an opportunity for us to provide those jobs to people who are really qualified for them.”
Lazlo will begin clothing production this fall on the heels of a successful Kickstarter campaign — it raised more than $30,000 in August to begin making the “Heirloom Tee,” a white crewneck T-shirt made of the highest quality organic cotton and backed with a lifetime guarantee. If the Heirloom Tee gets stained or starts to get yellowed over time, Lazlo will re-dye the white fabric blue and send it back to the customer.
“We want to make something that’s built to last and we’re thinking about the way we approach items that are basically seen as disposable,” he said.
Over the next few months, Birky will be busy building out Lazlo’s production space, getting machines and equipment, and shipping out the first pre-sale T-shirts, which were sold through Lazlo’s Kickstarter campaign. He anticipates a few leftovers to be available for purchase before Christmas, but hopes to begin offering the shirts online next year, along with sweatshirts and a denim line. Depending on production costs, the Heirloom Tee will be sold for between $120 and $200, Birky said.
“I think there’ll be guys who will save up for a T-shirt because they love it and there will also be people [for whom] price is no object and they buy it because they like the story,” he said.