“I thought Detroit was probably the most interesting place in the world right now,” said Christian Birky, founder of Lazlo LLC.
Lazlo, a sustainable men’s clothing line ethically sourced from natural cotton and locally manufactured by ex-inmates, is housed in the incubator space of Ponyride, sharing a 2,000 square-foot space with Détroit is The New Black.
Sporting a tan sweatshirt from his new clothing line, TBD, Birky reminisces on his journey to business ownership. Born and raised in Michigan, he traveled east to attend Princeton University, graduating in 2013 with a background in social and environmental justice work.
Birky tutored in prisons while completing his education, writing a thesis on prison policy, suggesting that a priority of prison reform was the effort to create jobs to returning citizens.
“At some point in college I realized that despite doing all that work, I had a closet full of clothing made by modern day slaves in toxic conditions,” said Birky. “It was a complete disconnect between how I was dressing and how I was trying to live.”
Lazlo acquired an office in April 2015, after meeting Ryan Cooley, brother of Ponyride owner Phil Cooley, and started building out the space in May. Receiving their full set up of sewing machines in January, they shipped their first order in March of last year.
“Ponyride has cheap rent in exchange for rolling up your sleeves and getting to work. I came here and thought this place was exactly what I want to be a part of,” said Birky, thinking back on his first time in Ponyride.
Lazlo offers a single product – a white tee shirt for men – made custom from high quality organic cotton fabric and placed by hand in a natural indigo bath. Tee shirts start at $110, the low end of the luxury market.
The fabric and manufacturing process was a conscious choice from the creator, wanting to use the tee shirt to address complex issues about a business’ role in society.
“I think a white tee shirt is a great item to do in Detroit,” he explains. “It’s been a symbol of the working class and the rebel attitude. It’s a very gritty item and at the same time, it can also be a luxurious item. I like that democratization of fashion.”
Last fall, Lazlo launched a new line called TBD, a mid-market clothing line for men and women that sports the ideas of sustainability and fashion to a wider audience. Tee shirts will range from $40 – $60 with sweatshirts running from $90 – $150.
“We changed some of the fabrics that we’re using,” explained Birky, referring to TBD. “We’re partnering with a group out in California called the California Cloth Foundry that works with farmers that are transitioning from conventional cotton growing to more sustainable practices.”
Lazlo also partners with the Department of Corrections to hire returning citizens as sewing machine operators.
“I found out very quickly that the Department of Corrections trains people how to sew while they’re in prison. People coming out of prison often have a difficult time finding a job. I thought creating jobs was one of the very top priorities.”
Birky seeks to build a team around hard work, loyalty and dedication to the mission. The first employee to the program, Aaron, spent 22 years in prison, joining the Lazlo team in November.
“Every job we create we hope will be life changing,” asserts Birky.
You can check out Lazlo’s space at Ponyride through a free weekly tour every Wednesday at 2:00 p.m.