Christian Birky is out to change the fashion industry, and the world – one T-shirt at a time.
Christian Birky is a busy man.
The slightly-built twentysomething sprints across a puddle-strewn parking lot and into the Anthology Café, the tiny artisan coffee house on the first floor of the Ponyride building on Trumbull Avenue. “I hope I didn’t keep you waiting,” he apologizes. “I had to grab some lunch while I had a chance.” The hour allotted for the interview he was running to get to was wedged within a full day of meetings. And then there’s the actual work to get to, once the conference calls, roundtables and updates with suppliers, partners, employees, investors and everyone else involved with Lazlo, Birky’s company, are finished.
“Come on up,” he says. “I’ll give you the quick tour.” A heavy door opens into a rundown concrete stairwell; head up a flight and you enter the labyrinthine route to the Lazlo offices. En route, you pass a design studio, a wood shop, meeting rooms, and half-gutted spaces midway through the process of transformation from decrepitude to somebody’s big idea or hot new business. The building itself is one of those anonymous – and once ubiquitous – mid-20th century utilitarian concrete boxes built to serve a then-booming manufacturing industry. Like countless others of its type, it endured decades of neglect before being adopted by Ponyride; now, its 30,000 square feet have become home to a hive of artists and budding businesses finding their footing in downtown Detroit’s emergent entrepreneurial hothouse.
After a moment’s walk down a creepily-dark passageway, you’ve arrived at the small rectangular room that serves as the administrative office/meeting room of Lazlo – Detroit’s newest maker of high-quality men’s apparel. It’s an inauspicious utilitarian space dominated by a battered central table – no Aeron chairs, foosball, or standing desks; it’s a place to get stuff done, and get on to the next thing. Nearby, a significantly larger space, currently strewn with lumber scraps and chunks of drywall, is being readied to serve as Lazlo’s production facility: Birky and his associates have been busy tearing out rotten old walls and fixtures, prepping the space to manufacture its debut product – the classic white men’s T-shirt. When the rubble goes out, the sewing machines and workers will move in – and Lazlo will get down to the business of launching an apparel revolution.
The revolution part is no joke, either. Lazlo is a company that is doing things differently – a lot differently. And they’re planning on showing the world just how different, significant, and actually better a white t-shirt can be.
“For us, the question is: what does an uncompromised clothing company look like?” Birky posits, leaning back slightly in his chair. He’s got a few ideas about that already, and it’s what he’s hell-bent on making Lazlo become. In Birky’s lexicon, “uncompromised” really does sound pretty uncompromising: a company operating in strict adherence to principle – and thus the effective antithesis of just about every mass-market consumer goods producer in existence.
For us, the question is:
what does an uncompromised clothing company look like?
It’s an ambitious road map that Birky is laying out: $15 minimum wages across the board. Environmentally friendly, sustainable, toxin-free production. A labor pool drawn from the ranks of former prisoners looking for a new start in life. The highest quality organic materials; the best craftsmanship; exceptional comfort; the best possible design, and world-beating quality and durability. And oh, effectively a lifetime guarantee. For a t-shirt.
Isn’t it an intimidating prospect to try and succeed in business by doing the opposite of what everyone else is doing? “I like risk. I think that any entrepreneur has to have a certain tolerance for doing things differently,” he muses. “I also think I wouldn’t do it any other way, because I don’t think the compromise is ever worth it.”
Yes, he’s thought all of this through, and in considerable detail. The goals, as he explains them, actually seem eminently achievable, given a fair bit of ingenuity and hard work. Not the easiest path to success for a recent Princeton graduate, as Birky is, but a fairly likely approach for someone who started his first business at eleven and who’s been pretty solidly committed to environmental and social justice causes ever since.
Birky launched his first company, a lawn mowing business, in partnership with his thirteen year old sister shortly after his family moved to Glen, Michigan from South Bend. “I had a couple of neighbors who asked me to mow their lawn. It turns out that gas mowers polluted 40 times more than cars; there were no emission regulations for small engines at the time,” he recalls. “I didn’t feel comfortable doing that. It was loud, it smelled bad, and we didn’t want to disturb the animals or the air quality. So with my parents’ help, we bought a pony-pulled reel-type lawn mower and a pony named Clementine, and a solar-powered electric mower, and started Clementine’s earth friendly lawn service.
“It was fun, because we got a pony out of it, but also we had thousands of conversations about the impact of our choices.”
The haunting faces and the tragedy they’d seen by my own age, a young age, I didn’t – I don’t know how to respond to that. There are horrors in the world that no one should have to go through.
As the saying goes, one thing led to another – in this case, to the United Nations. “We both got to do some work with the UN. When I was 13, I was one of 10 kids that planned a conference for 500 kids from around the world – the UN National Children’s Conference on the Environment – and through those, I had the chance to literally talk with hundreds of kids from around the world who were working on environmental projects,” he says. “It was clear that we were in it together, and I was incredibly lucky – my project was mowing lawns, and most of them had never heard of a lawn. They were cleaning out their village well. I have had the opportunity to see a much bigger picture than my own backyard.”
A chance encounter at the conference solidified Birky’s drive to think and act in accord with his principles. “I met a young man named Kimmy Weeks, a child rights activist who had escaped from Liberia after getting thousands of child soldiers out of the war, and then being chased by Charles Taylor’s death squads. I met a few of these boys who had been child soldiers and who came to the states.” He pauses. “I still have a picture of them on my desk at home. The haunting faces and the tragedy they’d seen by my own age, a young age, I didn’t – I don’t know how to respond to that. There are horrors in the world that no one should have to go through. I told Kimmy that I wanted to help. So my high school cross country team did some fundraising, and we raised enough to build a small school in Liberia, and then after I graduated I went and spent a few weeks there. That was formative for me.”
Shortly after his return from Liberia, Birky headed in a completely different direction: Princeton. “I went from Liberia, which was literally the poorest country in the world, to Princeton, which is about as high a concentration of wealthy individuals as you will find,” he says. “Going to Princeton was a real challenge; there was a level of entitlement that I had to identify in myself and that I was surrounded by, but it was still a great opportunity, being surrounded by a level of intellectual stimulation like that from professors and students. But there was a lot of growth that happened outside of the classroom in terms of figuring out what my role was and where I fit in. Half of my classmates wound up on Wall Street or in consulting. That was not the route I was interested in.”
So what route was he interested in? Initially, he wasn’t sure. “For the first half of college, I thought I was going to go to law school. Then I realized that I was interested in something that was less theoretical; I wanted the chance to be on the ground, and I wanted to do something that involved physical creation,” he says. “ I had a few opportunities as I was graduating, but none in the space that I was wanting to be in. I wanted to start fresh.” A summer living back home gave him an opportunity to reflect and consider his options. “I was interested in design, in architecture, in fashion. I wasn’t sure where and how those things fit together, but as I spent time in Detroit I realized that this was a place to make things. I had this background in prison policy and social and environmental justice work for most of my life, but I had a creative interest in fashion. I was surprised and disappointed to find out how limited sustainable clothing offerings were, especially for men.”
The synthesis of these principles and interests resulted in Lazlo. It would be, Birky determined, a company that put his principles into action in all aspects of its operations: by taking on “high risk” former prisoners as employees; by paying them a living wage; by employing ecologically-friendly, sustainable sourcing and manufacturing methods. And, not incidentally, by making great, sexy clothing.
Most people don’t think too much about white t-shirts. They usually come in plastic bags, two or three at a time. They cost a few dollars, are purchased as an afterthought, are disposed of without any thought. Often made in sweatshop factories in impoverished countries, frequently by child labor, in hideously unsafe conditions.
Birky has thought about white t-shirts quite a lot. Where they come from, how they’re made, what they’re made from, who makes them, how well they fit, how comfortable they feel, and what happens to them when they’re disposed of. Unlike the “fast fashion” manufacturers whose wares stock the shelves of the local big-box retailer, he’s trying to configure his company to address all of these concerns. But why the white t-shirt specifically? “It’s an American icon – the white T-shirt, the most fundamental piece of a man’s wardrobe, with workwear roots,” he explains. “It’s kind of a common-man symbol, and so it’s the perfect thing to be doing in Detroit.”
The t-shirt isn’t Birky’s only idea; he’d begun with a list of three dozen or so items he wanted to make, which was later whittled down to a more manageable seven. For the time being, it’s been further culled to one: A product that Birky and his associates feel they can make properly, profitably, and in perfect accord with Lazlo’s principles.
There’s more to making a great t-shirt than one might think, especially when operating within the self-imposed strictures of conscience. Birky becomes animated as he discusses the intricacies of the Lazlo process. “I sourced dozens and dozens of fabrics from the U.S. and didn’t find anything that fit exactly what we were looking for in terms of weight, quality, or sustainability,” he says. “We literally started with what is the ideal raw cotton we would use? That meant a lot of research; cotton is separated by fiber length, and the extra long is the highest quality. Supima cotton is the highest quality grown in the U.S. Roughly 3 percent of the crop is Supima, and one percent of that three percent is organic. And all of that gets shipped over to European luxury brands, and it’s all spun in Switzerland where most of the best yarn spinners in the world are….”
The goal is not to be a giant corporation; the goal is to be the best we can, and the best at what we do.
The obstacles in the way of the perfect t-shirt were beginning to become clear, but Birky was hardly about to give up. In the end, he managed to broker an agreement whereby a small fabric mill in Los Angeles would snag some of the prized organic cotton from Switzerland; after crossing the ocean twice and zigzagging across the north American continent, it would finally become the raw material from which Lazlo would make an initial test batch of shirts – and incidental rewards for supporters of its recent successful Kickstarter campaign.
Unsurprisingly, Birky still wasn’t satisfied; cotton that traveled thousands of miles didn’t fit his idea of eco-friendliness. It’s an issue that he has an immediate plan to remedy; with the proof of concept under Lazlo’s belt, the company can now bring overseas processes back home to Georgia. It’s all part of an ongoing continual refinement of both the product and the methods used to make it, leading — Birky hopes—to an ongoing responsible enterprise that will provide a genuine alternative to poorly made, unethically produced department store wares.
By all appearances, the journey hasn’t been easy. But so far it’s worked. Lazlo is inching its way towards its broader market debut, planning to issue its first runs of commercially-available shirts early in 2016. And then …?
“Five or ten years out is a long time, but I want to have the foundation in place for a company that’s going to be around for generations that’s focused on high quality sustainable manufacturing, and building on a community that really drives the company. I want to see us expanding our product line and our capacity, but I want to stay true to that ethos of uncompromised menswear essentials,” he says. “The goal is not to be a giant corporation; the goal is to be the best we can, and the best at what we do.”
And one last question: What’s with the name? Birky smiles, and for the first time looks, for lack of a better word, slightly vulnerable. “Well, my favorite movie is Casablanca…” The image of the dapper, clear-eyed Victor Laszlo shaking Humphrey Bogart’s hand on a foggy airport tarmac comes immediately to mind. Victor Laszlo, the hero, the man of principle and honor, the man of commitment, role model, and – incidentally – fashion plate. The meaning becomes immediately clear.