This article was originally published in the February 2017 edition of SHIFT Magazine. Photos by Courtney Evans.
Coco Chanel was inspired by equestrianism. Hermès became famous for its saddlery. Fitting, then, that the story of Lazlo (Detroit’s own eco-conscious luxury line) begins with a horse.
Under the charcoal overcast of a winter’s noon, Lazlo co-founder Christian Birky reflects on the first time he felt compelled to do better: “I grew up on the west side of Michigan, and a bunch of neighbors asked me to mow their lawn. At first I thought ‘yes! This is gonna be great! I’ll get to drive a tractor, make some money.’ Then I found out that gas mowers polluted 40 times faster than cars because they had no emissions regulations at the time.”
Rather than turn a blind eye to their noxious output, Birky and his sister - then ages and 10 and 12 - borrowed money from their parents to buy a cart-mounted Amish mower. Then, they bought a pony to pull it. “That was my first big step into what you’d call now call ‘social entrepreneurism,’ said Birky, both bashful and rightfully proud. “But for us, it was just saying ‘the way that we do things isn’t necessarily the best.’”
Their eco-friendly lawn service would soon take the Birky siblings from small town Michigan to helping the UN plan sustainable development conferences, and eventually, on to some of the world’s top universities. But for Christian, the same desires that led him to redefine his summer lawn job – undo the ordinary, apply creativity, benefit humanity – burned as strong as ever. That’s why, when a senior year closet inventory turned up only sweatshop-made shirts, he again felt compelled to action.
After graduating, Birky (with his sister as business partner) set out once again to undo the ordinary. Their goal: create the world’s best t-shirt – a garment so luxurious in every dimension (fabric; fit; manufacture) you’ll buy it to treasure as well as to wear. In essence, the opposite of the disposable shirts that cram both our closets and our landfills. Choosing Detroit as a home and employing rehabilitated prisoners as fair-wage clothiers (see: “benefit humanity”), the Birky siblings have once again to set out to improve their world. Earlier this winter, SHEI visited Christian at his workshop inside the fortuitously-named “Ponyride” space to talk fashion, sustainability, and the luxury of a life well-lived.
AR: Can you tell me about Pony Ride as a community brand within Detroit? Do you feel like people are starting to “catch the bug”?
CB: It’s a really strong community – we all support each other. I’ve learned a lot from people in the building, whether it’s trading t-shirts for coffee, or whether it’s getting help from the guys downstairs in the woodshop, it’s really a strong community, and I think people outside of it see that.
Could you talk about some of the collaboration that’s happening between different businesses here? Not just fashion labels throwing labels on each other, either - I get a sense there’s something deeper within Pony Ride.
When Detroit Denim was here, they wanted to make an amazing belt. So, they did the leather, and they had the smith shop downstairs make a custom belt buckle. It was beautiful. We’ve also done some shirts from our TBD line that Detroit is the New Black printed on, and those have been selling well. A lot of it is just in being around other creative people. The building just has an ethos of bringing people together from different creative fields, and more around a shared set of values as opposed to just “I do fashion” or “I do concrete.”
Tell me more about how you came to do fashion.
I think we should back it up first, just so I can frame this better:
So I started with Lazlo, trying to make “the perfect t-shirt” – the best tee in the world. I really wanted to expand what this idea of “best” might look like, and use one simple item as a model to show what we might be moving towards as an industry. To us, “best” means: where’s it made and who’s it made by? It’s made in Detroit, and we’re working with the Department of Corrections to hire people that learned to sew while they were in prison. We’ve already hired one person out of that program – Aaron, who spent 22 years in prison then got out and joined us about a year ago.
My background is actually in social environment justice. When I was a kid, my sister and I started an Earth-friendly lawn service. I grew up on the west side of Michigan, and a bunch of neighbors asked me to mow their lawn. At first I thought “yes! This is gonna be great! I’ll get to drive a tractor, make some money.” Then I found out that gas mowers polluted 40 times faster than cars because they had no emissions regulations at the time.
Well, I didn’t want to breathe that, and I didn’t want to put that into the environment. So, with some help from our parents, my sister and I borrowed some money and bought an old-fashioned, Amish-made lawn mower pulled by a pony.
Did you use an actual pony? Where did you even get the pony?
We, uh…. We bought it. *laughs*
That was my first big step into what you’d call now call “social entrepreneurism.” But for us, it was just saying “the way that we do things isn’t necessarily the best or the right things.” The hard part is making the decision to do something different, not necessarily finding or doing it.
And, because we were doing something unique, we got to have thousands of conversations about the impact of our choices that even led to working with the UN. I helped plan and run a conference for 500 kids from 100 different countries around the world. That was when I was 13.
That continued through college. During my senior year, actually, I realized I had done all of this work and had a closet filled with stuff made by modern slaves in toxic conditions. Like, a total disconnect between what I’m wearing and how I’m trying to live my life. At the same time I was figuring that all out, I was writing my thesis on prison policy and found myself really bored in the politics space. I’ve always been interested in more “on the ground” creative solutions to big problems as opposed to staying in the theoretical “policy” realm.
That led to me just looking everywhere for sustainable clothing options, but not finding enough and not necessarily ones that I was really excited about either. I just remember thinking that if I can feel guilty about wearing something made in a sweatshop, I can probably feel amazing about wearing something made sustainably.
And that led you to Lazlo.
The line [LAZLO] started with 30 items that I sketched out, then I got it down to 7, and then I realized “I have no idea what I’m doing” so I decided to start out with a white t-shirt and said “we’re gonna take each piece and do it as well as possible.”
We just released a second line called “TBD” that’s mens and womens t-shirts and sweatshirts, still made here, still 100% American made, sustainability is still at the core of it, but we’ve taken out the “luxury” and simplified the construction to use – while still great – a lot less expensive fabrics. If Lazlo is “no holds barred,” doing absolutely everything we can without any thought regard to price, TBD is “how can we find a balance of quality and sustainability?”
So a temporary “sweet spot?”
We’re still learning like crazy. We’ll figure stuff out. *laughs*
What does the distribution look like for both lines? It sounds like Lazlo is something you’d have to discover then seek out, whereas TBD is going for a lower, more accessible “contemporary” price point.
Right now, Lazlo is selling in a store in Grand Rapids called A.K. Rikks. A year ago, they were named one of the 10 most influential menswear stores in the world. This year, I’ve been to stores in New York and L.A. and Stockholm and Copenhagen and Amsterdam and… A.K. Rikks is on par if not better than anything I’ve seen.
As for TBD, we’re keeping it online only. Moreso, if Lazlo is for the people that really care about what they wear, TBD is – we hope – the go-to for people who just want simple, sustainable apparel. I think minimalism – both as a design aesthetic and as a lifestyle – is only going to explode.
What are some of your inspirations behind these collections? Not just for the minimal clothing, but for the minimal lifestyle as well.
This is, I guess, a humblebrag in some ways, but this spring I won an award as one of the leading young innovators in the global garment industry. I got to go up to Copenhagen to the biggest sustainable fashion event in the world. Spending time in Copenhagen was like “ok, these are who we’re going after with Lazlo.” In a lot of Scandinavia, people aren’t buying flashy things, they’re buying quality. These timeless, simple, quality pieces with great stories.
There’s a lot of luxury fashion that’s going after massive logos, embroidery, like the kind of the stuff that Gucci’s doing right now. All those things that are super hot right now but in a few years are going to just look ridiculous. So, for us, it means staying away from the trendy, hype-driven fashion scene and really finding those regions and places that appreciate details.
I think Scandinavia and Japan are the parts of the world that I’m really interested in. I mean, I love Norse Projects. Then, visvim (from Japan) is probably one of my favorite – if not my favorite – brand.
I noticed the “Deconstructed” New Balances on the way in, so I figured you were all about the “pared back” aesthetic.
*laughs* Yeah, yeah, exactly. I’m a big fan of Today Clothing in Ann Arbor. It’s people like them [Kevin and Eric of Today Clothing] who’ve made this possible. I spend a lot of time in there just hanging out, asking questions, and I’ve just learned so much.
I’m a big fan of planning out what your purchases are for the next year. I’m like “okay, I need a great jacket. I’m gonna buy a timeless jacket so it doesn’t matter if it’s one season older. It’s more like looking ahead so I can get the few pieces that I’m very excited about instead of the trendy crap that I’m gonna wear a few times, then throw away.
It’s like fast food. Eventually, you’re gonna hit a point where it just doesn’t appeal to you. That’s how fast fashion has gotten to me.
I would say, in many ways, that’s the core of Lazlo: let’s make things that bring a lot of joy to people that get it. So, every time I put on this Lazlo t-shirt, I feel amazing. And I put it on every day.
*laughs* Not this exact shirt, though. I own more than one.
Going back to your point about networks within Michigan – A.K. Rikks in Grand Rapids, people like Kevin and Eric at Today Clothing – do you feel like being in Detroit, Michigan as opposed to Denmark, or Tokyo, or even New York has been more of a benefit or an opportunity cost for Lazlo?
It’s a mixed bag. One of the things that’s been huge is that it’s cheap enough here that we’ve had the time to get things right. Over two years into this, there’s now some pressure to build momentum, but we’ve been able to really dive into the craft in a way that perhaps we wouldn’t have within a city like New York or LA.
At the same time, the networks just aren’t here. I mean, the market’s just not as big, especially in a thing like luxury fashion. The Midwest in general doesn’t have the same emphasis as either of the coasts or Europe.
I’ve done a fair amount of travel this year which has been really, really helpful, but Detroit just has this energy about it. I don’t know whether we all just wanted to be here so we pretend that we feel it, or if it’s actually just that strong, but everyone is here for a reason.
So I recently talked to Shinola CEO Tom Lewand about the story of Detroit has helped their brand grow globally, and he mentioned that outside of North America, the Detroit brand just doesn’t really carry clout. As Lazlo looks to expand, how much of a focus are you placing on the story vs. the product itself?
We’ve said from Day One that product has to be good enough that it could sit on any shelf and people would buy it without knowing the story behind it. We haven’t figured it out, but we have been very conscious that people won’t buy Lazlo because it’s from Detroit, they’ll buy it because they love it. So Detroit’s a part of our story, the sustainability’s part of our story, but it’s gotta be about great products.
I think with this city, the potential is sky-high and the problems are sadly still a whole lot more prevalent than we think. You forget that the bad stuff is still very present and real.
But then, you get to bring people like Aaron along for the ride.
Oh yeah! And that’s wonderful. He’s got this amazing smile. *laughs*
So when we interviewed him for the first time, he was still in prison so we had to do it over Skype. He didn’t stop smiling the entire time. And we just knew. We were just like “this is the guy.” It’s great. He calls me out every time I come into work with not a lot of energy. I’ll just come in, and he’ll be like “where’s your energy at, boss?”
There’s four of us on the team right now – me, my sister, Aaron, and Catherine, who actually went to U of M. None of us have any experience working in a production fashion house or a factory, so we’ve been learning the fashion piece from scratch. It’s been a lot of fun.