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Doing Something Different: an interview with Christian Birky, Creative Director of Lazlo

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Doing Something Different: an interview with Christian Birky, Creative Director of Lazlo

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.’”

Lazlo founder Christian Birky (photo: Courtney Evans)

Lazlo founder Christian Birky (photo: Courtney Evans)

              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.  

 

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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.

photo: Courtney Evans

photo: Courtney Evans

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.

photo: Courtney Evans

photo: Courtney Evans

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.

 

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Global Warming Is The Opposite of Fire Emoji

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Global Warming Is The Opposite of Fire Emoji

This week’s featured outfit: monochrome layers, technical sportswear, and the Y-3 Sport Approach Boost. I built this outfit entirely around the shoes, choosing DYNE’s spacer fabric sweats to play up the performance angle of the Y-3’s, then filling in the rest with whatever color-matched layers fit the weather. But, considering it’s yet another week of 45 degree sun, the term “layers” is deceivingly plural: a t-shirt under a parka is hardly the frostbitten survivalist image brought to mind by the phrase “Michigan February.”

Arc'teryx / Taobao / DYNE / Y-3 / TNF / TNF (photo:  Derrick Lui ) 

Arc'teryx / Taobao / DYNE / Y-3 / TNF / TNF (photo: Derrick Lui

As if rising sea levels and agricultural destabilization weren’t bad enough, this winter’s warped weather has hammered home global warming’s insidious threat of all: if global temperatures continue to rise, layering is over.

That’s right – over. Done. Melted away.

Arc'teryx / Taobao / DYNE / Y-3 / TNF / TNF (photo:  Derrick Lui ) 

Arc'teryx / Taobao / DYNE / Y-3 / TNF / TNF (photo: Derrick Lui

Considering how much of winter fashion layering comprises, a future defined by climate change is at risk of being supremely whack. Layering has quite literally evolved to create alphets both warm enough and #fire enough for sub-zero temperatures. Now, after 100,000 years of humans solving “these clothes aren’t warm enough” with “I’ll put other clothes on top,” the very notion of winter being significantly cold is facing extinction. With that, goes layering.

I’ll give you a second to process. If you need it, oxygen masks have deployed throughout the cabin.

Arc'teryx / Taobao / DYNE / Y-3 / TNF / TNF (photo:  Derrick Lui ) 

Arc'teryx / Taobao / DYNE / Y-3 / TNF / TNF (photo: Derrick Lui

A 2 degree rise in global temperatures doesn’t just put coral and ozone on the chopping block – more tragically, it threatens flannel and Primaloft. At sample size n = 3 (where “n” = “winters where friends have un-ironically laid out tanning”), the human race faces a statistically-significant probability of inheriting a world without casual jackets.

I shudder to think what meager remains my children’s children could flex on the ‘gram.

Arc'teryx / Taobao / DYNE / Y-3 / TNF / TNF (photo:  Derrick Lui ) 

Arc'teryx / Taobao / DYNE / Y-3 / TNF / TNF (photo: Derrick Lui

Alas, there’s an upshot: by and large, Western societies are finally realizing the effects of their destructive processes. Despite the election of some vocal climate change deniers, the needle is moving towards the majority accepting that we must change.

Facetious fashion voice aside, this is a good thing. The first step to solving any problem is group consensus that a problem exists. Together, we can make progress towards repairing the damage we caused. If we don’t, our grandkids will only experience fire layers through textbooks. So please, for the kids: watch the Thermostat. Climate change means the end of layering as we know it – and global warming is just not fire emoji.   

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Ask Me About My Weatherproofing

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Ask Me About My Weatherproofing

This week’s featured outfit: layers, coatings, and the Nike x ACRONYM Air Presto. I spent a day last week poking around some underground spots on my campus, then went straight outside into freezing temps without even shedding a layer. Versatile? It’s no Jabrill, but it’s close.

Thrift / Arc'teryx / The North Face / Nike ACG / Nike x ACRNM 

Thrift / Arc'teryx / The North Face / Nike ACG / Nike x ACRNM 

With my techwear wardrobe finally on solid footing, dressing my favorite winter style has never come so easily. When storm clouds gather, I now have an arsenal of pieces ready to mix and match – a veritable technical cocoon, no matter the conditions.

Now if only someone would ask me about my weatherproofing.

Just once. Something simple, like “why is the rain beading up on your pants?” or “are you dressed in all black so snowflakes won’t see you?” Questions like these aren’t just natural human interest – they’re borderline polite.

Imagine the scenario: us at a bus stop. You, dressed reasonably; me, a walking shadow with neon ninja slippers. For our purposes, this bus stop has no cover. It is a pole in the ground.

Nike x ACRNM Air Presto Mid

Nike x ACRNM Air Presto Mid

Also, there’s a blizzard.

In this realistic and easily-envisioned case, I am unfazed by the elements. Behind layers of DWR and down insulation, not even the Lake Effect could – well, faze me. Snow cascades off; water beads up; the wind itself whispers “hard pass.”

Thrift / Arc'teryx / The North Face / Nike ACG / Nike x ACRNM

Thrift / Arc'teryx / The North Face / Nike ACG / Nike x ACRNM

Would you not be even the slightest bit curious?

I like to think we all would be. Next time you’re waiting for public transit (or wading through a Polar Vortex) and see someone dressed in techwear, just ask them one simple question: “How weatherproof are you, bro?”

The answer: never too impermeable for a new friend.  

 

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2017 Detroit Auto Show - Day 1: Luxury, Fashion, and Spectacle

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2017 Detroit Auto Show - Day 1: Luxury, Fashion, and Spectacle

This article was originally published Tuesday, January 10 on SHEIMagazine.com

 

Luxury, in all forms, is defined by the emotion it stirs. If Louis Vuitton didn’t provoke grandeur, their bags would be mere leather and twine – and raw materials aren’t worth two months’ rent.

The same holds doubly true for cars. After all, this isn’t just two months’ rent we’re talking about: if you want a customer to spend north of six figures when a used Camry would do just fine, only aesthetic pleasure will overcome cold, hard rationality.  

When it comes to the business of luxury cars, the automotive world has evolved to borrow tactics from the fashion industry in order to stir emotion on a seismic scale. When done right, this apparel-automotive crossover doesn’t just move the audience; it immerses them. At this year’s 2017 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, MI, three automakers combined the best of both fashion presentation and luxury car prestige to create truly spectacular emotional experiences.

 

Mercedes-Benz

Photo by  Benji Bear

Photo by Benji Bear

Mercedes-Benz doesn’t just borrow from the fashion industry – it creates it. The world’s oldest luxury car brand has long sponsored Fashion Weeks around the world, lending both its capital and its unshakable image to runways from Australia to Berlin. It’s no surprise, then, that the German brand knows how to create spectacle.

At this year’s Auto Show, Mercedes opened with a bang: an 8-piece jazz ensemble caught the beat, and the show began. Like any proper catwalk, a parade of shapes, colors, and designs soon followed. Mercedes showed four vehicles in total, ranging from the gregarious GLA45 AMG (a hatchback with a spoiler!) to the altruistic Concept EQ (an all-electric SUV!), the athletic E-Class Coupe (athletic commuter!) to the beautiful-if-objectively-terrifying AMG GT C Edition 50 (550hp supercar! Exclamation point!).

Photo by  Benji Bear

Photo by Benji Bear

One by one, some of the most gorgeous vehicles on the planet took the stage before retreating behind the curtain. Then, after each had curtsied, all four took the stage for a grand finale. All the while, the band played on.

Photo by  Benji Bear

Photo by Benji Bear

Compared to its other Teutonic contemporaries, Mercedes stood out because it didn’t just show – it entertained. Thanks to CAD software and robotic manufacturing, having beautiful cars alone has (thankfully) become table stakes for the premium market. What matters then becomes the intangibles those cars symbolize: the image, the lifestyle, the ownership experience. Just as Burberry engages its customers with varied collections that fill every need in their life with a desirable, iconic brand, so does Mercedes. Just change the scarf for a turbo.      

 

Cadillac

Photo by  Benji Bear

Photo by Benji Bear

As an established sponsor of New York Fashion Week, it’s no surprise that a resurgent Cadillac eagerly embraces the values of the fashion world. This year, America’s luxury brand stole the show with a front-and-center feature of the Escala concept car. Positioned directly in front of the hall’s main entrance, the Cadillac booth rises like an iceberg, a massive video wall draped in stark white replete with light hardwood accents. Levitating above the water line is Escala: a sleek, grey, architectural four-door with lines as stunning as they are few.

While “put the thing on the stage” is hardly innovative, Cadillac’s Escala wows thanks to the elegance and confidence of its presentation. Like an Armani Privé show, Cadillac’s latest concept doesn’t lean on bright colors or bawdy showmanship to get its point across. Instead, it stands on stage alone: bold, sharp, a testament to the skill of its designers. It is, in many ways, automotive couture. The Escala shines because of – not in spite of – its understatement.

Still need convincing? Check out 3000 more words below.

Photo by  Benji Bear

Photo by Benji Bear

Photo by  Benji Bear

Photo by Benji Bear

Photo by  Benji Bear

Photo by Benji Bear

 

Lexus

Photo by  Benji Bear

Photo by Benji Bear

To many suburban families, Lexus and luxury are synonyms. The very phrase “Lexus crossover” evokes an image of comfort and affluence that comes with mid-life security: whiz-bang interiors, school carpools, designer handbag. When Toyota launched the Lexus brand at the 1989 Detroit show with the first-ever Lexus LS 400, it was a competitor brand with a mission to win over these same luxury customers. Over the three decades since, Lexus has catapulted up the sales charts by sycophantically focusing on the values it has come to symbolize: innovation, function, and unyielding luxury.

So, when it came time for Lexus to launch the newest generation of their flagship LS sedan, they simply returned to their roots.

“Simply.”

Photo by  Benji Bear

Photo by Benji Bear

Just like the designer handbag on the arm of that same Lexus persona, the only proper way for a luxury brand to refresh an icon is through sheer spectacle. Lexus’ 2017 Detroit show was no exception.

With all the might (and budget) of the Toyota Motor Corp, Lexus constructed a light-and-sound experience for the ages. Bass boomed; strings swelled; a jet black catwalk straight out of Milan Fashion Week bisected the speechless audience. After a brief speech telling the history of Lexus LS, the theater plunged into darkness before a sinister orange glow crept across a 180° video screen.

Suddenly, the room was crackled and hissed – a ring of fire flashed across the screens as smoke filled the air by the stage. On screen, a faceless figure forged flame into fenders. From these molten strokes, a shape formed: the iconic Lexus spindle grill. From this grill, came a body; and from this body, came the molten silhouette of the all-new Lexus LS. Then, silence.

For all the crowd knew, the fire on the screen was real: judging by their breathless awe, the oxygen in the room must’ve burned away.

Finally, with the room approaching vacuum, a single shape pierced the thermobaric silence: from the back, up a ramp, and down the catwalk, drove the world premiere 2018 Lexus LS.

Photo by  Benji Bear

Photo by Benji Bear

Stunned gasps became camera shutters, and once more, the room was aglow.

Photo by  Benji Bear

Photo by Benji Bear

Fashion critics may pan spectacle without purpose, yet when done well (and for a deserving-enough occasion), there is nothing like it. Fendi’s recent show on Trevi Fountain comes to mind: an iconic luxury brand celebrating the city that made it an icon with an experience not soon forgotten by those lucky enough to attend.

Photo by  Benji Bear

Photo by Benji Bear

While Lexus had to forge its own environment from a convention center floor, the effect was felt all the same. And, considering the significant role Detroit has played in catalyzing Lexus’ U.S. growth, it’s safe to say the Motor City was the ideal venue for such an effect.

Photo by  Benji Bear

Photo by Benji Bear

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In an era of “Autopilot” modes and ride-sharing apps, it is more essential than ever for luxury car makers to stir emotion. Considering the fashion industry’s historic ability to create aesthetic experience, it’s no wonder that luxury brands like Cadillac, Mercedes-Benz, and Lexus align with some of fashion’s most awe-inspiring tactics to create breathtaking experiences.

The result? Art in motion, both on stage and off.

 

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Capital Investment

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Capital Investment

One year ago, this website was a scribble in a notebook. Next to "blog?" lay sketches, to-do's, and anything else I could put on paper to take my mind off Intro to Accounting. Looking back on those scribbles, 2016 has been an exercise in realization - from sketches to photos, ideas to words, I've tried to define myself by pulling the intangible out of the clouds and making it real.

Before I get all "myth of Prometheus," it's important to note that 1) I'm still new to all of this and 2) I'm still learning more every single day. By all accounts, I'm just a kid with some hobbies and a blog. However, thanks to you - you, the reader, the wearer, the supporter - that crusade towards making took its next step.

My new baby: a Nikon D5300 w/ 18-55mm lens.

My new baby: a Nikon D5300 w/ 18-55mm lens.

This November, I made my first investment into... well, me. That same Intro to Accounting class taught me that an enterprise applying earned funds back into itself for the purpose of further growth is called "capital investment." Purchasing a DSLR with money earned through my creative ventures, then, is as close as I'll get. 

I've got a long ways to go before I take objectively good photos (that "learning more every day" bit), but for now, I'm damn proud. Below are some photos from my first week of playing with the camera. If you have DSLR experience, feel free to comment and criticize. Otherwise, thank you - the reader, the wearer, the supporter - for propelling me here. 

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Today as always, thank you for reading.

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THE PLAYBOOK: Adrian Wilson on a Better College Football Playoff

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THE PLAYBOOK: Adrian Wilson on a Better College Football Playoff

On this week's edition of THE PLAYBOOK (a new biweekly publication by Greats Brand), NFL star and 5-time Pro Bowler Adrian Wilson sits down with us to talk sports. On the third anniversary of the College Football Playoff, has the system lived up to expectations? In Adrian's mind, there's still room for improvement. Check out the full piece at the link here.

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A 3-Shoe Rotation for Simple, Happy Living

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A 3-Shoe Rotation for Simple, Happy Living

There is beauty in subtraction. While I own an embarrassing amount of shoes, a recent round of exams forced me to confront an inconvenient truth: I really only wear a few pairs. In fact, when the going really got rough (library til 2am, 8am project, repeat), my rotation slipped to a mere 3 pairs.

As a perpetually-overscheduled college student, this newfound embrace of the straight and efficient spelled one thing: a better, simpler life. Knowing that I would throw on one of a mere handful meant certainty, versatility, and more time to focus on what really matters. In other words: it made me feel just a little bit happier.

Not like this is a new thesis. Marie Kondo’s seminal book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” preached the benefits of paring down to remove clutter from one’s life, both physically and mentally. The book, published in October 2014, has since become so popular that it even inspired a TV pilot. It was impossible to miss. For a text about scaling down, “Tidying Up” punched well above its weight.

While I first read about the powers of a “de-clutter” over two years ago today, Kondo’s lessons only became meaningful for me once I experienced them. Realizing these benefits, especially within a context I care about, has motivated me to pass them along to you.

In an era of fast fashion and “always-on” shopping, a return to minimalism – not just in style, but in the way we consume – may just be the path to a happier life. Here’s the simple 3-shoe rotation that made it happen for me.

1. The Minimal Low-Top

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It’s only fitting that an article about paring down your wardrobe should start with a pared-down shoe. Five days out of seven, a minimal low-top sneaker (in my case, the Greats Royale) wouldn’t just augment my outfit – it would honestly improve it. Everything from a cotton button-up to ripped jeans and t-shirts works with minimal low-tops. Simply put, they’re the cornerstone of a simpler shoe rotation.

Sure, they’re not the most expressive (or even modern) shoes in the world, but minimal low-tops do more than splash color across your feet. They state your values. By choosing simpler sneakers, you’re taking the emphasis off what’s often the flashiest part of an outfit in favor of understatement and details done right - and that’s before you even choose a color/material.

Personally, I think the world’s best minimal low tops come in stark white leather, but if your personal style leans away from “all neutral everything,” consider something like that colored suede or even a heavily-textured canvas. For example, Vans makes some awesome if unconventional (but really cool) denim sneakers that retain their simplicity, even with a flair.

 

2. The High-Tech Trainer

The ideal 3-shoe rotation covers all your bases in style. Therefore, our next choice boldly goes where simple, minimal low-tops just simply can’t venture. For street style, athleisure outfits, or even simply long walks, high-tech trainers bridge athletic innovation and aesthetic grace to create truly versatile sneakers.

In addition, shoes with advanced materials and design features applied to simple, causal outfits breathe new life into basic pieces. Styling a white tee and black jeans with Nike Flyknit Racers signals a complete 180 from the vibe created by the minimal low-tops from before. In most cases, the cure to “I-have-nothing-to-wear syndrome” is a small tweak with a big effect.

As for recommendations: go big or go home. In 2016, the adidas Ultra Boost and the Nike Flyknit Racer represent the pinnacle of the tech/style crossover. While most mass market running shoes (ex. Nike Free Flyknitadidas Boston) will “check the box” for looks, these niche models punch well above their price tag and are well worth the extra effort to find.   

 

3. The Personal Statement

After two rational picks, our third and final shoe is less about reason and more about you. Throughout “Tidying-Up,” Marie Kondo repeatedly recommends evaluating your possessions on one simple criteria: whether or not they bring you joy. The things you own should make you objectively happy, Kondo argues – otherwise, they’re likely just rationalized clutter. With Kondo’s advice and my Business Law midterm fresh in mind, my third and final recommendation is to impulse buy: your 3-shoe rotation needs one sneaker makes you childishly excited.

Don’t think too hard choosing this. In fact, don’t think at all. Scan your closet for the pair you look forward to wearing, then seize the day.

Does that pair only go with a few outfits? Great. Wear them on days you couldn't otherwise. Shoes #1 and #2 will handle the other 364.

Does that pair seem silly? Awesome. Embrace silliness. Don’t wear it to your Goldman interview, but off the clock, the world needs more good people with silly on their minds.

Does that pair bring you joy? If you answered “no” to the two questions above but “yes” to this one, there’s your pair. We’re all unique individuals defined by our differences. While a minimal 3-shoe rotation can add happiness into each of our lives with the right wardrobe staples as foundations, never forget to leave room for self-expression.

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My personal statement pair is the Nike x ACRONYM Air Presto. Or, in English, neon yellow ninja shoes that I wear as good luck for midterms. They’re a radical departure from my white leather minimal low-tops and monochrome high-tech trainers, but I think they’re 0 degrees Kelvin (ice cold), and so, I look forward to wearing them every chance I can.

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Dr. Seuss said it best: “There is no one alive who is Youer than You.” This simple 3-shoe rotation will help you realize your best self, both through the clutter you remove from your life and the joyous objects that remain a part of it.

Thanks for reading.

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Self-Loathing Ninja Slippers

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Self-Loathing Ninja Slippers

This week's featured outfit: technical athleisure and the Nike x ACRONYM Air Presto. I pared down the rest of the look to draw attention to the shoes, but made sure to choose pieces with tech detailing (minimal branding, matte neutrals, synthetic fabrics) to play up the context created by the ultra-functional Prestos. The result is somewhere between Arc'teryx and Nike Pro Combat: functional credo, fashion execution, and overall one of my favorite new looks. 

Photo credit: Kristen Eisenhauer

Photo credit: Kristen Eisenhauer

The techwear nerd in me wants to use these DYNE Tech Chinos as a foundation to go full GORE-TEX ninja, but every ounce of that Deus Ex internal monologue ends the moment I look down.

I'll put it bluntly: for ninja shoes, the ACRONYM Presto is awful at not being seen. 

Photo credit: Kristen Eisenhauer

Photo credit: Kristen Eisenhauer

That's not a bad thing - I actually think the "Neon" colorway rocks. Of this season's three Nike x ACRONYM colorways, this one is undoubtedly the icon. In fact, I'd go so far as to say it's objectively one of the strongest Presto colorways ever dropped. Ever since Common Projects started the #whitesneakertrend close to a decade ago, there's been a disturbing lack of risktaking in footwear. Most major collabs are now popular silhouettes decked out in Switzerland-level neutrals, then labeled as valuable due to a "limited release" rather than deriving value from their design merits alone.

Egregious examples include the Livestock Samba, which is - wait for it - a black adidas Samba.

In this context, the Nike x ACRONYM Presto is a breath of fresh air: bold, daring, and still supremely wearable. Paired with these DYNE Linus Sweats, it's a tech-inspired casual shoe rather than a Blade Runner prop. That being said, the shoe sings against all black: the iridescent contrast colors shine like a solar flare against skin-covering neutral pieces, and with a plethora of white/black details to break up the lava lamp toebox, look like deliberate complements rather than a gasoline spill. In short: they look sweet. 

Photo credit: Kristen Eisenhauer

Photo credit: Kristen Eisenhauer

Which is good. Since you'll be seeing them a lot. 

Seriously. Dressing in all black then strapping into biomorphic mid-tops does feel unquestionably cool, but every now and again, you catch a flash of pink/yellow as you reach down to check your texts. In these brief moments, you grapple regret: the realization sinks in that the limited release you proxy shipped from Germany is a triathlete nun away from Nike's UNLIMITED colorway, and suddenly, you're just a nerdy dude who bought zip-up ninja shoes.

Limited edition zip-up shoes. 

That are visible at night.

You're just a nerdy dude who bought useless ninja shoes.

Photo credit: Kristen Eisenhauer

Photo credit: Kristen Eisenhauer

But hey, once the self-loathing subsides, you've got a Nike x ACRONYM Air Presto! And that's not nothing. In fact, in a year saturated by Yeezy drops and yet another "luxury" Air Max, it's one of the best sneaker releases of 2016. Stay tuned for a full review coming soon. But until then, thanks for reading.

 

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Why Sneakers?

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Why Sneakers?

10,000 years in the future, I will ruin an archaeology PhD.

Beneath layers of sediment and a few dozen boxes of No Thai, plucky young researchers will discover my bedroom, and in an instant, all their thesis work about Anthropocene males will crumble. So much for Class of 12016.

The heartache stems not from the room itself, but what it contains. Between fossilized textbooks and the laundry I put off doing for 10,000 years straight, the researchers discover shoes. Not just shoes – sneakers. Not just sneakers – but dozens of sneaker boxes, stacked into corners and closets, their contents nestled safely inside.

“I thought this era’s Millennials only bought experiences!” scream the researchers, their hours in the library evaporating under the weight of my conspicuous consumption.

So they’ll rant. And they’ll rave. They’ll exhale once in exasperation. And after a frustrating pace around the room, they’ll ask the same question that friends, teachers, and ex-girlfriends’ parents had all asked me over 10,000 years in the past: “Why sneakers?”

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While some long-time readers may know the story behind my love affair with sneakers, the vast majority of my friends and classmates either a) don’t know or b) don’t care. Regardless of either group’s size (like a class with a Ross curve, most are B’s), I’m not being hubristic when I say that most notice my predilection with athletic footwear. My laptop is covered in Nike stickers. This blog’s largest topic is sneakers. For the first two weeks of my Junior year, I wore a different pair every day and was only called out in two club GroupMe’s.

In other words: I’m not subtle.

But like those disgruntled archaeologists, let’s return to our central thesis: why sneakers?

For me, sneakers are a synthesis. There’s a grand irony to the fact that something I step on represents my self-concept, but follow me on this one: no other object class combines art, design, performance, utility, and cutting-edge tech quite as elegantly a sneaker.

Just think about all the mind-bending design work that went into making an Olympic-level 8oz knit marathon flat – and past that, what considerations were taken to make that performance look good.

Distracting? Sure. Superfluous? Maybe. Unnecessary? Not quite. After all, even NASA had a style guide. This tension of functional form isn’t contradictory; and in many ways, it’s at the core of who we are. While individual personality traits themselves define consistent behaviors, there’s no Newtonian law stating that bundles of traits remain consistent. Even the great Walt Whitman, in his seminal poem “Song of Myself,” broached the idea that human beings are built to be complex:

 

“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself/

I am large, I contain multitudes”

 

 

So here I am: runner/writer; comedian/economist; designer/A- in Financial Accounting.

A bundle of contradictions, with sneakers at every turn.

I’m a lifelong endurance athlete who appreciates relentless function – hence, Flyknit Racers. I’m also a voracious cultural consumer who follows Instagrams dedicated to what artists are wearing – hence, SFB’s. In addition, I’m a business student at one of the world’s top public universities who appreciates entrepreneurial spirit and novel ventures – hence, Greats Royales.

Wearing and owning these diverse pairs amplifies every part of who I am by letting me quite literally put my own unique footprint on the world. Even better, I can look good doing it.

So, to that future archaeologist: here’s why sneakers.

I love sneakers because no single object genre grants true self-expression the way they do, since no single object could ever hope to capture all the sides of my personality quite like them. Throughout time and space, human beings have derived identity from (and will likely continue to love) seeing their traits amplified by what they consume. For me, that’s sneakers.

Sure, relatability is a cop out answer, but it’s only a cliché because relatability drives decisions. It did, after all, drive the decision to fill my bedroom with the stacks of boxes that just disproved your dissertation.

And really, sorry about that - if you need help rebounding, there are Air Jordans under the bed.

   

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Guest Post: Derin Özen Photography

Guest Post: Derin Özen Photography

As the second installment in the ongoing "photography feature" series, we'll today be highlighting the work of my friend (and fellow Wolverine) Derin Özen. Derin is a rising junior at the University of Michigan studying Industrial Engineering. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, writing, and playing music, especially guitar and piano. Oh yeah - and he also takes some seriously beautiful photos. 

Derin is originally from Istanbul, Turkey, and has traveled all over both the Old World and the New. His life, travels, and the people he meets are captured in his work, presenting an expansive and yet uniquely personal visual diary. Out of thousands of shots from every corner of the globe, he chose his 23 favorites to present here today.

Without further ado, the photography of Derin Özen: 

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A special thank you once again to Derin Özen for providing the images for today's feature! If you're interested in more of his work, follow Derin on Instagram (@derinozen1995) or reach out to him on Facebook

 

International Running Day with Nike+ Run Club, NYC

International Running Day with Nike+ Run Club, NYC

This Wednesday, I celebrated International Running Day in proper fashion with the New York City Nike+ Run Club. Hundreds of New York athletes took part, meeting at the NYC Niketown store on 57th St/5th Ave before heading over to Central Park to group then run.

Seeing so many people so excited for a sport that I love was honestly overwhelming. For my MRun friends, imagine your first day walking to the CCRB steps, feeling slightly out of place but certain that you were meant to be there. Just triple the size, put in an unfamiliar place, and then add in a former Olympian with a megaphone segmenting runs by pace.

I wasn't kidding about the "hundreds of people" - I'm in the far back about one third of the way in from the left side of the group.

I wasn't kidding about the "hundreds of people" - I'm in the far back about one third of the way in from the left side of the group.

Sensory overload? Sure. Intimidating? You bet. But being part of one of the biggest group runs in the country on International Running Day was all worth it.

In an attempt to both rep my school and start conversations with strangers, I wore my MRun gear to the club. Since I was running the 3 mile (old habits die hard), I went out with the fastest pace group and felt oddly proud moving with the Block M on my chest. If I'm going to be "Leaders and Best", a 12:00 pace just wouldn't cut it - even if I was sucking wind with the NYC elite runners who pushed the pace with me. The chorus of "Go Blue's" that followed me down the avenues of Midtown Manhattan made it all worth it.

The only picture of me from the day where my shirt is visible. This pose was appropriately mocked in the Club Track GroupMe.

The only picture of me from the day where my shirt is visible. This pose was appropriately mocked in the Club Track GroupMe.

And of course, the best perk of a running with a club sponsored by one of the biggest companies on Earth: free food and water at the finish line. Thanks to Nike+ Run Club (especially Justin and Felix from Niketown NYC) for hosting this awesome event! I'll be back for more.

 

My Sophomore Fashion Yearbook

My Sophomore Fashion Yearbook

When I first got into fashion around 2012, I very quickly discovered that I was a visual learner. I spent months trolling forums, trying desperately to learn vague style “rules” through what amounted to rote memorization. And, like a 16 year old with a learner’s permit, the moment I put wheels to road and tried to dress myself, all of that book learning went out window. I just didn’t know it yet.

About a year into my fashion journey, I discovered StyleForum and /r/MaleFashionAdvice’s recurring community outfit submissions. These posts allowed community members to theoretically receive feedback on their fashion choices – perfect for someone like me who desired to learn, but couldn’t do so in isolation. In reality, these threads were ways for the Internet’s best dressed to show off their personal style. To put it lightly, that teen driver had unwittingly entered a NASCAR race. In retrospect, it’s probably a good thing I didn’t know that.

With only my book knowledge behind me, I started photographing my own outfits to post to those weekly threads. I had intentionally put together in an attempt to show off how well I had memorized style rules. After all, these were the communities that had bestowed these rules upon the eager student before them! Surely, I would be embraced.

The results were predictable: I was ripped to shreds.

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It was friendly, sure; but it only meant those racecars hitting me had bumpers. For weeks in a row, I was downvoted to oblivion and received more “helpful hints” than I could count. Looking back, they were all deserved: I didn’t have any idea what a color palette was. I didn’t know how a button-down should fit. Don’t even get me started on shoe choice (my Polo Ralph Lauren-branded Vans knockoffs were a particular punching bag). What had started as an exercise in showmanship had ended in an ego bruising for the ages.  

That’s not to say I walked away – if anything, I posted more. Closing myself to feedback would deny any potential improvement, and after all, I was there to learn. Over the next year, I’d post whenever I could, using a homemade tripod and an iPhone timer to photograph how I applied each successive week’s worth of constructive criticism. My patience paid off: gradually, the comments turned from correction to suggestion, and soon, I was a contributing member of the community.

By then, daily fashion photography had become a habit. Like brushing my teeth and washing my face, it’s just a part of the morning routine: wake up, eat breakfast, get dressed, set up the tripod, shoot, then go. Whenever I’m particularly happy with an outfit, I’ll submit it to one of the featured outfit threads just to share what I’ve been into. That’s not to say I’m done learning – I just don’t approach the routine as necessity anymore. Previously, weeks of outfit photos were a series of rocks I could scale to summit some nebulous “well-executed personal style” mountain. Now, I do it because I’m content with my style and like to share it with others.

While I started the daily photos intending to develop my personal style, they had another distinctly visual result worthy of its own recognition: through my efforts, I had unknowingly charted my own fashion evolution. Across the hundreds of similar photos laid out in front of me, patterns emerged. It was a personal fashion yearbook that, with the slightest inspection, become an anthology. Within years, clothing followed the ebbs and flows of the seasons; between years, my own changing tastes and awareness of nuance set the tone. I didn’t post this completed collection to any weekly forum threads. Looking over these photos all at once felt both nostalgic and immediately present – like I was about to create a future I would capture on film for a moment, then permanently consign to the past.  

Plus, it was cool to watch my sneaker game improve.

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So why did I share all that? Because thanks to a serious tripod/phone upgrade and the help of some talented photographer friends (Kristen Eisenhauer, Stephanie Rakestraw, Tina Yu, and Christina Oh), I finally have a fashion evolution worth sharing. In the gallery below are close to 100 photos from this year, starting in August 2015 and ending in May 2016. I’ve included some photos to gauge the weather, but hopefully the same ebbs and flows described above will inform the progression and provide that same “a-ha” moment described above.

As the years go by, I’d like to produce similar collections for my third and fourth years at Michigan in hopes of recapturing that “anthology” feeling I had so long ago. But that’s a project for another time, and besides, I only just started calling myself a Junior.

That anthology moment may have to wait, but it doesn’t mean we can’t start the process. For now, I’m proud to present:

My Sophomore Fashion Yearbook.