Christian Birky, founder of sustainable clothing line Lazlo, on his lifelong dream of becoming an entrepreneurial activist
Christian Birky’s first business venture began at 10 years old, spending his Michigan summers mowing lawns. He noticed the environmentally hazardous effects of lawnmowers and, with his family’s support, sought out lawn mower alternatives. Birky landed on rotary lawn mowers, as well as ponies to pull them.
Even at such a young age, Birky saw ways to improve the world around him.
Birky, now 26 years old, is the founder of Lazlo, a sustainable clothing line that hires recently incarcerated men to sew its classic t-shirts.
The idea for Lazlo sparked during his studies at Princeton, where he was modeling in school fashion shows and studying politics.
“I realized there was a total disconnect between how I was dressing and how I was trying to live,” says Birky. “I became interested in how I dress and how it impacted the way others saw me. I wasn’t dressing sustainably, and I was surprised by how few sustainable offerings there were.”
So Birky asked himself the question, “What do I really want to wear and what are my options?”
Seemingly unrelated at the time, Birky was also tutoring prisoners during the fall of 2011, his junior year at Princeton.
“It was very clear that whatever they did in prison, it was going to be a very hard time finding a job,” says Birky. He felt that the prisoners he worked with just needed someone to give them a chance. “We’re not really doing anything special. We’re just opening the door to many people who’ve had the door slammed in their face. It isn’t charity—we’re doing it because it’s a great way to build a strong company.”
Moving back to Michigan after graduation, Birky found even more inspiration in the city of Detroit.
“I think it’s a perfect place to try and do something different,” says Birky. “It’s a city that attracts people who don’t think like everyone else. People work hard, and it’s a great place to be if you have a vision.”
Given his appreciation of fashion and deep interest in activism, a sustainable clothing line seemed like a no brainer. In Michigan alone, there are five prisons where they teach inmates to sew. Birky knew he needed to start something simple in order for him to do it great, so he focused on the one piece of clothing every man, especially himself, cared about and needed: a t-shirt.
“I wanted to start with what I would wear myself,” says Birky. “I wanted to focus on a garment that would get me most excited, and that I was capable of making. After all, I don’t have a design or fashion background.”
The Lazlo t-shirt is truly one of the most intentionally sustainable items of clothing on the market. Made with domestically-sourced organic cotton, each shirt is dipped in dye and sewn by hand. Therefore, no two Lazlo t-shirts are exactly alike. Given the work involved, these shirts don’t come without their price—they cost between $110 and $160 to purchase. The price, however, is offset by their lifetime guarantee.
Another project currently in the works is a second, more affordable brand called TBD, which will feature men’s and women’s t-shirts and sweatshirts, ranging for $36 to $50.
“We all think we’re going to be overnight successes and that just doesn’t happen,” says Birky, on what has surprised him the most as an entrepreneur. “Those overnight successes are working for years and years before their moment in the spotlight. But try not to think about it too much, try not to be a perfectionist. You can recover from a lot more mistakes that you think.”