Sewing Self-Employment


Sewing Self-Employment

Christian Birky is the founder of Lazlo located in Detroit, Michigan. Lazlo is designing menswear essentials and hiring returning citizens to manufacture them in Detroit. From developing the best possible products and implementing sustainable business practices, to creating jobs for marginalized workers, every decision is focused on developing a profitable model for clothing as a force for social change. Christian was awarded an NASE Growth Grant in December 2015 and we look forward to his continued success at Lazlo.

When and why did you join the NASE?
I joined the NASE in early 2015 on the advice of my parents, who are self-employed and have been members of the NASE for years. My sister and Lazlo co-founder Kathryn was actually named the 2007 NASE Future Entrepreneur for a business we started together as kids, and here we are almost a decade later with Lazlo. 
What inspired you to enter the field you are in?

As American industries chased cheap labor overseas in the late 1900s, unemployment and poverty led to increased crime. Combined with the implementation of “tough on crime” measures, the US now has 5% of the world's population, but 25% of its prisoners. Poor, undereducated and minority urban men are disproportionately incarcerated. Returning citizens often lack basic job skills, and nearly 50% are illiterate. Up to 60% of returning citizens do not have jobs a year after release. Not surprisingly, 50% end up back behind bars with three years of release.

Meanwhile, fast fashion is based on ever-increasing consumption: overseas factories churn out poor quality garments designed to be worn only a few times. The garment industry relies on exploitative working conditions to keep prices low, leading to tragedies like the 2013 garment factory collapse in Bangladesh that killed over 1000 workers. The textile industry is also the second most polluting in the world, behind oil.

When and why did you start your business?
I hold an undergraduate degree in politics from Princeton University, where I wrote my thesis on American prison policy and spent time tutoring in a prison. That, combined with a brief foray into modeling, prompted me to begin working on Lazlo after graduating in 2013.

What challenges have you faced in your business?
One challenge was our search for a domestically produced organic jersey that would allow us to back our t-shirts for life. We sampled fabrics from mills around the country; unsatisfied, we realized that we were going to have to build a custom fabric. We learned that Supima® cotton was the highest quality, but that the vast majority of the organic Supima goes over to the European market. A mill told us we were on a wild goose chase to try to get our hands on organic Supima, especially as a new brand. Nevertheless, we were able to build a relationship with a mill in LA. The owner bought into our vision for sustainable, high-quality products, and he picked up the phone and convinced the Swiss yarn spinner to work with us on a small run. We didn’t feel great about shipping fabric across the Atlantic Ocean and back, but because we believed strongly that quality is a key factor in sustainability, we were willing to prioritize access to the best yarn spinners and best fibers. We also knew that our next production run would be large enough to be spun at a sister company in Georgia, which would reduce transportation emissions.

How do you market your business?
We haven’t done a serious push for publicity yet, as we have been focused on building out our space and getting production off the ground. That said, we have a presence on social media and we network as much as possible. We’ve learned the value of sharing the story behind our products, and that’s gotten a positive reception.

Do you have any employees?
We hired our first two full-time sewers this winter. During an interview last fall with our first employee, Aaron, he couldn’t stop smiling. He was close to completing a 22-year sentence in prison, and he had spent the past 18 months in a prison garment factory, sewing guard uniforms and straitjackets. This program has led to a win-win situation; Lazlo can access experienced sewers, and a marginalized population becomes an asset. We are starting Aaron off at $15 per hour (compared to the $.30 he made in prison), enough for him to move to a stable neighborhood and begin taking college classes.

What's your schedule like, what's a typical day for you?
Our cut and sew facility is based in a creative incubator in our neighborhood, so I bike to work in the mornings and work on anything from product development to meeting with clients about contract manufacturing to drafting content for publication.

What’s the best thing about being self-employed?
To me, the best part about being self-employed is the freedom to work outside established norms and take risks to facilitate change in an industry that has a status quo of exploiting workers and the environment.

What’s the best compliment you’ve ever received from a client?
We have received many compliments, especially for our vision “The shirt fits me like a tailored suit. Please don't change it... My only issue with the shirt is that I don't have a closetful.”

What’s the most important piece of advice you would give to someone starting their own business?
Tell your own story. As consumers, we are looking for alternatives to the faceless brands that dominate the market, so give us a reason to get excited about supporting you.


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