Founder Christian Birky on a mission to change how clothing is made in Detroit and nationwide

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The average shopper might balk at the $108 price tag for a plain white T-shirt, but the Lazlo Heirloom is not your average plain white tee.

Before we get to the shirt, you have to meet the maker.

Christian Birky is a clean-cut 25-year-old with piercing gray eyes who hails from Glenn, Michigan, the type of small town with an elementary school of 26 kids. At age 10, Birky started an earth-friendly lawn service with his older sister. Instead of buying a polluting gas mower, he bought a pony named Clementine and hooked her up to a push reel mower, so the blades were driven by wheels. No gas. No pollution.

As an undergraduate student at Princeton University, he studied politics and wrote a thesis comparing American and Scandinavian prison policies. The undertaking bred his disappointment in the U.S. criminal justice system. A stint tutoring in a New Jersey prison deepened his belief.

“We’ve created this system that functions on anger and despair and does nothing to rehabilitate people,” says Birky, in his second-floor Ponyride shop.

“(I was) hit with the idea that essentially these guys had no idea whether they were going to get an interview, let alone a job, when they got out,” says Birky, in his second-floor Ponyride shop.

Around this time, Birky became interested in men’s fashion, yet the textile industry — the second-most polluting industry — stood for everything he was against. “I had a closet made almost entirely by child slaves in developing countries,” he says, “and there was this absolute disconnect between the way that I’m dressing and the way that I’m trying to live my life.”

In 2013, Birky returned to Michigan, lured by Detroit.

“There was a movement and a creative energy and a community that I thought would really be something exciting to be a part of,” he says. He then discovered the Michigan Department of Corrections was training men in prison to sew, and Birky saw an opportunity to blend his two passions.

“They were of course thrilled,” he says, “because not many companies approach the Department of Corrections and say, ‘Hey, we’d love to hire. ... We want guys you feel are ready to get out and thrive.’ ”

With the department on board, Birky pulled in his childhood business partner — his sister, Kathryn — and hired Kristen Ham as a production manager and technical designer to perfect his vision of a premium, organic T-shirt.

A Kickstarter crowd-funding campaign in 2015 netted $30,748, and another $90,000 came from private funding. Lazlo was ready to launch. The name comes from Birky’s favorite movie “Casablanca.” “Victor Laszlo (leader of the rebellion against the Nazis) was the dapper, daring, epitome of a gentleman who represents really everything that we hope the company stands for,” Birky says.

Production started in February with Aaron Branch as the first formerly incarcerated employee. The 46-year-old Detroiter loops white ear buds under his black Carhartt hat listening to R&B artist Tamia as he sews.

“I was just fortunate that he was there for me,” Branch says, referring to Birky. “He gave me an opportunity, and I’m taking it.”

In prison, Branch sewed an assortment of pillowcases, sheets, duffel bags and aprons. He reached parole in September, and the Department of Corrections told Birky: “This is our best sewer.”

“We’re trying to get away from some of the stigma that comes with coming out of prison and say, ‘Look, these are guys who are incredibly hard working. If you give them a shot, they will take it,’ ” says Birky, adding that success for him isn’t about hiring hundreds of men once behind bars. “It’s us being part of the process of breaking down that stigma.”

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Lazlo founder Christian Birky hires former convicts to sew high-end T-shirts. Daniel Mears, The Detroit News

Doing everything by hand — including dipping fabric in a natural dye bath to make indigo shirts — the crew completes about 10 shirts a day. They plan to ramp up production when they can afford to hire more sewers.

Paying $15 an hour, Birky won’t trade a lower wage for more workers. “I wouldn’t sleep at night if I wasn’t paying someone enough that they could live on,” he says.

For now, the Heirloom sold online to affluent shoppers is the focus, but a sweatshirt is on Birky’s mind as well as a more affordable product line.

Ultimately, Birky wants Lazlo to be a clothing model that retailers in Detroit and nationwide replicate.

“The goal is to push the boundaries of what we’re capable of. This isn’t about a T-shirt. This is about a business model that says, ‘The way that we consume is broken. The way that we produce is broken. What’s an alternative that works for the communities that we’re in?’ ”

The coming months will show if the Lazlo model is feasible, or just a dream.

“I love risk. I moved to Detroit, young, single and debt-free,” Birky says, “and this is really a place and time in my life to try something a little bit crazy. And I don’t think this is crazy. I think it’s going to work.”

ssteinberg@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2156

Twitter: @Steph_Steinberg

Lazlo

Started: 2014

Employees: 4

Founder: Christian Birky

Website: www.lazlo.co/

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