Several years ago, I was finishing up my senior thesis on prison policy and preparing to graduate from Princeton with a degree in politics. My research was inspired by time spent tutoring in a New Jersey prison, where interacting with inmates had increased my awareness of the injustices within the American prison system.
It is safe to say that starting a menswear company was the furthest thing from my mind when I agreed to model in a sustainable fashion show. However, I was frustrated by the limited menswear offerings; I started looking for clothing I wanted to wear, made in a way that I wanted to support. Soon after, a garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed and killed over a thousand workers, shedding light on industry abuse overseas.
While I was working towards social and environmental causes, I had a closet filled with clothing that had been made by exploiting workers and the environment. Surely there was a better way.
I had been seeking creative solutions since a young age, when my sister and I founded a lawn service using a pony-pulled mower after learning about mower emissions. I had gone on to work abroad—in post-war Liberia with disabled civil war victims, and in Mexico with former President Vicente Fox’s program to empower rural youth.
The pieces began to come full circle when I noticed the consequences of fast fashion here at home in the heart of American manufacturing, which was trapped in a cycle of poverty and incarceration after industries chased cheap labor overseas.
I knew from my thesis and from speaking to inmates that the challenge after incarceration is finding employment.
All of this sparked an idea about how I could generate American jobs while producing high-quality sustainable clothing.
Lazlo offers casual menswear staples that are meant to be worn year after year. Our contemporary designs combine timeless style with an unwavering commitment to ethics. We develop the highest quality organic fabrics, sourced from American farmers, and handsew our products in Detroit. Everything from the fabric to the packaging is Made in the USA.
Here are a few highlights since raising our first Kiva Zip loan 12 months ago:
– We worked with a local sewing contractor to produce and ship our first run of Heirloom Tees.
– We launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to help set up production.
– We built out our cut and sew facility at Ponyride in Detroit, doing much of the labor ourselves.
– We hosted an international natural dyeing expert in Detroit help set up our indigo dye house.
– We hired a production manager and our first employee from the prison sewing program.
– Finally, we paid back our first loan ahead of schedule
We are developing local infrastructure that will facilitate a sustainable and equitable apparel industry. Not only does the current globalized system of production rely on the exploitation of workers and the environment, but the infrastructure for a sustainable local industry has been destroyed–now just 2-3% of the apparel worn in the US is made here.
As the US outsourced manufacturing jobs, unemployment and crime escalated, coinciding with the introduction of harsher sentencing policies. To interrupt a cycle of poverty and recidivism, Lazlo is working with the Michigan Department of Corrections to hire men who were trained to sew while in prison. We are creating living-wage jobs and providing wraparound services to a marginalized population. In return, we are drawing on a trained workforce to bring garment manufacturing back to the United States.
During an interview this fall with our first employee, John*, he couldn’t stop smiling. He was close to completing a 20-year sentence in prison. John had spent 18 months working in a prison garment factory, sewing jumpsuits and straitjackets. We are starting John off at $15/hr (compared to the $.60 he made in prison). Not only is he a key part of our sewing team, he’s still always smiling and he just completed his first college class with a perfect 4.0 GPA. Even more impressively, he had never worked on a computer before this September–and the class was online!
The US now has 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of its prisoners. Perhaps no city was hit harder than Detroit, where prospects of economic mobility remain bleak, especially for residents with criminal records. Lazlo aims to serve as a model for a workforce successfully integrating formerly incarcerated men.
In order to create more jobs and develop a sustainable garment ecosystem, we need to expand our line and production.
This $10,000 Kiva loan will be applied toward:
 $6,000 for wages for our sewing machine operators
 $4,000 for developing new products, including ordering new custom fabric. (Hint: a sweatshirt just as comfortable as our tee is in the works)
It is unusual and costly for a new brand to develop a custom fabric, but for Lazlo it affirms our commitment to quality, sustainability and domestic sourcing. We use extra-long staple Supima® cotton, which represents the top 3% of the US cotton crop, and only 1% of Supima is organic. We were told we were on a wild goose chase to find organic Supima, but we were able to form partnerships with a leading yarn spinner and a mill in LA.
*Name changed for privacy.