When Christian Birky couldn’t find a T-shirt he wanted to wear that was actually made in a way he wanted to support, he decided to make his own. Two dozen prototypes later, he and his business partner–his sister Kathryn–are ready to launch what they consider the perfect men’s T-shirt. The Heirloom Tee is made from a custom organic fabric in Detroit and guaranteed to last for a lifetime.
“If disposable fast fashion made by exploiting workers and the environment is at one end of the spectrum, it is our goal to push as far as we can in the opposite direction,” the designers write on their Kickstarter page, where they’re trying to raise the final funds for their first round of production at their startup, called Lazlo.
Made from extra-long-staple organic cotton grown in the U.S. and spun in Switzerland, the shirt is sewn to last. “Getting the construction right means balancing longevity with simplicity,” Birky says. “It would be easy to overbuild the shirt in the name of durability, but that wouldn’t fit with our minimal aesthetic. Instead, we used high-quality thread and selected stitches with plenty of flexibility and reinforcement where necessary.”
The shirt is designed to “mold to your body over time like your favorite denim,” Birky says, and the startup wants people to embrace the worn-in look. But if the T-shirt rips or gets a hole, you can send it back for free repair or replacement.
They even have a brilliant solution for stains: You can send a stain-covered shirt in and have it hand-dyed with indigo until it turns a deep, denim-like blue. “White shirts have a particular affinity for red wine and grease, but we didn’t want that to be the end of the line,” Birky says.
The simple design, which they landed on after a year and a half of tweaking a classic T-shirt, is also intended to outlive any trends. Over time, the startup plans to roll out more classic pieces. “A crew neck tee doesn’t need to be reinvented every season: we want to put in the work to get it right and then move on,” Birky says. “We are developing a French terry fabric to use in a crew neck sweatshirt, and after that, denim.”
Lazlo plans to work with former inmates who were trained to sew in Michigan’s prisons. Around 3,000 former inmates move back to Detroit each year and struggle to find jobs. Lazlo will pay them each a minimum of $15 an hour.
“We’re entering a watershed moment for criminal justice reform, and a key part of that is addressing the lack of access to quality jobs for returning citizens,” says Birky, who wrote his thesis at Princeton on prison policy. “We recognized a mutually beneficial opportunity to hire experienced sewers who would otherwise face tremendous barriers to find employment. This is a step towards economic freedom and stability when compared to the volatile minimum wage jobs that are often the only option for returning citizens.”