It’s a picture-perfect Sunday in August and Carlos Sanchez—recently released from prison after twenty-four and a half years—has come to a warehouse loft in Brooklyn’s now-fashionable Navy Yard for a custom-made suit.
Bindle & Keep, a small but growing bespoke suit company, occupies an immaculate suite appointed with vintage chandeliers and long, darkly-polished wood tables in a converted industrial building. Company owner Daniel Friedman is working to provide pro-bono suits for clients of the Innocence Project, an organization that works to exonerate wrongfully convicted citizens.
Carlos Sanchez is one of those clients. Sanchez, who grew up in Suffolk County, Long Island and whose parents are from Ecuador, was convicted at age 17 for a homicide the Innocence Project is working to prove he didn’t commit. Sanchez was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. The Innocence Project helped secure Sanchez’s release in May, after he served just short of 25 years behind bars.
Karen Wolff, a social worker at the Innocence Project, has been a liaison to Friedman since his company began working with her clients last January. When she mentioned Bindle & Keep’s suit offer to Sanchez, he immediately said yes.
Friedman is mindful that the way a person inhabits their clothes has implications for their bearing in the world. “We dress how we feel, and it mirrors how we project ourselves,” he says before Sanchez arrives that afternoon. The Innocence Project clients he works with “not only get freedom back, we want to do what we can to help them get their self-respect back,” Friedman says. “To be able to walk and think: ‘I belong. I am somebody. I have a nice suit on. I don’t have to pretend.'”
Friedman sees a suit as a universal ticket into society. “When a person feels confident, the chances of getting a job are higher,” he says. Recent research on how business attire positively affects negotiating bears this out. By working with the Innocence Project, Friedman hopes to provide clients with that ticket.
Above all, says Friedman, “free men should feel like free men.”
When he first meets Friedman early in the afternoon, Sanchez appears nervous. This is not a space he’s familiar with. Still, when the two men sit down to talk, Sanchez opens up quickly. Before they go over any specifics about a suit fitting, Sanchez describes what has consumed his entire adult life: his incarceration.
Sanchez speaks slowly and deliberately. He seems appreciative not only of this opportunity to be fitted for a custom, high-end suit, but also to be listened to. He’s not quick to smile, but when he does his face softens to reveal a calm demeanor.
Sanchez describes his release just one hundred days ago, and a unique chance he was afforded during his last years in prison. Through a prison partnership with Bard, a small college in upstate New York, he was able to earn a Bachelor’s degree in Mathematics.
“Before prison, I would have never put myself in college,” he says. Sanchez’s graduation in January took place just one day after he learned he would be released. His family attended. It was a double celebration.
Sanchez’s pride is clear in the way he sits up straighter as he describes that accomplishment. But it alternates with residual anxiety–shifting uncomfortably in his seat–when he talks about being in prison more generally. The rigid prison schedule and his inability to sleep soundly through the night, ever-aware of the need to stay guarded against lurking danger from other prisoners or even prison workers, still disrupts his slumber.
Of being in Friedman’s shop, Sanchez says “Being here is an experience. I’ve never been measured for anything but a hem.”
“I know I’ve been limited,” he continues. “I want to experience as much as I can. Having a personal suit is not something you get in prison.”
Friedman pulls out binders full of fabric swatches to start the process. Inside are countless shades of gray and blue, among other colors, in every combination of solid, stripe, herringbone, and windowpane of different widths. Other binders hold swatches of brightly colored fabrics for a suit’s inner lining–including a number of loud paisleys that seem mismatched with the tamer outer fabrics. “Go crazy with the lining,” Friedman advises. “You’re the only one who will see it.”
More options accompany the shirts, also custom-sized for each client, including an array of whites that rival a collection of paint swatches in a hardware store. Then there’s the size and shape of the collar–french cuff or no?–and even the option to monogram.
For Sanchez, who spent decades in standard, shapeless prison-issue clothing, the number of choices is clearly overwhelming. He listens patiently as Friedman explains the pluses and minuses of various patterns and shades. Sanchez settles on a gray suit with a Prince of Wales pattern and a faint windowpane overlay, a vest of the same fabric, and a white shirt.
Meanwhile, Sanchez and Friedman chat about internships. A Math degree can provide a host of opportunities, including gigs in the financial industry. Maybe even a place like Goldman Sachs. Sanchez’s eyes widen as they talk through possibilities. Dreams expand slowly and cautiously after a life so completely constricted.
Sanchez stands before a wide, floor-length mirror so Friedman can begin measuring every part of his body, from bicep to inseam to ankle. Friedman is careful and focused as he directs Sanchez to stand in various poses. Every aspect of the suit will fit Sanchez’s body precisely–that is what bespoke clothing is about.
Sanchez came to the fitting in an over-sized shirt and too-long jeans that bunched at the bottom, making him look shorter than his slight, 5 foot 3 frame. “I want you to fill out the suit rather than drown in it,” Friedman explains as he wraps his measuring tape around Sanchez’s chest. “Think about how perfectly someone in military attire fits their clothing. That’s for a reason. It gives a sense of empowerment.” Sanchez listens. “I want you to feel your strongest.”
Bindle & Keep garnered widespread media attention a year ago when Lena Dunham produced the HBO documentary Suited, which portrayed the company’s work with trans clients. The film increased company business significantly, and it earned Bindle & Keep a reputation among the LGBT community as a safe space.
“We try to understand the nature of a person’s experience, their triggers and sensitivities, whatever they may be,” says Friedman, who himself is straight. “If a person feels like what would be called masculine on the inside and can’t find fitted clothing that affirms that, we try to provide something that aligns with that feeling.”
Earlier that day, Friedman had a fitting with a couple who had taken the train from Philadelphia. The two women were preparing for their September wedding, and one of them had chosen to wear a suit. They learned of the company by watching the documentary. But the company is about more than a single demographic.
Many companies, large and small, have causes to which they are committed. In this way, Bindle & Keep is not unique. They donate a suit every year to a silent auction at Planned Parenthood‘s fundraising gala. They have given to the American Heart Association. Friedman, who is Jewish, also donates to Keshet, an organization that works for LGBT equality and, in particular, inclusion in Jewish life. He started a scholarship at the school he attended growing up in Ohio. Those are just resources.
The company’s work with the Innocence Project is born of a more personal connection, and a philosophy that’s at the heart of Bindle & Keep. Friedman has never been imprisoned, wrongfully or otherwise. Still, Friedman knows a thing or two about misaligned trajectories, admittedly of a different sort.
While studying in the library at Columbia University to become an architect in 2008, Friedman suddenly lost his ability to read. He developed a chronic neurological condition due to lead poisoning as a child. His career as an architect ended before it began, forcing him to reevaluate his path. Profound depression and aimlessness followed. Over time, he began to notice he held another acute design sensitivity—to clothing. Friedman started Bindle & Keep in 2011.
A custom-made suit is not cheap. Bindle & Keep suits run at least $800 and can easily be more, depending on fabric and including items like a vest and shirt. In the end, Sanchez’s clothing is valued at $1,700. The company’s commitment to the Innocence Project is $25,000 worth of suits each year. Just as important, what Friedman gives is time. And he listens.
He and Sanchez develop a clear connection over the course of the afternoon. They laugh and talk comfortably. In the end, they spend almost four hours together.
Friedman recognizes how the daily challenges he faces since that fateful day almost a decade ago—functional illiteracy combined with chronic headaches, arthritis, photosensitivity, and fatigue—have deepened his empathy to other people who feel trapped in their bodies, whether by their gender assignment, their health, or by actual walls. As a small company, Bindle & Keep’s philanthropic efforts are limited. They give however they can. Friedman feels a interconnectedness with others who experience challenges–even challenges that, by his own opinion, are much greater–and his commitment to those people is in part a response to his own limitations.
Friedman is also a smart businessman. It takes chutzpah to start a business on your own from scratch in New York City, by any measure. And he has succeeded. The business is profitable, with revenue growing by more than 50% every year over the last since it opened. As a business owner, Friedman readily admits the bottom line is on his mind. Still, his philosophy extends beyond dollars and cents.
His attention and effort to serve underserved bodies has also served as a marketing technique–indeed, it is a major reason many people know about his company.”Serving everyone and making all people feel comfortable has obvious market potential,” he says.
Regarding recent efforts by some businesses to refuse LGBT customers on religious grounds, Friedman is circumspect. “Companies can’t afford to ostracize people,” he says. “And by excluding clients, you’re spreading hate. We’re all human and we all struggle on some level to feel good about ourselves. When there are parts of society actively trying to make you feel worse, anything we can do to buttress some of that is a worthy effort.”
“We don’t judge,” Friedman says. “Serving everybody is what companies should do. Make a point about it. It’s the good side of capitalism.”
“No one says on their deathbed–I wish I had hated more.”
Two days before Sanchez visited Bindle & Keep, he reconnected by phone with a fellow former inmate named Khalil Cumberbatch. Sanchez, who lives with his mother 50 miles away, is only in town for the afternoon. So Cumberbatch, who lives in New York, has come to meet him at Bindle & Keep.
It’s already late afternoon when Friedman and Sanchez complete the fitting and Cumberbatch walks in, though sunshine filtering in through the shop’s wall of windows still bathes the room with light. The two former inmates have not seen each other since Cumberbatch’s release seven years ago. They stand for a moment, frozen, facing each other, unsure how to react. “Do we hug?” one of them finally asks.
Friedman looks on with quiet countenance as the two other men begin to talk. Cumberbatch speaks with more assuredness than Sanchez–a confidence earned over time on the outside that Sanchez hasn’t yet had the opportunity to build. Cumberbatch is now associate vice president for Policy at the Fortune Society, an organization that helps people with incarceration histories rebuild their lives after prison.
While the two men talk, the topic of a wearing a suit comes up–why Sanchez is there to begin with–and Cumberbatch reflects. “When I’m wearing a suit and I see law enforcement, I’m not scared,” he realizes.
Sanchez nods. For him, after a lifetime spent locked in the legal system, wearing that kind of security may prove to be the most valuable experience his suit can offer.
Kevin Wood is a writer, editor, and education consultant. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.