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How one T-shirt is giving former inmates a second chance

One brother-and-sister duo in Detroit is launching a high-quality clothing line that’s guaranteed for life. But the collection of men’s basics — starting with a must-have heirloom T-shirt — is making a statement that's about much more than fashion. The socially and economically conscious brand will be made by former inmates of a Detroit prison.

Courtesy of LAZLO

Christian Lazlo, the brand’s co-founder who studied prison policy at Princeton, spoke with TODAY.com about this project, his decision to keep the entire production within the U.S., and what inspired him to employ former inmates.

What makes your T-shirt different from other men’s shirts on the market? You say it lasts forever?

The name "Heirloom Tee" reflects my goal of making clothing that I will be able to hand down to my future kids. Our singular attention on our first product allows us to closely examine the entire life cycle. From the quality and sustainability of our raw materials to the repairs and dyeing services we offer, every part of the Heirloom Tee reflects a commitment to timeless products.

You say "Made in the USA" is one of your core vaules. Can you elaborate?


Our all-American supply chain and local production reduces carbon emissions from transportation and supports living wage jobs here in the U.S. Our organic Supima® cotton is grown by American farmers in the Southwest. Supima cotton represents the top 3 percent of the American crop, and just 1 percent of that is organic. Nearly all of the organic Supima cotton is spun in Switzerland (as was our test run), but we’ve found a company that will spin our next run in the U.S. We are working with a fabric mill in Los Angeles, which is where our custom jersey is produced.

Courtesy of LAZLO

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We intentionally chose to set up our cut-and-sew production here in Detroit, the heart of American manufacturing. There is a clear demand for products that are made in the USA; we see this as an opportunity to build on the American legacy of quality manufacturing and integrate sustainability into this identity.

What made you decide to hire former inmates? Do they have previous training in sewing or is this a skill your team will provide courses on?

I tutored in a prison during my senior year at Princeton, and over and over aging I met me who shared their apprehension about finding employment after release. The research I came across while writing my thesis on prison policy backed up their concerns. It became clear how vital it is for the health of our communities that men returning from prison have access to quality jobs.

I was exploring the possibility of a sustainable apparel brand when I learned that the Michigan Department of Corrections had set up programs in state prisons where they train inmates to sew and employ them in garment factories. A win-win opportunity emerged: Lazlo could hire experienced sewers and a disadvantaged population would have meaningful employment. We are working closely with the DOC to hire men from these facilities upon release. Lazlo employees will be supported with wraparound services through our nonprofit partners and get paid a living wage.

Where can people learn more about Lazlo and support your efforts?

We have one day left on our campaign and every contribution helps support American manufacturing and a sustainable economy! Learn more and spread the word at: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/355062884/the-heirloom-tee-by-lazlo

Follow Mary on Twitter and Instagram @marypeffer.

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