Blend a sassy style with lots of cheekiness, and deeply rooted personal values, especially environmental sustainability, and you have the high-energy Kori Jock's La Vie en Orange, which turns T-shirts into hand-made underwear designed to make you happy.
Everyone today talks about recycling: plastics, glass, metal, compost, paper. But underwear?
Kori Jock tosses her head, her long brown hair flying, and lets out a long, delicious laugh. She laughs loudly and she laughs often.
La Vie en Orange
is Jock’s business of making recycled underwear, underwear she makes out of favorite old cotton T-shirts. That shirt you’ve been wearing since college, worn as your favorite pajamas, worn while doing yoga or jogging, worn around the house, suffered through stains and a thousand washes, maybe even used as a dust rag--now, in the hands of Kori Jock, can be reborn as your favorite pair of undies.
Jock has been sitting at a sewing machine since she was 4 years old, carrying on the seamstress tradition of her grandmother.
"She made underwear for my grandfather and my father," Jock says. "So it’s not so strange to make your own underwear in my family."
A native of the northern suburbs of Detroit, Jock first came to Kalamazoo as a student attending Western Michigan University to work on a fashion design degree in 2000. She fell in love with Kalamazoo, but then left Kalamazoo for Seattle--for another love.
"My story wingle-wangles," she acknowledges. She moved to Seattle after dating Zac Brownell long distance for a year. "And it was worth it. We got married. But I kind of hated Seattle. I hated the weather. I missed my family. I worked as a fundraiser for a nonprofit for four years. I loved the work, but I didn’t feel like myself there."
To feel herself, Jock needed to tap into her creative side, and she needed to do it in her social-justice-ecological-organic way.
"I was involved in the peace movement in my college years," she says. "I learned about social justice. Working with fashion, I was aware of how the New York fashion world tells people they should buy new clothes every three months. That didn’t go with my values."
During her own financial low points, Jock started to make her own underwear out of necessity. "In what I call my gypsy years, sometimes I had money and sometimes I didn’t, but I still needed underwear. Victoria Secret was too expensive, and you can’t return something if it doesn’t fit. I was an athlete in college, so I had a ba-gillion T-shirts, all cotton."
Snip, snip. Jock got busy. A bit of elastic, a few key measurements, and she had made underwear that fit perfectly. "No more wedgies!" She laughs.
Jock recalled that underwear nirvana years later, in Seattle, when she became frustrated with her lifestyle in a city that increasingly felt like a bad fit. By April 2010, after discussion with her husband about what they could and could not handle in financial risk, she cut loose from her job and began stitching up underwear again, and this time, not just for herself.
"I had experience in making custom wedding dresses, and I had worked in a factory making Halloween costumes, so I knew what to do," she says.
Her prior Halloween costume-making employer, in fact, donated commercial-quality sewing machines for Jock’s new undie endeavor.
"I learned the screening process, and I made pre-cut as well as custom-made underwear for my customers," Jock says.
Her bright colors and ecological message of using only cotton, only recycled T-shirts appealed to the late-20s and mid-30s demographic. As word-of-mouth spread, a 50s- and 60s-aged clientele found Jock, asking for a higher cut and a tailored fit hard to find in the prepackaged underwear in stores.
Jock called her new business La Vie en Orange after the French phrase, "la vie en rose," meaning to see life through rose-colored glasses. Instead of rose, she made it orange, her favorite color, expressing more sunshine and energy.
"One year in, I realized my hobby was turning into something serious," says Jock. "I had reached a point where I couldn’t grow the business without putting in more time, so we started talking about moving."
Jock and her husband returned to Michigan in July 2013, first to Detroit, closer to family. It didn’t take long to decide that didn’t feel like home, either.
"I remembered how much I loved Kalamazoo" from her college years, she says. "When we house-hunted, we looked for studio space where I could build my business."
By November 2013, the moving van had unloaded their belongings, plus five sewing machines, into a house on the east side of Kalamazoo. With her website, blog, and social media, Jock let Kalamazoo know she was back, and she was offering what she likes to call "a party in your pants."
Her message, she said, is that people don’t have to give up old clothing favorites. Bring your own T-shirts or pick from those Jock has collected. Use the designs on the shirts or choose a new print-screen design. "Someone with kidney stones got a pair with stones and a jackhammer." Jock laughs.
Her commitment to environmental sustainability is serious, though. "Fashion does impact the environment," she says. "All that cheap clothing people buy ends up in landfills. Consume, consume, consume, it’s just bad news."
Jock uses organic materials, including unbleached elastic. "My undies are $26 a pair, expensive, yes, but you know, the first pair I made all those years ago for myself? Still wearing them!"
Jock offers an underwear-a-month club, at $26 per month, for members who then receive a surprise undie, made to her measurements, each month for three, six, or twelve months.
"I’ve also worked with people with special sensitivities, and I’ve sold my undies at a table at the Gay Pride parade and for transgender people," she says. "Whatever your need, I can custom make it."
Wonder Woman and Michigan Mitten underwear have been her bestsellers. There's also her "Aunt Flo" line. She says every month this year has been her best. A mention in Redbook magazine this spring didn't hurt.
Jock is also proud of offering her customers a way to purchase underwear not made in sweat shops or by other unfair labor practices. "When we’re all doing better, we’re all doing better, that’s the idea. Most clothing you find in the mall is made in sweat shops, that’s why it’s so inexpensive. Here, it’s just me working in my basement."
Future plans are to include men’s underwear, too. "I’ve got clients with jealous husbands." Jock laughs.
For more information or to request a custom fit, contact Kori Jock at by emails, here
, or call 248.830.0843.
Zinta Aistars is creative director for Z Word, LLC, and editor of the literary magazine, The Smoking Poet. She lives on a farm in Hopkins.
Photos by Erik Holladay.