Mark Denny went to prison when he was 16, for the robbery and gang rape of an 18-year old inside a Burger King in Brooklyn. He spent 30 years behind bars before he was exonerated, and the Innocence Project proved he wasn’t involved. “All the proof was right there, it was there that I was innocent,” Denny says. “But the prisoners, the guards, the judge and the jury, they’re so blinded by the awful crime that they don’t see innocence.”
A week after he was freed, Denny is in an upscale studio in Brooklyn, near the Navy Yard, picking fabrics and patterns and having his measurements taken. He’s looking through binders of fabric samples on a restored-looking table, surrounded by decidedly Brooklyn decor. The mismatched furniture and exposed brick and beams house Bindle & Keep, a bespoke suit-making service for people who face extraordinary hardship. For the first time in his life, 46-year-old Mark Denny is having a custom suit made.
Months later, Denny is in the studio again for his first fitting. His personal Bindle & Keep tailor retrieves it from a row of five heavily populated racks, and gives it to him. Denny walks into the change room in dark jeans, a camouflage shirt and a fitted hat and, when he reopens the floral curtain, he appears in a three-piece grey suit and a lavender button-down shirt. Studying his reflection in the mirror, he discusses a few adjustments, including shortening the jacket and tightening the legs, with his tailor.
The whole process takes about 30 minutes, and the pair schedules a meeting for the next week. Denny has a wedding and a gala coming up, and he’s excited to wear his custom suit. “It makes me feel important,” he says. “I’m having the time of my life.”
Bindle & Keep started working with the Innocence Project in late 2017, giving exonerees like Mark Denny bespoke suits free of charge. “The system that was designed to protect them, it failed them. And not only did it fail them, it hurt them and robbed them of their lives,” says the company’s founder, Daniel Friedman. “When I think about prison, one of the horrible things is you lose your sense of individuality, which is clothing. They’re wearing yellow, or green, or beige, maybe for the rest of their lives. And all of the sudden, they can come to us, and they can put a suit on. And they all say, ‘No one’s ever done this for me.’”
Daniel Friedman knows a thing or two about losing something. He was on track to be an architect, and a good one. Born in Toronto, he went to Montreal’s McGill University and the University of Michigan to get his bachelor’s degree, followed by an environmentally friendly design program in Arizona, and his master’s degree in architecture from Penn State. He then moved to New York, worked in project management and applied to Columbia to get a master’s in real estate development. And then, one day, his life changed. “All of this,” he says, “was a waste of time.”
“I got sick, yeah,” he says, the happy and excitable tone in his voice giving way to a melancholic one, quieting down into silence. “It changed everything.”
One day, while studying at Columbia, Friedman woke up and found that, in his sleep, he had lost the ability to read and write. The mysterious symptoms he had been experiencing—headaches, pain, weakness and nausea— had reached an ugly peak, and he still didn’t know what was affecting him. Architecture, obviously, was no longer an option. After spending months couch-surfing and struggling to make ends meet, Friedman realized he hadn’t lost his design eye, despite losing a lot of his reading ability. So, Bindle & Keep was born out of that struggle. “I had no choice, I had to eat. At the time I started the clothing business, I felt like I was giving up.”
But, that struggle is exactly what made Bindle & Keep into what it is today, a safe space for people who feel like outsiders in society. “I had to work around my own personal challenges to help thousands of people with their personal challenges,” Friedman says. He spent years not knowing what was debilitating him, but eventually learned that it was caused by lifelong exposure to lead—he was poisoned by a pair of shutters acquired at a garage sale. But, he firmly believes it led him to his true calling, suit-making. “It kind of fit together really nicely. This tragedy was really turned to fresh lemonade.”
Bindle & Keep became, in a sense, an overnight sensation when the New York Times published a review of the company in late 2013. They had spoken to Friedman and his business partner, Rae Tutera, several months before the piece was released. “I didn’t know about it until I woke up on Thanksgiving morning to about 300 e-mails in my inbox,” Friedman recalls. “I still haven’t gone through them all. But they were so amazing.” The e-mails, he says, came from all over the world. The people writing weren’t booking appointments, but thanking him for existing. “That’s when I realized that this is bigger than just us. We’ve tapped something.”
Until 2014, Bindle & Keep didn’t even have a studio. Friedman and Tutera were crossing the city, meeting clients in their homes, offices, and even their favorite bars. That changed in 2016, when they caught the attention of actress Lena Dunham. She, alongside HBO director Jason Benjamin (of Orange Is the New Black fame), produced a 2016 documentary about Bindle & Keep, called Suited. The documentary features members of the LGBTQ+ community having custom suits made for special occasions—weddings, bar mitzvahs, important career moments, and the like. Each has a story about coming to terms with their sexuality and gender identity, sharing their experiences with Friedman and Tutera like they would an old friend.
A 12-year-old, for example, flies to New York with his grandmother for a suit for his bar mitzvah. He was born a female, though, and his father doesn’t approve. He’s escorted by his grandmother, who cries at the sight of her grandson in a suit. Friedman, as a cisgender, straight Jewish man, provides a safe space, and his empathy is evident through the film. “What do we need a suit for? We generally need a suit for very conventional things,” he says later. “Weddings. Jobs. Interviews. We’re enabling people to enter these spaces. Clothing, and feeling good about one’s self, cuts through everything.”
The positive reactions to Friedman’s work spurred him to seek out other communities who felt marginalized, or disconnected from society. “After we made that film, I was like who else can we help? And I had this idea.”
His work with the Innocence Project, he says, is not about financial charity. Friedman recognizes that many of his wrongfully convicted clients have won lawsuits for several million dollars, and some are in the middle of legal proceedings that will likely award them large sums. For Friedman, it’s about giving a person his or her identity back. “When you’re incarcerated for 25, 30 years, you’re in a time capsule. You don’t know how to shop, you don’t know how to deal with choice. You don’t even know what individuality is. You don’t even know who you are on some level,” he says. “One guy got a pink suit. Why? He was like, fuck, I’ve been incarcerated for 25, 30 years—why not?”
Karen Wolff is a social worker at the Innocence Project who frequently works with Bindle & Keep. “The exonerees have stared in wonder at racks of finished suits and binders of fabrics, thread colors and monogram styles. They have made their own choices about what this completely lavish piece of clothing will look like, when only weeks or months before, they had been in prison, unable to make even the simple choices of when to eat, sleep and take a shower,” she says. “These suits have helped the exonerees who wear them feel special, spectacular and proud.”
One of the beneficiaries was Anthony Wright. Friedman made Wright’s first custom suit in May 2017, a year after he was exonerated for the murder of an elderly Philadelphia woman. Wright was just 20 when he was arrested, and spent 25 years in prison. But, listening to the newly free man talk, you’d never know he spent over half his life incarcerated, says Friedman. “I think I asked Tony Wright once, I said, ‘I don’t know how you can smile.’ And he said ‘every day is beautiful. Every day is a gift.’ He’s a happy person.”
“Spending that time with them, them getting to know me, me getting to know them—everybody there is great,” Wright says. The suit—a blue one, with a leopard pattern on the inside of the jacket, has since been deemed Wright’s lucky suit. He also wears it to most of his legal proceedings, as he continues to work towards a settlement. “I only wear it to special occasions,” he says. “I got a lot of compliments from a lot of people on it.”
At 17, Marty Tankleff was charged with the bludgeoning and stabbing murder of his parents. He came home to discover the brutal scene, and was immediately a suspect. In the interrogation, police officers told him that his father survived the attack, and identified Tankleff as the perpetrator. He believed his father wouldn’t lie, and that he might’ve blacked out while committing the crime. He acquiesced to a confession produced by police, though he never signed the document.
Truthfully, his father survived the attack, but never regained consciousness. He died from his injuries soon afterwards, and Tankleff was convicted of murdering both his parents. He served 17 years in prison until the charges were dropped in 2008.
“I would have killed myself 50 times over. I would have been like reset. Game over,” Friedman says. “You know when you’re playing Nintendo and it freezes and you’ve gotta reset it? That’s how I would look at it. But, you know, he’s happy, he’s married, he has a child. He has a wife who he adores. He’s just excited to be, and I think that’s really special, because we can learn a lot from that. With trauma, we are so resilient. We can get up and start a new life. We can learn a lot from people who suffered way more, but who can pick up and say no, life is beautiful.”
Friedman’s honesty and purity stuck out to Tankleff too. “I think we spent two hours just talking before we got to the suit. We started talking about the difference between donating a money and donating clothes. With the suit, there’s a personal connection,” Tankleff says. He chose a timeless look: a black suit with grey lining. Like Anthony Wright and Mark Denny, he feels like a suit is a protective armor from the world, making the wearer more confident. “So many of the convictions were about what the case was, and not about who the person was. With Daniel, he didn’t care what the charges were. He wanted to know who you are.”
Tankleff feels that bigger companies should take notes from Bindle & Keep. “Daniel is a small business and he gives thousands of a dollars a year of his product. For a major corporation, it’s not a big difference, but it makes an exoneree feel like a whole new person,” he says. “It’s a gift that somebody thought about and somebody gave a damn about. Daniel told me that if I didn’t like the suit, we’d find another one. He wanted to make sure I liked it, and he wanted to remind me that it was about me.”
Friedman collects stories of resilience and strength from all of his clients, spending hours talking to them and getting to know them through the fitting process. The idea of a safe space is a core component of Bindle & Keep’s services. The entrance is unmarked and the company’s address is unlisted to ensure privacy. “Our clients are coming to us because they’re taking control of a certain part of their lives that, until now, has been very hard to control, hard to manage,” Friedman says. “And now that they’re finally doing that, the last thing we want is not giving them our full attention, by having people constantly coming in off the street.”
Friedman isn’t only a tailor for the marginalized. For the small screen, Bindle & Keep dresses Paul Giamatti and Asia Kate Dillon on Billions, Sara Ramirez from Madam Secretary, and some characters on Transparent. They also have celebrity clients like Judd Apatow and Lena Dunham. The company has a lot of support, he says. “People want to go to companies that align with their life ethos, and their perspective.”
But, giving back remains Friedman’s main priority. “Instead of buying a Ferrari or a Porsche, we can help 50, 60, 70 people who really deserve it. And you know what? I get much more perspective on life listening to people who were incarcerated and who can smile and feel like their life has meaning, than driving around in a car that’s depreciated so people I don’t know might look at me for a second. My point is that all companies can do this. That they don’t is silly.”