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This past August, Miguel Caballero shot his wife, Carolina Ballesteros, for the second time in nine years.
Since 1993, the Colombian designer has literally pulled the trigger on more than 230 people to prove the efficacy of his bulletproof clothing. (All participants were volunteers.) The August demonstration was part of Caballero’s campaign to introduce his eponymous line of upscale bulletproof (sometimes called bullet-resistant) apparel — ranging from blazers (4,343.50 euros) to tank tops (2,023 euros) — to the United States, his newest market.
When Caballero founded his company in his native Colombia in 1992, the country was teeming with gun violence and homicide due to the still-ongoing conflict among factions there. In fact, that summer, notorious Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar escaped from prison, ratcheting up public anxiety even more. It was a scary time to be alive, and Caballero started making armored backpacks and bullet-resistant Bible covers to help assuage the fears of his countrymen.
That was then. Homicides in Colombia have since declined, and Caballero — sometimes called the “Armored Armani” — turned his savvy eye to another country besieged by gun violence and grasping for a sense of security: the United States. Earlier this year, he opened a distribution center in Miami to sell his clothing line to wary Americans. His bulletproof apparel includes all levels of protection as standardized by the U.S. National Institute of Justice (NIJ): IIA, II, IIIA, III, and IV. (More on what those levels mean in a minute.)
He’s not alone. In the United States, body armor manufacturing is a $465 million-a-year industry, according to an August report from Market Research. And the global market for such wares is expected to be worth $5.7 billion by 2024, according to a 2016 study by Grandview Research.
Within this industry is a small but growing sector of manufacturers and retailers that, like Caballero, are proffering upscale bulletproof apparel that’s light-years beyond the standard bulletproof vest, both sartorially and functionally. From bespoke suits to safari jackets, the new breed of bulletproof clothing is comfortable and undetectable.
The NIJ sets the only nationally acceptable standards for body armor, ranked by level. According to the Justice Technology Information Center, a subsidiary of the NIJ, Level II body armor is tested to stop 9 mm and .40 S&W ammunition fired from short-barrel handguns (no rifle ammunition protection); Level IIA is tested to stop 9 mm and .357 Magnum ammunition fired from short-barrel handguns (no rifle ammunition protection); Level IIIA is tested to stop .357 SIG and .44 Magnum ammunition fired from longer-barrel handguns (no rifle ammunition protection); Level III is tested to stop 7.62 mm FMJ lead core rifle ammunition; and Level IV is tested to stop 30-caliber steel core armor-piercing rifle ammunition.
Abbas Haider, CEO and president of Aspetto Inc. in Fredericksburg, Virginia, claims to have been the first US purveyor of high-end bulletproof fashion. While Aspetto offers normal apparel and accessories, its best-seller is the bespoke Ballistic Suit Level IIIA ($5,000), comprising lightweight bullet-resistant panels. It can stop a bullet at point-blank range from most handguns and meets testing standards by the NIJ, DEA, and FBI.
Haider started his custom clothing brand in 2008 as a college freshman. As seniors, he and fellow student Robert Davis, now Aspetto’s chief operating officer, teamed up to create high-end bulletproof fashion as part of an international marketing class. The duo met with a ballistics producer and built a prototype suit. “Before we could even present our project to the class, we were already talking to some ‘three-letter’ agencies [e.g., CIA, FBI, NSA, etc.] who were interested in what we had developed,” he says. “After receiving an A on the project, Robert and I decided that we wanted to turn this into a real business and continue expanding on it. The typical body armor user is tired of not seeing any innovation in the industry for years.”
For others in the bulletproof apparel industry, their initial motivations to enter the marketplace were more emotionally charged. Damian Ross, owner of the Self Defense Company, which provides self-defense training, was spurred to action when a shooting took place in 2013 at Garden State Plaza in Paramus, New Jersey — a mall that he frequents with his family. “I realized I needed a real solution, and set to work on finding an affordable, effective, realistic solution,” he says. “Sure, I could avoid going to the mall altogether — there are certain times we don’t — but it’s just not pragmatic. So now, I just throw on my jacket and go.”
He’s referring to his Bodyguard Tactical Jacket, which comes in Street ($467) and Beast ($597) styles. The former provides Level IIA protection for everyday wear, and the latter offers Level IIIA protection for high-risk situations. Ross, who has 20 years of self-defense training experience, collaborated with Israeli military contractors to create the garment. “My goal has always been to help people fit self-defense into their everyday lives without having to commit to years of classes,” he says. “Unfortunately, no matter how hard you train, there are some impossible situations. So ballistic protection was the next logical evolution for self-defense.”
Ross notes that most people don’t realize that owning body armor, including bulletproof clothing, is fully legal and doesn’t require a special permit, waiting period, or background check. However, felons cannot legally purchase it, and some buying guidelines vary by state.
Yet another bulletproof apparel manufacturer and retailer, BulletBlocker, was born as a direct result of violence. After the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, Massachusetts resident Joe Curran feared that a similar tragedy might strike closer to home. “The safety of my two school-aged children motivated the creation of the bulletproof backpacks,” says the former Army ranger, deputy sheriff, and firearms instructor. He founded the company that same year and soon expanded to selling bulletproof clothing, such as the NIJ IIIA Bulletproof Leather Jacket ($875) and NIJ IIIA Bulletproof Classic Two Piece Suit ($1,200).
Clearly, judging by these price tags, bulletproof fashion doesn’t come cheap. So who are the customers lining up to purchase this stylish form of security? Hint: It’s not Joe Sixpack. Caballero counts world leaders from South America and the Middle East among his clients, as well as international business bigwigs. Haider says 85 percent of his business comes from government employees, including members of the Army, Department of State, Air Force, and Marine Corps. “There is a decent portion of commercial and private clients as well,” he says, “which includes foreign dignitaries, oil executives, and regular citizens looking for covert protection.” He estimates that half his customers are also gun owners.
Ross says his clients — who are mostly college-educated, professional males ranging in age from 34 to 75 years — are simply reading the writing on the wall. “They see what’s happening on the news, and, any time they’re in a crowd or an area that can be prone to attack, they are concerned.”
He guesses that many of his customers are gun owners, too, noting a correlation: “Gun owners accept the fact that they may have to use deadly force to protect their loved ones or themselves, and that most likely means facing an armed subject,” he says. “Logic dictates that, if you think someone is going to shoot at you, you should probably be wearing some protection.”
A quick perusal these companies’ offerings reveals that most bulletproof fashion is tailored to men. While Haider and Curran say they can and do accommodate women, Ross agrees that there’s a lack of options for females. Sizing is difficult because women’s bodies come in more shapes and sizes than men’s, he says: “It’s harder for us to fit a woman than a man because there are more variables, and the industry lacks the experience right now to mass-produce women’s ballistic protection.”
David Yamane, Ph.D., a sociology professor at Wake Forest University and an expert on US gun culture, thinks the reasoning behind this male skew is more deep-seated. “Historically, men have played the role of protectors in society as a whole, in communities and in families,” he says. “So, men are more likely to find themselves in harm’s way. They are more likely to be assaulted and killed in everyday criminal violence and more likely to occupy the positions of economic, political, or cultural power that would make them targets for extraordinary violence.”
As more and more bulletproof apparel retailers emerge across the country, it begs the question: Should we feel comforted by the supply of such protection or alarmed by the fact that there’s such a demand for it? Haider, somewhat surprisingly, leans toward the latter. “It is very unfortunate that we see more and more bulletproof fashion pop up across the country,” he says. “It means that the demand is rising. People don’t feel safe anymore in public gatherings, and it’s sad. Right after the Vegas shooting, we had so many hits on our website and so many inquiries. One request in particular sticks out: There was an older lady who called for a bullet-resistant sweatshirt because she did not feel comfortable going to the grocery store.”
Ross, once again, takes a pragmatic view: “People used to believe that violence only happened in the ‘poor section of town,’” he says. “Well, now, people are waking up to the fact that it happens everywhere — where you work, live, and play. Violence knows no socioeconomic boundary.”
Yamane says that bulletproof fashion is part and parcel of a growing mentality that individuals should be responsible for their personal safety: “The self-defense core of contemporary American gun culture heavily promotes the idea that you are your own first responder. Sayings like ‘I carry a gun because I can’t carry a cop’ and ‘When seconds count, police are just minutes away,’ reflect this sensibility.”
Bulletproof fashion shouldn’t necessarily be cause for alarm, he argues, because it’s just another contingency plan. “People understand that you can lower your risk of being a victim of violence by observing the ‘Rules of Stupid’: Don’t go stupid places with stupid people at stupid times and do stupid things,” he says. “However, even someone who follows these rules religiously can be victimized. This violence could be a random thug in a parking lot or a terrorist attack in a church. Although these events are low odds, they are high stakes or consequence, so some choose to prepare for the worst.”
Our sources agree that, over time, demand for bulletproof fashion will likely continue to rise, making it more mainstream. However, there are some caveats. Davis of Aspetto notes that its wares require a high degree of specialization to manufacture and that new producers may cut corners to exploit the trend. In addition, self-denial may remain an impediment to public acceptance of bulletproof fashion, Ross says: “There will always be the overwhelming majority that will deny that violence will happen to them. Wearing a bulletproof jacket reminds them that something bad might happen today, and most people are just too uncomfortable with that reality.”
Yamane, on the other hand, views the price of bulletproof fashion as the primary obstacle to growth, although he thinks that may change in time with technological advancements. “I can foresee the cost of some items coming down enough that a significant number of people would considering buying one or two,” he says. “But I don’t see them getting so cheap that most people have them. … When the costs come down to prêt-à-porter levels, it will probably settle at Saks or Neiman Marcus price points rather than Macy’s.”
But budget-conscious shoppers shouldn’t hold their breath for too long, he says: “It will never be at the H&M or Uniqlo level, though.”