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A sturdy guy walked down the runway wearing a red button-down, slacks, a suit vest, and a bunch of leather harnesses. He stopped at the end of the platform, pivoting from left to right to show off the fake firearms attached to his body: on the left strap of his shoulder holster, in a pouch on the right, on his thigh, over the back of his waistband.
Onlookers broke out in laughter as he flipped up the front of his vest to reveal another gun tucked into his belt, and when he bent down and pulled up his pant leg to unveil one more gun attached to his ankle, the crowd went wild. It was perfect physical comedy, the bit that improbably keeps going.
On Friday, the National Rifle Association held its first-ever fashion show in a ballroom at the Wisconsin Center in Milwaukee, a long brick building with a roof like sea glass. The evening was all about concealed carry accessories, which are designed to hold firearms securely on the body and out of plain view. Amateur models, many wearing their own designs, showed off items like a corset holster worn under a running jacket, a wide hip holster threaded through a belt, and leather purses with ambidextrous side pockets to provide quick access to a gun.
Those in attendance were mostly middle-aged men and women dressed casually in sneakers, jeans, cargo shorts, and T-shirts. They paid close attention to the runway throughout the show, which ran for over half an hour. A gray-haired man in the front row wearing a baseball cap and glasses periodically noted to his seatmates that a gun was “printing,” or showing through the fabric.
It’s hard to say how many members of the audience were also carrying guns, but a majority were NRA members. They had come to Milwaukee for the NRA’s inaugural Carry Guard Expo, a weekend of seminars and demos focused on the topic of carrying a gun outside the home, restrictions for which vary dramatically between states. A handful of protesters showed up on the second day of the expo carrying signs that said “Repeal the Second Amendment” and “Sensible Gun Laws Now,” but for the most part, the scene outside the Wisconsin Center was calm.
While states like California require that residents be approved for a concealed carry weapon license before taking their (hidden) guns out in public, others, like Idaho, allow for open carry and concealed carry without a permit, as long as that person is of age (18 years old outside city limits, 21 within). Because gun laws aren’t uniform across the country, the NRA is supporting legislation that would let individuals’ concealed carry weapon licenses transfer between states.
Gun sales climbed during the Obama administration but dropped off significantly after the election last November, presumably because of President Trump’s gun-friendly stance. Trump, who took $30 million in campaign donations from the NRA, appeared at the lobbying organization’s annual convention in April, telling the audience: “You have a true friend and champion in the White House.”
Though gun makers like Smith & Wesson, Windham Weaponry, and Glock had booths on the expansive expo floor, many of the brands had set up shop to promote other things you might buy if you own a gun: trauma kits, cleaning supplies, knives, furniture with secret compartments, and a lot of clothing and accessories.
When asked how the concealed carry accessories market has changed in recent years, numerous attendees said they’d seen marked growth in the diversity and quality of products made for women. It would be a stretch to say that there was something for every woman’s personal style at the expo, but it covered a lot of ground. There were club-appropriate clutches, pebbled leather backpacks with sleek gold hardware, sporty nylon satchels, tooled leather holsters, and, from a unisex brand called Supertool, minimal leather cases that might appeal to an Everlane shopper.
“We actually had a feminine line that had a patent leather, Chanel-type look, and we were getting a lot of negative feedback,” says Supertool co-founder Niko Cangemi. “They were like, ‘We’re not prissy women, we don’t need things that look like they’re for women.’”
The growing number of concealed carry accessories options for women comes after a rise in the number of women participating in shooting sports and purchasing firearms. The reason most expo attendees, particularly women, gave for buying and carrying a gun was protecting themselves and their families. Two women had been stalked. Two more were worried about reports of crime in their hometowns.
Amanda Suffecool, the director of Realize Firearms Awareness Coalition and an emcee at the NRA fashion show, believes that as the number of women buying guns has grown, gun manufacturers have gotten more serious about creating weapons with women in mind. What used to be a “shrink it and pink it” approach to marketing has become more thoughtful design. The same, she says, is true of accessories.
Suffecool has organized multiple concealed carry fashion shows in the past, including one featured in Viceland’s documentary series States of Undress. She’s about to release a book/DVD set giving practical tips for staging one, titled Your Guide to Produce a Concealed Carry Fashion Show. In her estimation, the concealed carry accessories market is far from maturity, and though there are a lot of players, no one company is dominating the scene.
“It’s such a fast-paced market right now that nothing’s settled in,” Suffecool says. “It’s not like you can go to Macy’s and say, okay, I can get everything I want. But I think that’s coming.”
For women looking to buy concealed carry accessories, online shopping is still the most comprehensive way to find something that suits their needs and style. (Asked where she found the Can Can Concealment corset she wears, a purple-haired expo attendee named Danielle Zimmerman replied simply: “Pinterest.”) Male-dominated and -owned gun stores often have just a few products geared toward women, and for items that require stocking a wide range of sizes, like holster corsets, they may have samples on hand so women can check them out and then place custom orders.
Vinci Firenze, a concealed carry handbag brand that launched at the NRA Carry Guard Expo, is requiring a wholesale minimum of just five bags per color to lower the barrier to entry for gun store owners. It picked up five retailers on its first day out. The brand is also seeding its $599 handbags with shooting trainers, who can use them to teach their students how to draw from concealment.
Vinci Firenze sits at the higher end of the concealed carry accessories market, as does Designer Concealed Carry, which has a line priced from $279 to $349 and a premium collection that begins at $899 and stretches to $4,000 for crocodile and ostrich styles. Because luxury shoppers are used to having options, Kate Woolstenhulme, the founder of Designer Concealed Carry, is starting to take on custom orders for women who want their bags in specific colors.
“They can’t just put their handgun in their Hermès or Louis,” says Woolstenhulme.
A study published in 2014 by epidemiologists at UC San Francisco found that people with a gun in their home or available to them were twice as likely to be killed by a firearm, and women were nearly three times as likely to die by homicide. Last year, a report from the Violence Policy Center found that concealed carry permit holders were responsible for at least 898 deaths not involving self defense between 2007 and 2016.
Within the concealed carry market, there is a splitting-off between consumers who want their concealed carry accessories to look as unassuming as possible, truly allowing them to carry a gun undetected, and those whose style signals that there is a good chance they’re armed.
That’s tactical clothing, which was originally worn by members of the military and the police force but has found an audience with everyday people, hikers, and preppers. It’s durable and flexible, with extra pouches and pockets for medical supplies and ammunition.
“It’s about being ready for whatever may come your way. That’s the tactical mindset,” says Marshall Smith, the director of trade shows and events at 5.11 Tactical.
5.11 Tactical had one of the larger booths at the NRA Carry Guard Expo, and a number of attendees referenced it as an established player in the space. The company’s signature 5.11 pant — which has helpful design elements like cargo and chalk pockets and a D ring for carabiners — was created by the rock climber Royal Robbins.
Today, the backbone of 5.11 Tactical’s business is selling uniforms to law enforcement officers, firefighters, and EMTs. (The FBI National Academy issues 5.11 pants to trainees.) Anyone can purchase clothing from 5.11 Tactical, and for some civilians, that military association is part of the appeal, even to the point of it becoming something of a joke. Over decade ago, the word “tacticool” started being tossed around to describe people who just wear tactical pieces for the look of it.
“They’re trying to project a military style,” says Jesse Bran, a sales account manager at Explorer Bags, of people buying tactical apparel for everyday wear. “I guess it gives you that tough image.”
But tactical clothing and accessories has gone mainstream, thanks in part to the brands themselves. The most popular item at Explorer Bags is the R4 backpack — an intensely functional pack with pockets on all sides and adjustable Velcro sections on the inside for storing ammo, pistols, ear muffs, and glasses — but brand sells basic camo backpacks for school. At the expo, dozens of men walked around wearing khaki tactical pants, a tucked-in polo shirt, and sneakers.
“It’s almost like a military uniform meets Jake from State Farm in his khakis,” says Suffecool.
Suffecool isn’t hating on the look. She owns multiple pairs of 5.11 Tactical shorts and often wears them out on her motorcycle.
At the 5.11 Tactical booth, Smith showed off some women’s pants that looked like any other pair of skinny jeans, just with stretch for added comfort on the shooting range and extra pockets on the front and back for different types of magazines.
“However, we made them wide enough so they fit the iPhones and smartphones out there,” Smith says, referring to the pockets on the upper thigh.
Tru-Spec, another tactical clothing maker, derives 70 percent of its sales from law enforcement teams. Over the last few years, it’s started marketing more heavily to outdoor enthusiasts who value durable, functional pants. Its team is careful about using the word “tactical” when talking to this demographic, though, because hikers who don’t own guns may think it’s too hardcore for them.
Many consumers and brand founders, however, try to stay as far away from aesthetic associations with the military — or even with gun ownership — as possible.
When Aaron Tweedie went on Shark Tank in November 2014, he didn’t tell the judges that his company, Man-Pack, made bags for concealed carry. He didn’t want to take a divisive issue to national television, and he didn’t want Man-Pack to be known as a brand that’s exclusively for gun owners.
“A lot of [brands] want to champion themselves as the premier brand for law enforcement, and the issue with that from a marketing perspective is that as soon as you walk into a room wearing one of those brands, you identify yourself as a certain type of consumer demographic,” Tweedie says. “Anybody who knows anything about shooting will look at you and, just because you’re wearing that shirt, know that you’re wearing a firearm on your person, it’s in your vehicle, or if they follow you back home, you probably have an arsenal.”
Instead, Tweedie emphasizes that a Man-Pack can be used in myriad ways: as a diaper bag, workout bag, or diabetic bag.
Geri, a woman from Wisconsin who declined to share her last name, purchased two Vinci Firenze purses and a concealment vest at the expo. She was impressed with how discreet the pieces were. Outside of NRA events, Geri and her husband, Jim, feel that it’s better not to publicize that they own firearms because someone acting confrontational might target them and attempt to use their guns against them.
Over at Designer Concealed Carry, Woolstenhulme was quick to point out her bags’ covered zippers, which make it harder to tell where the holster pocket is.
Gianna Varrati, the director of marketing at Vinci Firenze, says that she hopes to eventually sell the brand’s handbags at department stores like Barneys and Nordstrom. When she hit the runway on Friday night modeling the brand’s styles, she was the picture of a stylish woman who shops at those stores: knee-length black dress, red lip, glossy red tote.
The next day she was back on the expo floor, showing potential customers the bag’s stiff, removable interior panel, to which a holster attaches. Slide that out, and it’s an expensive purse like any other.