Last August, Miguel Caballero took aim, pulled the trigger, and shot his wife Caroline for the second time in the past nine years. The Colombian bulletproof clothing designer has done the same thing to more than 230 volunteers since 1993, just to demonstrate the protective power of his designs. Last August he began introducing his unique line of high-end bulletproof (or bullet-resistant) clothing, which ranges from tank tops costing 2,023 euros to blazers with a price tag of 4,343.50 euros, to his newest market in the United States.
Caballero originally founded his company in 1992 in Colombia, his native country. At that time the country had become overrun with homicides caused by gun violence perpetrated by the various conflicting factions in the country. In fact, that particular summer Pablo Escobar, Colombia’s most powerful drug lord, escaped from prison, which caused public anxiety to rise even higher. It was almost too frightening to leave home, so Caballero started designing and manufacturing bullet-resistant Bible covers and armored backpacks to offer protection and help ease the public’s fears.
That was more than 25 years ago. Since then Colombia’s homicide rate has been on the decline so Caballero, often referred to as the “Armored Armani,” has focused his attention on another country overrun with gun violence, the United States of America. In early 2017 he opened his first U.S. distribution center in Miami, FL with an aim to selling his apparel to frightened Americans. His line includes all standardized levels of ballistic protection as set forth by the U.S. National Institute of Justice (NIJ), which are levels: IIA, II, IIIA, III and IV.
Caballero is not the only one designing bulletproof apparel for the mass market in the U.S. According to a recent report by Market Research, body armor has now become a $465 million-a-year industry in the United States alone. The global market for this type of protective clothing is forecasted by Grandview Research to reach $5.7 billion by the year 2024.
A subset of this industry consists of a small but growing manufacturing and retail sector that are designing high-end bulletproof clothing that goes way beyond what you would call the standard vest, both aesthetically and functionally. You can find almost anything from custom tailored men’s suits to hip-looking safari jackets. Caballero’s designs are among the new breed of protective clothing that is stylish, comfortable to wear and virtually impossible to discern.
The NIJ has established the only nationally accepted body armor standards and are ranked according to the level of protection being offered. According to the NIJ’s Justice Technology Information Center, Level II body armor can stop 9 mm and .40 Smith & Wesson ammo fired from short-barreled handguns (no protection from ammo shot from rifles); Level IIA can stop 9 mm and .357 Magnum ammo fired from short-barreled handguns (no protection from ammo shot from rifles); Level IIIA can stop .44 Magnum and .357 SIG ammo fired from longer-barreled handguns (no protection from ammo shot from rifles); Level III can stop 7.62 mm lead core FMJ rifle ammo; and Level IV can stop 30-caliber armor-piercing steel core rifle ammunition.
First manufacturer of bulletproof clothing
Abbas Haider claims he is the first one to offer upscale bulletproof apparel to the U.S. market. He is CEO and President of Aspetto, Inc., located in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Although Aspetto has a nice line of normal clothing and accessories, its best selling item is the Level IIIA bespoke Ballistic Suit, made of lightweight bulletproof (bullet-resistant) panels, selling for $5,000. This suit can protect against a bullet coming in from most handguns at point-blank range and meets the testing standards set forth by the NIJ, FBI and DEA.
Haider was a college freshman in 2008 when he started his bespoke clothing brand. In his senior year he teamed up with Robert Davis, a fellow student who is now the company’s COO, to design upscale bulletproof apparel as a project for their class in international marketing. They met with a ballistics manufacturer and in the process created their first prototype business suit for men. “Before even presenting our project we were speaking to various “3-letter” agencies like the NSA, FBI and CIA who seemed very interested in what we were developing,” he said. “After getting an A on our project, we decided we wanted this to become a real business, one that we could expand on. The typical person using body armor is tired of not seeing any new and innovative for years on end.”
Others had more emotionally charged motivations for entering the bulletproof clothing industry. Damon Ross, who owns the Self Defense Company that offers training in self-defense, was motivated by a shooting at Garden State Plaza, a shopping mall in Paramus, NJ, that occurred in 2013. This is a mall that he and his family frequent, which made him realize that he needed to come up with a solution. He set his mind to finding something highly effective that was affordable. He says, “I could have easily decided to stay away from the mall, and there are times when we don’t, but that’s really no solution. Now, I have a great bulletproof jacket that I just throw on before leaving the house.”
He’s talking about his company’s Bodyguard Tactical Jacket, which comes in 2 different levels of protection, Street Level at $467 and Beast Level at $597. Street offers Level IIIA protection, perfect for situations considered high-risk. Ross combined his 20 years in self-defense training with Israeli military contractors to come up with the perfect garment. “My objective is to help everyday people weave self-defense into their daily lives without being forced to put in years of instruction,” he says.
“Sadly, no matter what level of training you have, there are certain situations that are impossible to protect against. This was why it made sense for me to take the next logical step in self-defense, which was ballistic protection.”
Ross mentioned that most people have no idea that it is perfectly legal to own body armor and that means bulletproof clothing. There is no required waiting period, no special permit is needed and you don’t have to undergo a background check. But, convicted felons are not allowed to purchase body armor and the buying guidelines do vary state-to-state.
Joe Curran founded BulletBlocker to manufacture and sell bulletproof clothing after the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007. He was afraid a similar shooting could occur in his home state of Massachusetts where his kids attended school. “My children’s safety was the prime motivation for creating the bulletproof backpack,” he says. Curran is a former Army Ranger, firearms instructor and deputy sheriff who founded BulletBlocker that same year. It didn’t take long before he expanded his line to include bulletproof apparel, like the NIJ Level IIIA Bulletproof Leather Jacket that sells for $875 along with the NIJ Level IIIA Bulletproof Classic Two-Piece Men’s Suit that sells for $1,200.
Is bulletproof clothing expensive?
It’s clear to see that bulletproof apparel doesn’t come cheap, which makes one wonder about who the customers might be that are standing in line to buy these items? Well, it is not your everyday Joe. Caballero says his customers are world leaders from the Middle East and South America, as well as businessmen from all over the world. Haider claims that U.S. government employees make up 85% of his customers, including members of the Marine Corps, Air Force, Army and State Department. “I also have a nice portion of private and commercial clients as well, which is made up of oil executives, foreign dignitaries, and normal citizens who want covert ballistic protection.” He guesses that half his customers also own guns.
Ross’ clients range from 35 to 75 years of age and are primarily college-educated, professional men who stay abreast of the news and are concerned for their safety. “At any time they find themselves in a crowd or someplace that could be targeted for attach, they’re worried.”
He speculates that a lot of his customers own guns as well, which underscores the fact that “Gun owners understand that they may have to resort to deadly force in order to protect themselves, their home and/or loved ones. This would mean facing an armed individual,” he said. “If you think someone might shoot at you, shouldn’t you be wearing something that could protect you?”
In quickly looking over the offerings of these various companies, it’s obvious that most bulletproof apparel is designed for men. Although Curran and Haider both say they do accommodate female customers, Ross concurs that there are few options for women. It is difficult to create standard sizes for women because their bodies are far more varied than men’s, he says. “It is just more difficult for us to fit women properly due to all the variables. The industry simply does not have the experience to mass-produce ballistic protection apparel for women.”
David Yamane, Ph.D., with expertise in U.S. gun culture as a Wake Forest University sociology professor, believes that this male skew is a deeply ingrained social attitude. “Men have historically been society’s protectors, in terms of the country as a whole, the community and the family,” he says. “This is why men are far more likely to end up in harm’s way. Men are the more likely victims of assault and everyday criminal violence. Men are more likely to be targeted and killed because they hold the primary positions of power in society, including political, economic, and cultural.
As more retailers pop up across the country offering bulletproof clothing, should we gain comfort by the supply or should we be alarmed that there is such a demand in the U.S.? Haider actually leans toward being alarmed by the demand. “It is very sad that we are seeing such growth in this industry across the U.S.,” he said. “It can only mean that the demand is growing. People don’t feel safe where crowds gather any longer, and that is tragic. Immediately after the shooting in Las Vegas, we saw so many more visitors to our website with so many new inquiries. In fact, I’ll never forget speaking to an old woman who wanted a bulletproof sweatshirt so she could feel more comfortable going to the corner store to pick up groceries.”
Ross, the pragmatist says, “People used to assume that gun violence only occurred in the ‘bad part of town,’” he said. “But now, people have woken up to the fact that it can happen in any part of town, where you life, work and play. No longer do people believe that there are any socioeconomic boundaries to violence.”
Yamane goes on to say that bulletproof apparel is just one aspect of the idea that people feel they need to take responsibility for their own personal safety. “The American gun culture holds the core belief that you must be your own first responder. People say, ‘I carry a gun because when seconds count, the cops are minutes away.’ This is their reasoning.”
Bulletproof fashion does not need to be cause for alarm, he says. “It’s just one more contingency plan to add to the ‘Rules of Stupid,’ which state that you should not go out with stupid people to stupid places to do stupid things at stupid times.” But there is no guarantee that if you follow those rules you won’t be the victim of violence. You could meet up with a thug in a car park or fall victim to a terrorist attack in church. While the odds are low, the consequences are huge, so people are choosing to be prepared for the worst.”
When costs finally do come down, they will still probably land at Saks Fifth Avenue price points rather than Nordstrom.
We agree that in time the demand for bulletproof clothing will continue to go up, which will make these items more mainstream. But, there are some potential problems to mass production. Davis of Aspetto mentioned that its products require a lot of specialization in the manufacturing processes and some new producers might decide to cut corners just to get in on the trend, compromising quality. Furthermore, psychological denial may stand in the way of broad acceptance of bulletproof apparel. Ross mentioned, “The overwhelming majority of people will continue to deny to themselves that violence will come their way. Putting on a bulletproof garment would only remind them that violence might touch them today, and at present most people in the U.S. cannot accept this as their reality.”
However, Yamane sees the price tag as the main thing standing in the way of growth in this industry, while he does acknowledge that technological advancements may at some point change this. “I can imagine the cost of certain items coming down to the point that a large number of people would be tempted to buy one or two pieces of bulletproof clothing,” he says. “However, I don’t see the prices coming down far enough so that most people can afford to buy these items.”
He advises people on a budget to not hold their breath because “Prices will never reach H&M or Urban Outfitters levels, however.”