"Most people who walk into our shop don't realise what's going on back there," Abbas Haider tells me as he finishes explaining the intricacies of bulletproof underpants.
Haider is the founder of Aspetto, a custom bulletproof clothier, which he runs along with Robert Davis. The front room of their small store in Fredericksburg, Virginia, is littered with silk swatches from Italy, wool remnants from leftover suiting and lists of measurements, all the makings of an old-school tailor shop. The back, however, is covered in what the owners call "ballistics", but most of us would refer to it as bulletproof gear.
Haider explains that in his world, ballistics is what we civilians might call armour. He is also careful to clarify that every piece of body armour is, technically, merely bullet-resistant, not bulletproof. "Nothing in this world can be genuinely bulletproof, because there will always be something in development that can penetrate it."
While Aspetto does large contract orders for vests and shirts, the company's speciality is its high-end, custom-design work. Its products include three-piece suits, dress shirts, backpacks, helmets, traditional Middle Eastern garments and even boxer shorts, which do a very good job of protecting the femoral artery from bleeding out if shot. The clothes are often based on European catwalk designs, and samples are sent back and forth to get the fit right. By focusing on high fashion, Aspetto hopes to catch up to the international recognition of Miguel Caballero, a Colombian-based bulletproof clothing designer who held an all-bulletproof fashion show last year in Mexico City.
Haider and Davis say they are obsessed with making their bulletproof attire look less, well, bulletproof. Instead of sewing ballistic panels into clothing, the duo designed hidden compartments in the lining for the panels, the texture of which is reminiscent of a tough sponge. The armour is zipped in and can be removed to dry-clean the garment. This design requires an extremely lightweight bulletproof material, one which was unavailable when Aspetto began, so the company partnered with Point Blank Enterprises to create a lightweight material capable of stopping handgun bullets and bomb shrapnel while zipping seamlessly into the lining of a suit. Though the material is half the weight of standard bulletproof panels, it still meets safety standards and can fend off 9mm, .40 calibre and .45 semi-automatic rifle bullets, among many others.
The newly improved bulletproof vest weighs less than 1.8kg and is 6.35mm thick. The stuff is also stronger than what most police officers wear. Both Davis and Haider are understandably reluctant to discuss their dealings with the three-letter organizations, the FBI, CIA and DOD (Department of Defense). "We are doing," – they pause to first discuss it among themselves – "some stuff with these agencies." While they are mum on US government contracts, which are typically lucrative, Haider says Aspetto has picked up two government clients in the Middle East: it now dresses the security company for members of the Afghan government and some women in the Saudi Arabian royal family.
After the introduction of their lightweight ballistic material, Aspetto's founders were approached by a representative of the Saudi royal family. Some women in the family, unnamed for their protection, were interested in purchasing dresses – in this case, jalabiyas, also called jalabib and jalibab, caftan-like gowns that can be decorated with intricate embroidery. The jalabiya, a loose-fitting garment, has an attractive flowing characteristic Aspetto was asked to preserve. Not to stray from the family's luxurious standards, the garments had to be made of fine, delicate silk.
"They asked us to develop some styles which integrate ballistics to protect the stomach, heart and lungs," Haider says. The process is ongoing, as samples are passed from the company to the women through an aide. "We've created several possibilities so far. Because it's all silk, the protective material is almost like a tape. It holds the weight of the ballistics, but it allows the jalabiya to retain the fluid movement of silk."
For its Afghan clients, Aspetto is creating a kurta, also called a kameez, a long shirt for men that goes past the knees. "Our client trains local law enforcement in Afghanistan and requested we make the clothes customarily worn by Afghan men bulletproof. They wanted suits and undershirts but also needed kurtas," Haider says. "The kameez is not ornate, but we have to make it of the best cotton, as well as undetectably bulletproof, because the security detail will be wearing it around parliament members."
While government orders are constant, individual orders spike for Aspetto at times of bad news. After Connecticut's Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, Haider and Davis received their most unusual and upsetting order: a child's backpack. Bulletproof backpacks are common combat gear, but they said it was depressing making a pink backpack for a primary-schooler.
After the Charlie Hebdo shooting, Haider says "a big advocate of freedom of speech, who you have probably seen on Fox News", inquired about Aspetto's bulletproof undershirts – the ones you can't see under a dress shirt. That undershirt is their most popular item, most commonly purchased by anti-narcotics authorities, businessmen abroad and dignitaries.
With government contracts in hand and their lightweight material perfected, Haider and Davis are turning their attention to the next big thing in bulletproof gear: wearable tech. They're also seeing a budding market for women's goods: their last government contract bid included 1,500 undershirts for women. They've expanded their line of women's clothing and are working to perfect the fit of a woman's blazer when it's lined with bulletproof panels. "We have to be extremely careful to make sure a woman's suit is form-fitting with the added material and doesn't stand out from a normal, off-the-rack suit," Haider explains. "We currently have 500 fabric options, to ensure we can adapt to any wardrobe or style."
Aspetto has also received an increased number of requests to re-engineer luxury pocketbooks with a bulletproof lining. One woman brought in a Chanel bag, valued at several thousand pounds, and spent another £700 to have it made bulletproof. She declined to discuss the nature of her work, saying only that she needed it for business abroad.
All this, of course, comes with a very high price-tag. Aspetto suits cost around £3,500 to £4,700; dress shirts are around £700. "Your traditional good, tailored suit is $2,000 [£1,350] to $3,000," Haider points out. "We are protecting your life for $5,000." And for another $1,500, you can buy the bulletproof boxers to cover the rest of your assets. No one ever said dressing like James Bond came cheap.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies