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Bulletproof vest goes high fashion Designer introduces line in Colombia
David L. Marcus

The Dallas Morning News
Page 18A
(Copyright 1993)

BOGOTA, Colombia—A young Colombian fashion designer has launched a line of leather jackets that are buttery soft on the outside and harder than steel inside.

They’re so hard, in fact, that they can stop a bullet from a .357 revolver or a 9mm pistol at point-blank range.

That’s precisely the purpose. Miguel A. Caballero says he makes the world’s only bulletproof designer leather jackets.

“Colombia is the ideal place for this business—first because of the quality of the leather here, and second because of the level of violence, ‘ said Mr. Caballero, who likes to demonstrate the jackets’ durability by firing a pistol at the stomach of his partner, John Murphy.

For such demonstrations, Mr. Murphy uses a $900 cowhide jacket that’s getting a bit tattered.

Bulletproof jackets might seem like a gimmick, but Colombia’s endemic violence suggests otherwise.

Last year, violence reached new highs in Colombia; 80 people were murdered a day and 3.6 were reported kidnapped daily. Because kidnappings often go unreported, the real number is three times higher, police say.

“Colombia has the highest index of violence in the world,’ said Fernando Brito, director of the country’s FBI. “There are a lot of causes, such as drug trafficking and narco-terrorism. Even common crimes here are violent.’

Since January, hundreds of people have been killed in gang warfare, drive-by shootings and confrontations between the army and Colombia’s three guerrilla groups.

Tension is high. In the first six months of the year, police seized 20 tons of dynamite they said was supposed to blow up banks, shopping centers and oil pipelines.

Such violence creates a need for Mr. Calballero’s protective clothing, he says. Mr. Caballero likes to point out that the jackets are useful for protection against shrapnel from bombings, not just bullets.

His business isn’t the only one profiting from Colombia’s mayhem. The five companies that armor cars in Bogota are so busy they have two-month waiting lists.

The Miguel A. Caballero Company has a stark philosophy. As Mr. Caballero put it, “Growing up amid violence, seeing one death after another, you start to think of ways of defending yourself and ways of preventing more deaths in Colombia.’

Mr. Caballero and Mr. Murphy, both 25, met while studying at Bogota’s prestigious University of the Andes. Mr. Caballero wanted to start a clothing company. Mr. Murphy wanted to get into the businesses of bulletproofing cars and offices.

“I told Miguel, “Hey, let’s make an armored jacket,’ and the first thing he did was laugh at me,’ ‘ said Mr. Murphy, whose surname comes from his American-born father.

Making a comfortable but tough jacket took eight months of tests in tailors’ shops, fashion shows and shooting ranges.

The Miguel A. Caballero line of jackets went into full production three months ago. Since then, the company has sold 50 jackets and taken orders for dozens more, Mr. Caballero said.

Jackets retail for $500 to $1,000 each. The price has less to do with the quality of the leather than with the number of layers of DuPont Kevlar and other manmade materials sewn into the lining. Jackets are made from suede, cowhide and sheepskin.

All feature deep pockets and big collars. From a distance, it’s hard to tell them from fine jackets sold at American malls. But there is a difference: they’re stiff enough to stand on their own. And they weigh between 6 and 10 lbs.

“Discretion is important,’ Mr. Caballero said. “It can’t look like a bulletproof jacket in any way when it is being worn. It has to be stylish, with material and colors that everyone wears.’

Mr. Caballero rates the jackets by international standards, so that a “Class One’ model can withstand smaller arms such as .32 caliber revolvers used by petty thieves. “Class Two’ can stand the 9 millimeter pistols favored by drug traffickers.

In interviews, owners of police supplies stores in Dallas said they had never heard of off-the-rack bulletproof leather jackets, although several companies in the United States do produce custom-made bulletproof clothing.

“I don’t know who would buy it. Why would you want it?’ said Charles Skees of C&G Police Supply in Garland. “It’d go over like a lead balloon here . . . They’ve probably got a unique circumstance there.’

The company plans to export to Peru, Venezuela, Mexico and the United States, where controls will likely be looser.

So far, distributors have opened in Colombia’s most violent regions. In Medellin, for example, drug gangs are blamed for record levels of murders and massacres. Popoyan has guerrillas and cocaine traffickers. Bucaramanga, packed with oil drillers, has a Wild West feel. Pereira has cocaine traffickers and kidnappers.

“There’s a lot of interest in these jackets among politicians, coffee growers and ranchers,’ said Carlos Ariel Ormaza, the distributor in Pereira, who says he has received 13 orders since takingon the line in six weeks ago. “Everyone has checked out the price and they’re trying to get the money, especially senators and city councilmen.’

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