In the five months since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, manufacturers of bulletproof clothing and body armor say sales have been unprecedented. The companies aren't just selling tactical vests, but also bulletproof jackets, dress suits, windbreakers, T-shirts – even ballistic corsets, kimonos and a wetsuit.
The majority of their customers, as might be expected, are buying bullet-resistant clothing for safety reasons. Miguel Caballero, a major bulletproof clothing company based in Colombia, says its products are sold to business executives, law enforcement, foreign correspondents, and world presidents in 11 countries – any VIP with a security concern.
Caballero's vests and jackets are lightweight, thermo-regulating, and can stop rounds from a 9 mm round or a .357 Magnum soft point. But more importantly, they are discrete. When President Obama stepped out of his presidential limo shortly after his inauguration in 2009, he reportedly wore Miguel Caballero protective gear, but the throngs of waving onlookers never knew it.
For other customers, bulletproof wear serves a different purpose. It's a statement, an expression of toughness. It's to be worn conspicuously, outside of clothing, not artfully concealed beneath. It's fashion.
"Tactical jackets are really in right now, but the actual gear, the ballistic vests are actually what's in. Not knock-off garments or anything like that," says Chris Story, who directs retail operations at Uncle Sam's Army Navy Outfitters, a New York-based retail outlet that sells protective gear to both military and civilians. "I think modern military fashion is prevalent because it's in the news... Iraq and Afghanistan were a huge motivating factor."
But before two wars abroad influenced protective clothing, there was hip-hop. The beginnings of bulletproof fashion in America - or, more accurately, bullet-resistant, since none of the wear is ever guaranteed to stop a bullet - is largely credited to the rapper 50 Cent, who after being struck by nine bullets in 2000 took to wearing bulletproof vests religiously. His rap group G Unit did the same. Its clothing was bulletproof. Its cars were bulletproof. A verse of the 2003 50 Cent song "Heat" goes like this: "You got me feelin' real bulletproof up in this [expletive]/Cuz my windows on my [expletive] Benz is bulletproof… Cuz my [expletive] vest is bulletproof… Cuz my [expletive] hat is bulletproof."
The group knew that they had made waves. In a 2010 interview, rapper Lloyd Banks, who started G Unit with 50 cent, said: "Honestly I can't say we've seen an impact like G-Unit has had in the last decade. People wore bulletproof vests after we came. We touched people."
Banks was right. By 2005, news reports were citing a new and "disturbing trend" in hip hop fashion: fake bulletproof vests, generally made of Velcro and fabric. The vests soon spread to more mainstream fashion, including tattoo artist Ed Hardy's apparel line, which sold a T-shirt printed with an image of a bulletproof vest, bragging it was in the same style as G Unit's.
By 2009, the New York Times was crediting others in pop culture with the fad, including Jack Bauer of "24" fame. The paper also cited the concerns of the time: terrorism, crime, and a bad economy. Bulletproof wear started popping up more in video games, such as the immensely popular first and third-person shooter game "Call of Duty," which has released nine versions – many involving bulletproof gear – since the game came out in 2003.
And the fashion soon spread to motorcyclists, too. Sites like MCVestonline.com and BikersDen.com hawked tactical bulletproof-style vests and bragged about their benefits – even though the gear wasn't actually bulletproof. "Tactical or SWAT-style motorcycle vests… have become a staple in any motorcycle enthusiast's wardrobe," BikersDen.com wrote on its site in 2011. "Regardless of what you ride, these bulletproof-style motorcycle vests will turn heads as you ride by."
And then, last year, came Sandy Hook. The second deadliest mass shooting by a single person in U.S. history ignited a nationwide gun debate, and it also caused a spike in demand for bulletproof items - especially for kids. In the month after the shooting, Miguel Caballero says it received 1,000 requests for products in its kids' collection. Elite Sterling Security, which distributes Caballero products in the U.S., says it has gotten more than two dozen requests since December from companies hoping to resell its clothing. Another maker of bulletproof gear, Bullet Blocker, says business on its apparel side has grown about 100-150 percent since the shooting, more than it ever had since the company launched in 2007.
Those requests, of course, were overwhelmingly for safety purposes. But Sandy Hook appears to have had an impact on bulletproof fashion, too.
"What's thriving is tactical jackets, or windbreakers with four compartments – to conceal something, but also for personal fashion," says Story, who has watched demand for bulletproof gear at Uncle Sam's increasingly become more about looks than practicality. He says some customers have even bought vests – again, for fashion – that can withstand a straight-on shot from an AK-74 assault rifle. "When you have incidents like this that are just so horrific and that are splashed in front of you on a regular basis, you can't help but not think about it, even on a sub-conscious level."