BOGOTA — Miguel Caballero slides open a box of 9mm bullets. “Choose one,” he says to his employee Lizeth Castaneda. He points his revolver at Castaneda's abdomen and fires. Seconds later, his victim giggles with relief.
This fear-inducing demonstration is actually a marketing tactic. Caballero has shot at more than 100 people — many of them employees — in order to instill faith in his product: bullet-proof fashion.
Caballero, 41, dresses presidents, government officials and their bodyguards, as well as businesspeople and celebrities, in discrete and stylish blazers, leather jackets and tuxedo shirts that can stop bullets shot from pistols and Mini Uzis.
Press reports refer to U.S. President Barack Obama, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Spain's Prince Felipe as Caballero clients. But don't look for confirmation. “The clients can get hysterical,” Caballero explains.
Photos of clients he is allowed to talk about line his office walls. There's Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos. And, for the celebrity-inclined, there's actor Steven Seagal, sporting one of three leather jackets designed for him by Caballero, along with two bullet-proof kimonos.
As his BlackBerry buzzes with orders from around the world, Caballero is uniquely positioned to understand the shifting security concerns of the rich and powerful.
His opened his business 16 years ago, hoping to fill what he perceived as a local need in a country that has been plagued by violence for half a century. “If the product functions in Colombia, it’ll function in any part of the world,” he says matter-of-factly.
As he speaks, Caballero pulls the bullet out of the heavy cotton jacket his employee wore during the bullet demonstration — it only passed through the first few protective sheets sewn in. Caballero's handiwork doesn't come cheap: A bullet-proof polo shirt can go for $900 to $7,500 depending on the level of protection, and a leather jacket costs $2,900.
Today, most of Caballero's products will be shipped out of the country. As security in Colombia has improved, domestic sales have plummeted while demand from abroad has skyrocketed: Exports now make up 92 percent of Caballero' s sales. His company now has 18 distributors, or “VIP Offices,” around the world, including ones in Beirut, Milan and Houston. Russians flock to his London boutique in the posh Harrod's department store, and politicians at risk of assassination put in custom orders in Johannesburg, according to Caballero.
While the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks prompted Europeans to join his client portfolio, nowhere has demand soared so much as in Mexico, where drug cartel wars have brought terrifying levels of violence.
“Today, Mexico is a very important market for us,” says Caballero, adding that it accounts for 30 percent of his company’s exports. In response to demand, Caballero even opened a boutique in an upscale neighborhood in Mexico City.
But a store's success doesn't always reflect levels of local violence. “In Hong Kong as such, there’s no danger,” he says, referring to the location of one of his new offices, which caters to wealthy businessmen. “But where they travel, yes,” he says, citing the unpredictable security situation in nearby Malaysia and Indonesia.
According to Yuen Kee Wong, who is in charge of Caballero’s distribution for most of Asia, Hong Kong is also the perfect market for Caballero because of the number of wealthy “gadget-collectors,” who are attracted to the novelty and design of Caballero's offerings. “This is not just a protection item, but a luxury fashion item that is very attractive,” Wong says from her Hong Kong office.
Caballero believes that what distinguishes his products is his simultaneous ability to cater to an individual’s fashion sense, security needs and lifestyle. There is no item too unorthodox for Caballero: He has tailored anti-ballistic underwear for a Colombian prison guard and a bullet-resistant blanket.
At one point in his conversation, Caballero is momentarily distracted by a new patron. “Look!” he exclaims, showing an incoming email on his Blackberry screen. It’s an order for a princess of an Asian country who wants Caballero to make her a robe. “We’ll make it beautiful!” he tells his staff.
And Caballero recently returned from India, where he is offering lightweight kurta pyjamas, traditional Indian cotton pants and tops. He’s also fielding orders from politicians for his version of the high-collared Nehru jacket, in anticipation of a desire for heightened security in the run-up to national elections starting in April.
The clothes work like this: Workers at sewing machines weave a nylon-polyester blend into flexible sheets to absorb the impact of a bullet. The more sheets layered into a garment, the more protection the garment offers.
But while Caballero's bullet-proof fashion may be the most attention-grabbing side of his company, bullet-proof vests make up much of his business.
Staff at several assembly lines complete orders for 36,000 bullet-resistant vests for the armed forces of two Latin American countries. Vests for military and security forces make up 60 percent of Caballero's sales. In this field, Caballero says his products are superior because they are the only water- and fire-proof vests in the world.
These days, Caballero’s company — which grossed $15 million last year — is growing so rapidly that he needs to expand. A new facility under construction in Bogota's northwest will eventually house 312 workers.
“This,” he says, casting his arm towards the empty factory — which will also include a showroom and ballistic testing range — “is going to be a work of art.” Caballero plans to hang modern art installations throughout the plant. How did he come up with the idea? He offers the same explanation as for all his other work: “I have ideas that no one else has.”
Investigation: US retailers fuel Mexico's drug wars
The cross-border bullet trade