Story by Edie Gross
Photos by Adam Ewing
Abbas Haider ’12 scrolled through his email in August 2015 and spied a note from a contact at the U.S. State Department.
The department had purchased nearly 1,300 bulletproof T-shirts from Haider and his business partner, Robert Davis ’12, a year earlier for agents combating corruption and drug crimes abroad. At the time, it was one of the biggest contracts the Mary Washington grads had negotiated through their company, Aspetto, which specializes in armored menswear.
The email said an officer wearing one of those shirts had recently been shot three times with a Mini Uzi 9mm pistol. Not only had he survived – he was unharmed.
“Your vest saved a life,” read the note.
Haider immediately called Davis, who was sitting across the lunch table from a client and rocketed out of his seat at the news.
“I remember thinking, ‘This is exactly why we started this business. That guy’s going home to his family because of what we do,’ ” Davis recalled. “That’s exactly what that product was meant to do.” (Story continues below.)
Only four years earlier, the business administration majors had created their first bulletproof suit for a class at UMW. They earned an A, then took their commitment to fashion and function and built what’s been dubbed America’s first bulletproof clothing line.
Aspetto offers tactical vests that look like traditional tactical vests, but the Fredericksburg-based company has made a name for itself with more clandestine, safety-conscious apparel: bullet-resistant T-shirts, boxer shorts, outdoor jackets, and stylish, tailor-made suits and tuxedos lined with lightweight, removable armor.
Their client list includes the U.S. Army, Air Force, and Marines; the Pentagon Force Protection Agency; and numerous local police, fire, and corrections departments – not to mention a collection of NFL players and reality TV stars who have purchased custom-made suits, minus the armor. Aspetto has been featured in publications from Forbes and Esquire to Trigger and Newsweek, which dubbed the company’s goods “Bulletproof Chic” on the cover of an April 2015 issue.
But Haider and Davis will tell you they’re still proudest of that State Department email.
“Most companies don’t ever get feedback about a save,” Haider said. “Those are the types of emails you don’t get very often.”
‘Brands last forever’
On a recent Thursday afternoon, Haider pulled books filled with fabric samples from a compartment beneath an ottoman in Aspetto’s downtown Fredericksburg shop. He offered a crash course in thread counts, fabric composition, and the importance of having canvas between the fabric and lining of a suit jacket to preserve its shape. Perched on a leather couch across from Haider, an engaged couple listened intently.
The groom thought he’d like a custom suit for their November wedding. His fiancée, who planned to wear an imported diamond-studded gown, gently suggested he upgrade to a tuxedo.
“Believe me,” said Haider, sensing the groom’s skepticism, “when you have a tuxedo, you’ll find events to wear it to.”
A tuxedo it was.
Haider, who grew up in Chantilly, Virginia, started selling off-the-rack suits at age 16 when he got a job at Men’s Wearhouse. As a freshman at Mary Washington, he struck out on his own, ordering suits wholesale from China and, later, Italy and marketing them to shops. He often got points for moxie, but retailers hesitated to buy the suits from a college kid whose showroom was essentially the trunk of his car. Haider said he gained more traction selling them to individuals, including friends and customers from his retail days. With help from an English-to-Italian translator, Haider dubbed his operation Aspetto, meaning “appearance” or “look,” and trademarked the name in December 2008. He said he wasn’t entirely sure what Aspetto would become, but he knew he wanted to build a brand, not just a company.
“Companies don’t become part of people’s lives,” he said. “But brands last forever.”
He soon went from importing suits to importing fabrics and hiring tailors to customize the jackets, pants, and shirts for his clients.
“Custom is when we really started to make money,” Haider said.
In fall 2011, Haider teamed up with Davis, who grew up in Orange County, Virginia, when the two met in Professor Galen deGraff’s international business strategy class. The seniors spent their mornings measuring clients for tailored suits before heading to class in the afternoon. Ironically, neither could yet afford the bespoke fashions they were pitching to executives. Davis still chuckles about the black shadow-stripe polyester suit, picked up at Goodwill, that he wore to those meetings.
“You could’ve sanded a wooden door with it,” he said, adding that one client asked him if he could get one just like it. Davis gently explained to the insurance executive that Aspetto no longer had access to that particular fabric.
The culminating assignment for deGraff’s class was to invent a product or service, describe how to market it somewhere other than the United States, and provide a detailed business plan outlining the venture’s success. Haider and Davis already had a product – stylish suits. Was there a way to enhance that product to appeal to an overseas market?
“One way to do it was to add ballistics to it,” said Davis.
The pair knew about Miguel Caballero, the so-called “Armani of Armor,” whose Colombia-based company had been providing chic bulletproof fashions to the rich and famous since 1992. But no American company had entered that arena.
The students teamed up with Renegade Armor, a tactical company only three miles from campus, which agreed to make lightweight bullet-resistant panels to fit inside Aspetto’s suits. The firm, run by former Marines, gave Haider and Davis free space in their facility for nearly a year – long after they’d turned in their assignment: a prototype bullet-resistant wool suit jacket that now occupies the front window of their Caroline Street shop.
“They came up with an A project,” recalled deGraff, now professor emeritus of management, who said there’s a ready market for the suits among diplomats and contractors who want to work in Afghanistan and Iraq. Before receiving those lucrative assignments, they must demonstrate that they have the right protection for the job, he said. “And if they could wear a suit and look good and still have that level of protection, all the better.”
Better still, the project was practical and affordable enough that Haider and Davis could turn it into a real-life venture, said deGraff, who bought a 19th-century-style Scottish tweed hunting jacket – sans armor – from Aspetto for himself.
“I don’t know too many students who actually took their idea and did it,” he said. “They had a good attitude about it. They were enthusiastic and involved and willing to do the work.”
From off-the-rack to
bespoke and bulletproof
While most of Aspetto’s products are wearable, the company has recently been awarded a contract to outfit 59 Army facilities across Pennsylvania with ballistic cubicle walls. Each has a steel core and can withstand a bullet fired from an AK-47, one of the weapons used by a gunman during a deadly attack on a recruiting center and Navy Reserve office in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 2015.
Davis and Haider have pledged white-glove service, meaning they’ll personally oversee the delivery and installation of each 412-pound partition over a six-week period. In between calls coordinating the logistics of that project, Davis checks in periodically with his embroidery guy about the Velcro name badges and police insignia he still needs for a waist-high stack of tactical vests parked on his office couch, awaiting delivery to the Washington [D.C.] Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, or WMATA.
Haider estimates that government contracts make up about 80 percent of Aspetto’s business, covering everything from bullet-resistant shin guards for officers in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to ultra-lightweight ballistic vests for agents – human and K9 – with the Pentagon Force Protection Agency. This summer, the company became a General Services Administration-approved vendor, opening up the possibility of even more contracts with the federal government. (Story continues below.)
Aspetto partners with a facility in Florida to manufacture its armored panels, which include fibrous layers of Dyneema, Kevlar, and Twaron in varying thicknesses, depending on how much protection the customer wants – and how much weight they’re willing to carry. It’s the woven materials that stop a bullet from twisting and pushing through the clothing. The company is constantly doing research and development in search of lighter-weight materials that won’t sacrifice protection, Davis said. And all of their products exceed standards set by the National Institute of Justice.
For the last two years, WMATA’s transit police department has purchased high-visibility armored vests from Aspetto for the nearly 500 sworn officers who patrol its 1,500-square-mile territory in Virginia, Maryland, and D.C. In addition to liking the product, WMATA appreciates Davis and Haider’s “ease of turning on a dime as far as addressing any needs customer-service-wise,” said Alicia Blanton, contract administrator for the agency’s Office of Procurement and Materials.
“They’ve shown themselves to be young entrepreneurs who are looking forward, not backward,” she said. “That’s something an organization as large as WMATA looks for.”
Aspetto sells bullet-resistant items to individuals as well (the T-shirts are very popular, despite the $950 price tag), but only after verifying that each buyer, whether American or foreign, has no felonies. Aspetto passed up an opportunity to have its armored products sold on a popular men’s fashion site that declined to subject potential customers to background checks. And a CEO who flew in on a private jet was described by Haider as “none too happy” when Aspetto declined to sell him any bulletproof clothing after discovering he had a criminal history.
Their principles haven’t hurt business any. Retail sales have doubled every year, Haider said, and virtually every week brings a new government contract, not to mention new ideas. After three years of work with some mechanical engineer friends, Haider and Davis recently started production on a patented quick-release fastener designed to get tactical vests off swiftly in an emergency.
A flexible business plan and a willingness to innovate have helped Aspetto grow from an off-the-rack, bulk-order suit company to one that specializes in custom high-end apparel and cutting-edge protection, said Haider.
“What you do today is not necessarily where you’ll be tomorrow, but that’s OK,” he said. “You don’t have to have the perfect idea today. You just have to take that first step.”