It turns out you don’t have to be James Bond to be dapper and bulletproof. Garrison Bespoke, the Toronto purveyor of fine tailored menswear for regular Joes and TV shows like Suits, made ripples two years ago when it announced a $20,000 three-piece suit cut from bulletproof fabric. I spoke to David Tran, Garrison’s head of marketing and special projects about how the haberdashery is going to extremes to keep its clients looking fresh and bullet-free.
Sean Hutchinson: Where did the idea come from? Why a bulletproof suit?
David Tran: The story of how it came about was quite organic. We have a boutique shop and we specialize in creating custom suiting for men. What makes our shop different is we’re always looking to innovate to solve problems for clients. What we do is try to understand the lifestyle of the guy we work with, and then we wardrobe them specifically for that lifestyle.
A lot of the times our conversation starts out with having a drink and understanding how you grew up, what you like to do, what you did over the weekend, etc., because oftentimes work doesn’t really represent who you are outside of work. So we would factor in how you live your life and how you interact, and how we can use clothing to help you with that.
In these discovery sessions with clients we start to hear about things that worry them. We would have clients who work in finance or mining, and they’re often traveling around the world, and oftentimes there’s certain countries that have civil unrest going on. They were really worried. They would go into the bushland or see guys with rifles, and they say they feel nervous on these trips. But they’re not actually asking for a solution; we’re just listening to find out what you’re doing, where are you traveling, what are you packing. And when we heard guys tell us about this we decided internally it would be a fun project to, one, solve their problem and two, it’s a technical challenge and we’re always looking for innovative ways to do tailoring.
You’re obviously tailors and don’t normally develop armor. What were the main criteria you wanted to touch on as a bespoke tailor making this kind of suit?
Internally this is the ultimate James Bond type of suit, so the criteria for us was it had to work, meaning it had to actually protect the guy. But Kevlar is hard to work with in that it’s very thick. If you’ve ever seen a police officer it’s obvious that they’re wearing a bulletproof vest. So some of the other criteria we’re dealing with is we needed it to be discrete.
So if I’m meeting with somebody, let’s say I’m meeting with you, and you can clearly see that I’m wearing a bulletproof vest, it could potentially send the wrong message that you don’t feel safe or you don’t trust me. So there’s a lot of sensitivity around the discretion of that as well. And then of course, as a guy who’s traveling the world, you want to be comfortable.
Where did you find the bulletproof material to put in the suit?
We ended up adopting the same technology used by the U.S. Special Forces. During the Iraq War, the U.S. actually had very special armor developed for them. It was extremely lightweight nanotechnology. In essence what it does is it’s very thin, and it’s just locked sheets of nano-carbon tubes. What happens is when a bullet strikes it, it does three things. It hardens on impact, it disperses kinetic energy — it’s going to hurt when you get shot — but the key is to reduce the amount of trauma to the body by dispersing that kinetic energy. And of course we want to avoid any type of penetration.
Once you had the ideas set what was the design process like? How long did it take from those conversations to having this bulletproof suit to sell?
It was somewhere around a year — nine months to a year. Again, a lot of it was internal about figuring out what can we do and reviewing technology options. Even when we could find the right technology partners, it was more wondering if they would be willing to work with us.
A lot of them are military companies, and they actually don’t want to associate with civilian wear. So when we found the right partners they were very cautious about wanting to work with us. They thought it was a cool project and they liked what we were doing, but they didn’t want to affect any of their contracts with police services or the army, so we kept our relationship very confidential.
So you can’t tell me who this technology partner is? They have to remain unnamed?
Were there different iterations of the suit before settling on the final design?
In the beginning we didn’t even have to create a Kevlar suit because when you look at it, you know it’s not good. With Kevlar, if I took a knife and I stabbed you the knife could potentially go through if the knife point hit in between the weave. So one of the advantages of this suit is the carbon nanotubes harden, and they can also withstand a strike or slash from a knife as well.
As soon as we started looking around for material, we didn’t have to work with Kevlar because we already knew it was taken off the table as an option. What really took awhile was learning how to work with the new material so that our tailors could actually produce a garment with it. That process took them probably four to six months of just playing around to figure out how to make it work with the suit so it looks good.
Right, so how do you specifically tailor the bulletproof fabric? Can you sew it?
That’s the tailor’s secret. They don’t want me sharing that information. But they spent four to six months learning how to work with it.
Is the entire suit bulletproof or just panels in particular areas?
The front of your vest is what’s bulletproof — it protects your vital organs — and then the back of your jacket protects you from behind. So what we found is that gives you a very natural drape for your suit jacket itself, and then because you’re wearing the vest it’s hugging against your body. It makes it more comfortable to wear.
It’s also right for protection because if you’re going to unbutton your jacket and you’re going to walk around, your whole body is exposed. If you’re in a situation where you have to run, then it’s just flapping. It’s really not going to do anything to protect you. Whereas if you’re going to be wearing a three-piece suit, you have to button up your vest with the jacket and function the way a traditional bulletproof vest does.
What would you say to skeptics who say just making a bulletproof suit like this would be sending the wrong message, or that it’s alarmist?
I can understand what people are saying, but unless people have actually traveled around the world and been in these situations it’s different. Some of the guys we’ve worked with, they’re not going into a gunfight, they are just going down for business. But because they work in high-risk industries, whether it’s resources or finance, and they’re in countries that are known for hijacking for ransom, for them the end goal is to feel at ease and have confidence.
If there’s a very large deal on the table, you want 100 percent of your attention on the deal itself, not one corner of your eye watching your back or your side. To a lot of them, the peace of mind knowing you’re protected is an important thing. A lot of them aren’t actually being put in at-risk situations, but it’s more like insurance.
And the response from the people who have bought the suit has been positive?
We really have two types of clients that have really put their hand up to want to own something like this. The first is the guy who functionally wants to travel with it. The second was — which we didn’t expect, but now it makes sense — it’s really the guy who wants a gadget. Just how someone will buy a 500 horsepower car, and you’re never going to fully utilize it. You just want to say to your buddies you own a cool gadget for the sake of owning it.
What kind of caliber bullets can it repel?
We tested the suit up to a .40-caliber gun.
What was the atmosphere like when it went on sale?
We had a wait list, then kind of closed off adding people as we worked through it. We did that to help our customers, but all the surge and demand came through and we had to limit that because at the end of the day we’re still a normal tailor. We make regular clothes for guys to wear to work or for people getting married, and we only have a couple master tailors that really work on this line. So there’s a tapped space for how much they can handle.
I’ve just seen a pinstripe pattern on the bulletproof suit. Are there more styles available?
We can actually use any fabric pattern. So those are some of the considerations that we factor. Depending on where in the world you’re traveling with it, if you’re going to a hotter destination we’re going to be using a lighter, more breathable fabric. And then color-wise, you’re not looking to stand out like a sore thumb, so we want to use colors that we know are a little bit more traditional for certain countries as well.
As far as you know has anybody that’s bought the suit been shot at or stabbed?
No. Fortunately not.
That’s interesting to hear. You provide the service but you hope they don’t need to use what the suit is for.
Yeah, we’re not aware of anybody, and that’s a good thing. People aren’t being caught in sticky situations.
Are you trying to work with any new iterations of the suit in the future?
It’s been tabled at the moment.
Are you working on any other kind of off-kilter menswear?
Yeah! We made other stuff that was really innovative too, but it just didn’t get as much attention as the bulletproof suits. We had suits done with crushed diamonds, sapphire, and gold embedded into them. There’s a few circumstances where it really makes sense for a man to have that, particularly weddings.
Over the summer we did a suit that felt comfortable like a track suit, and looked like a business suite. So it was a suit that you could dunk in. We developed that for the Toronto Raptors, our home basketball team.
If only you made a bulletproof suit you could dunk in.