El Duke, the Colombian rapper whose death inspired Miguel Romano
In 2012, Elider Varela—a rapper known as “El Duke”—was gunned down in his home of District 13 in Medellín, Colombia's second-largest city. It was a murder that shook the district more than the many that regularly occur in the area, as El Duke was a rising community leader who created youth programs that promoted expression through music and dance rather than through violence. His belief was that art could make the district’s children realize they had options other than joining the highly militarized gangs that control the area.
Now, a new clothing line seeking funding on Kickstarter aims to honor El Duke’s memory and protect its wearers all at the same time. The “El Duke Collection” by fashion label Miguel Romano is producing a line of blade and ballistic-resistant hoodies, polos and T-shirts bearing the artist’s face and the slogan “paz y respeto”—“peace and respect”—emblazoned over it.
I spoke with Miguel Romano’s co-founder Michael Puscar to learn about his inspiration, what it feels like to be stabbed in a blade-resistant shirt and to find out if the best way to honor a peacemaker’s memory is to put his face on bulletproof clothing.
(L - R) Míguelo Romano's director of creative design Neil Gallagher; Carol López, El Duke’s widow; and Michael Puscar, co-founder of the Míguelo Romano fashion line
VICE: El Duke inspired your clothing line. Why are you so into him?
Michael Puscar: While most hip-hop and rap music in the world today is sort of violent and advocates violence against women, Duke was different. Within District 13 Duke was a community leader. He helped children. He gave them other options. A child who grows up and is 15 years old and living in District 13… their options are to join one of these gangs, so he was giving them a different choice. A choice to put down the weapon, pick up the microphone and express their anger and frustration through art.
Are things really that bad in Medellin that there’s a need to constantly wear body amour clothing?
I'd hope that we live in a world where this kind of clothing isn’t necessary, but unfortunately I do feel like there is a need for it. The amount of crime that has been happening in Latin America and in Colombia in particular is on the decline. However, the murder rate is still high, and our goal is to make people safe, and also look stylish, and have a great line of clothing that is stylish and beautiful. And believe me, as much as I think that this is an innovative great idea, I really do hope for the day when it's really not necessary.
Body amour clothing sounds uncomfortable. What does it actually feel like when you have it on?
So there’s two different lines of armored clothing. One is our blade resistant line, which is available now. The anti-ballistic line is in production and will be ready by October. What makes this clothing innovative is that it’s using state of the art material that's lightweight and comfortable. So it’s not too heavy. It’s very flexible. It feels nice. It’s made up of 80 percent ultra-lightweight polyurethane fibers. What that means in layman’s terms is it's 80 percent plastic. But the other 20 percent is a type of polyester. So the way the materials weave together, it has a very lightweight feel. It breathes easily. It’s flexible. This kind of material is innovative and hasn’t been involved in the marketplace until now.
So someone could literally come up to me in one of these shirts, stab me and I'd be totally OK?
It’s been tested against the highest standards in the industry right now. It’s been rated at ISO 13997:1999, which is Blade Cut Resistance Level 5—the highest level. If you were walking on the street and you were slashed it would be very unlikely that it would penetrate. [But] we can never say never, because there’s all kinds of innovative weapons out there. I mean, since medieval times someone comes up with a type of armor, another person comes up with a weapon and the means to overcome it, right? So there is this sort of evolving cycle, which continues to exist. But we're very confident against slash attacks. Stab attacks are a little more difficult, but also we're confident that it leaves you in a better position than if you had cotton clothing, for example.
So what would I feel if someone slashed me in one of your shirts?
If you’re being slashed you feel pressure, but it won’t penetrate. So it might hurt a bit, but it won’t bruise. And obviously it won’t leave a cut. Now, a stab attack is different. If you get stabbed it may stop the stab, but you will have one point of pressure focused on one area. So that would be a considerable bruise. It would hurt. But it would save your life.
But let me make some distinctions here, because the materials we use in the blade resistant [material] are very different to the anti ballistic. When a bullet strikes the anti ballistic clothing it distributes the force. So the idea is to absorb the kinetic energy and distribute it. So striking one location distributes it to different parts of the body—to a larger portion of the body. Leaving a big bruise, but again the bullet will not penetrate.
And, just for kicks, let’s say I got blood on one of these shirts. Are they washable?
The blade resistant clothing is entirely washable. No problem at all. The anti-ballistic material is different. It cannot be wet. So what we do is we take the cotton that’s on the outside and weave the anti ballistic material inside with a thin layer of plastic over the top of it. So in that way, the material itself—the part that’s anti ballistic—is protected from any kind of water or water damage. So it too can be washed. But if it’s penetrated with a bullet it’s not going to be usable any more for it’s anti ballistic qualities, but by that time it will have saved your life.
Rapper Alberto Stylee wears the Peace and Respect District 13 T-shirt
You're starting with a men’s clothing line first, with a women’s line following in 2015. Why guys first? Do they get stabbed more?
Well, not necessarily. Actually, on a personal level, I believe that women need more protection, and there’s a strong demand for products that can protect women. However, we wanted a smaller market to begin with, so we started with something very targeted. We did a market study. In addition to needing this protection, men tend to be more open to buying it. They are more interested in buying the product.
How much does your stuff cost?
An anti ballistic hoodie is the most expensive line. You can imagine, these materials are not cheap, and they are woven carefully. So an anti ballistic hoodie that can stop a .38 caliber 9mm, 45 caliber cold will run you about $1,100. A blade resistant hoodie is $400.
Given that in Colombia the monthly average salary is less then $700, do you think these clothes will reach the people that need them most?
Very fair question. There is a strong market for security products in Colombia. Executives and people who do make money tend to be targets for kidnappings, for murders and for being held ransom. So our market is there. We're also obviously attracting people on the street, but the product costs are the costs. The blade resistant hoodie's material is difficult to acquire, and of course if it’s anti ballistic it can’t be cut. So we use lasers to manufacture, and of course the customer incurs some of the costs of the manufacturing process.
El Duke was a pacifist. Isn't it a bit off the mark to make body armor clothing to commemorate a rapper who promoted a message of peace? Wouldn’t a better way to honor El Duke’s memory be to fight the socioeconomic conditions in Colombia that lead to poverty and gang warfare, instead of selling body armor? It seems a bit defeatist.
Our message is "You can kill the messenger but you can’t kill the message." And we want to be able to protect that messenger as much as we can, be they El Duke or any common citizen on the street. So for us, what you're saying makes a lot of sense, but we also support local artists in the community. We are sponsoring the music of MC Radio, a very successful hip-hop artist who rapped with El Duke and who was driven out through forced displacement in District 13 shortly after El Duke’s death. We're sponsoring local hip-hop schools across Medellin and in Brooklyn as well, with the mentality that we want them to be part of that local community and we want to support those local artists. So that’s really important for us. It’s important for the brand image. The brand isn’t just armored clothing. It’s really representative of those communities and their struggle with the cycle of violence and drugs.
Thank you very much, Michael.
The “El Duke Collection” is currently raising funds on Kickstarter. Carol López, El Duke's widow, and his two children will receive a percentage of all profits from the collection.
Follow Michael Grothaus on Twitter.