Miguel Caballero had me choose the bullet he was going to shoot me with.
Caballero is a tailor based out of Bogotá, Colombia. Some call him the "Armored Armani," although he doesn't like the nickname. He makes stylish bulletproof clothing, for when you want to look sharp and stay alive at the same time.
We were standing at point-blank range in front of rows and rows of sewing machines and workers in his skylight-domed, four-story, 48,000-square-foot warehouse on the edge of the city. It was noon. I donned an Italian suede Petra jacket with a removable collar, a newer item from Caballero's line. The coat seemed too fly to stop a bullet.
Caballero assured me he only shoots toward organs people have two of. He asked me where my belly button was, marking off the target in front of my left kidney with his fingers. He held up a small digital siren signaling to his workers the gunshot was coming, and for them to put their fingers in their ears. "Uno, dos," Caballero loudly counted. Then he shot me with a .38 revolver.
During the height of Colombia's Pablo Escobar lead narco-violence in the early 90s, Caballero was in college studying business administration. He knew a girl there who had to have bodyguards. She wore big, burly, uncomfortable Kevlar vests with shorts. Seeing her this way sparked Caballero's idea to create protection that was comfortable, discreet, and good looking.
Caballero has now been making bulletproof clothing for 24 years. There are Miguel Caballero stores in Colombia, Mexico, and Guatemala, distributing to 24 countries around the world. The fashion oriented clothing can be found in his Black line. Military grade vests, shields, helmets, and bomb-suits are in his S33 line. Caballero said he recorded $20 million in sales last year.
Whatever your needs, Caballero can customize a design. He has Taser-proof material, knife-proof material, and fire-proof material. He once made a bulletproof Bible. "The pastor had enemies," he said.
The week after the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, Caballero he received 40 emails from parents. In response, he made a bulletproof child-sized backpack
Caballero said his clients include the Colombian military and police, and 11 Latin American presidents. He has reportedly made a white dinner jacket for Diddy, tunics for Wu-Tang Clan, and a bulletproof kimono for Steven Seagal. It's rumored that he also outfitted Obama for his inauguration in 2009.
When gun violence hits, however, Caballero gets inquiries from all kinds of ordinary folks as well.
The week after the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, Caballero said he received 40 emails from parents wanting to protect their kids. In response, he made a bulletproof child-sized backpack as part of the MC Kids line. The backpack uses anti-bullet plates that can protect against a Glock semiautomatic handgun, but not a Bushmaster .223 (the rifle used at Sandy Hook). The panel needed to stop a Bushmaster would weigh too much for kids to carry around.
I asked Caballero what he thinks about America's situation with guns and shootings. He didn't mention outfitting everyone with bulletproof uniforms.
"The constitution there gives people the right to have guns," he said. "Getting control of the guns would help. And if you could figure out those in need of psychological help, to identify people who were going to be the possible killers beforehand, I think that would help."
According to Caballero's production team, the technology behind their bulletproof fabrics begins with multi-layered tissue. A cross-linked fiber design traps a bullet when it hits, then spreads energy of the impact across a wider area.
The designs use the principle of numerical advantage: the number of strong individual fibers, plus the number of superimposed layers. When a bullet hits and tries to separate the fibers, resistant wires hold their position, forcing the bullet to flatten. Some threads are broken, but they're supported by many more absorbing the energy as a network.
Caballero says his best selling item is his tank-top Armor T-Shirt, which costs $1,690. It weighs 1.98 lbs. and is surprisingly light and malleable. Beneath the fabric it feels like there's a thin layer of putty, providing protection against 9mm and .357 Magnum rounds. You can wear it under other clothing, and no one would know you have it on.
Caballero's 2016 designs are sleeker and more discreet than ever. The new Baeza dinner blazer is a suave combination of corduroy, cotton, and suede, with a cost ranging from $1,500 to $4,000 depending on what level of protection the buyer wants. The sporty women's Nazca Vest ($3,800) features an anti-trauma plate and breastbone protection in a flexible, slimming fit. The ballistic panels can halt rounds from .357 Magnums, 38 Supers, and mini Uzi submachine guns.
All Miguel Caballero items are certified by the National Institute of Justice, which is a branch of the US Department of Justice that tests body armor to make sure it complies with ballistic resistance standards. The suede jacketI had on was level II, meaning it's certified to stop .9mm, .45mm, .38mm, and .22 caliber rounds, while still being nice enough to wear to Mother's Day brunch.
It took Caballero forever to shoot me. I was glad he was thorough with the preparations. He double and triple checked the target on my coat.
I tried not to think about the ballistic panels in my jacket. I tried not think about vital organs. I tried not to think about gun laws, and the NRA, and accessible mental health care. Mostly, I tried not to think about being afraid.
As I waited for Caballero to pull the trigger, I thought about all the people killed by gunfire that might still be alive if they had worn one of these garments, and for the final instant fear surged through me.
He chooses to shoot people in front of his workers to display his products. "We cannot have one little mistake."
When Caballero fired the shot, the ballistic panel did its job, stopping the bullet cold. The impact felt like a buddy-punch. No welt was left, no scratch.
He chooses to shoot people in front of his workers to display his products. "I am telling my people we have to be excellent in the quality of our product," he said. "We cannot have one little mistake."
There was applause. I got a T-shirt (non-bulletproof) that says, "I Was Shot by Miguel Caballero—Official Survivor." With it, I can confirm Caballero's product works. At least, my suede jacket did. I thanked him for shooting me. Then he sped off to a meeting.
The launch of Caballero's 2016 line, and his preparation for the NRA sponsored "Shot Show" convention in Las Vegas at the end of January have made him a busy man. Before I left, I tried to get my hands on a bulletproof Bible, but there were none to be found.