MIAMI - It's a sweltering South Florida day but Jorge Cardenas still wears his hooded zipper sweater when replenishing the ATMs he owns.
The $1,000, hip-hop style jacket is slightly bulky, yet comfortable and stylish — and bullet-resistant. "The whole idea is to blend in," he said.
Cardenas is one of a small number of Americans with high-risk occupations who wear bullet-resistant clothing that's made to look normal, not the bulky and obvious vests worn by police officers. It's a product made by a few, mostly foreign-based companies that don't advertise heavily, so most individuals and companies don't even know the clothing exists.
"It's mostly word of mouth," said John Sexton with Sexton Executive Security, based in Fairfax, Va. Most of his U.S. clients don't request protective clothing. "The companies that pre-plan for something going wrong are very much a minority."
First, let's be clear: There is no bulletproof clothing. For every protective vest, there is a gun whose bullets can pierce it.
But bullet-resistant clothing can offer degrees of protection, from small-caliber handguns up through high-powered rifles. Prices can range from less than $1,000 for a simple shirt that protects against many handguns to several thousand dollars for a stylish leather jacket that offers maximum protection.
Only one designer, Miguel Caballero, is a major player in the U.S., which he sees as a potential growth market. His Colombia-based firm, which bears his name, sold about $6.4 million worth of bullet-resistant clothing for civilian use last year, accounting for 40 percent of its revenue. It also sells traditional bullet-resistant vests to the police and military.
The clothes are manufactured in Colombia with final touches in Mexico, using thick strands of synthetic fibers known as aramids, tightly woven and layered to create a bullet-resistant barrier. An office near Miami serves as the U.S. distribution center.
Items range in price from around $800 to as much as $14,000, depending on the style, sizing and level of protection. An Italian leather jacket with the lowest level of protection can run $5,900. Polo T-shirts can start at around $4,000.
The clothes are meant to be unnoticeable. And while they are heavier than a regular article of clothing — a polo shirt with medium protection can weigh just over 4 pounds, while a leather jacket can weigh between 5 and 6 pounds — new technology has made them lighter and more functional and fashionable. Those include:
— A system designed to radiate the energy from the point of impact, reducing the blow on the body
— Waterproof panels that protect against humidity and body sweat
— Custom-made designs
— A fabric that helps regulate body heat.
Some of the company's biggest markets are Mexico, where drug-related crime is rife, India, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Brazil and the rest of Latin America. The clothing is also being sold at the luxury store Harrods in London. Caballero says his clientele include presidents Alvaro Colom of Guatemala and Alvaro Uribe of Colombia, action-movie star Steven Seagal and most recently the princess of Thailand.
Cardenas bought his Caballero hoodie in June after police suggested he needed protection as he loads and removes money from his ATMs. Several South Florida security companies and armored vehicles have been robbed.
It has Level II protection, which means it would protect against most handguns used on the streets, but not an assault rifle.
"But we don't expect to be in that type of situation," he says.
Even in the hot summer months, Cardenas wears the jacket every time he replenishes the ATM machines and doesn't regret the expense: "How much is your life worth?"
Robert Oatman, president of R.L. Oatman & Associates, a security and protection firm from Towson, Md., agrees but he doesn't know if the U.S. will ever be a major market for bullet-resistant clothes — his clients never ask for it.
"It's not going to be an easy sell. If it's that dangerous, why are you in that area to begin with?" he said.
But Caballero is undeterred. He is looking into incorporating cashmere and other luxury items into his collections, especially for women. New products are being tested that would protect other areas of the body, such as the legs, plus garments that would safeguard against other weapons like knives and not just guns.
Caballero, who now lives in Mexico, laughed when asked if he uses his own product, particularly when traveling in more dangerous countries.
"Where they know me, yes," he said. "Where they don't, no."