Miguel Caballero aimed his .38 caliber pistol, took a deep breath, and shot his wife — as gently as possible.
He wasn’t happy about shooting the mother of his children for the second time in nine years. But when you’re a purveyor of high-fashion bulletproof clothing trying to break into the biggest market in the hemisphere — the United States — you have to take a few risks.
Caballero’s clothing line is based in Colombia, marketed under the name MC Armor in the U.S. and newly available in Miami. It’s both stylish and effective enough to stop a bullet. But it’s Caballero’s showmanship — the 49-year-old has shot more than 230 volunteers to prove how effective his clothing is — that has made him something of a CEO celebrity in Latin America.
Three months ago, the 25-year-old company set up a distribution center in Miami to provide its bulletproof sports coats, safari jackets and t-shirts to the United States. And heading that project is Carolina Ballesteros, Caballero’s wife — and target.
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“I swore to myself I would never do that again,” Caballero said, after he had pumped a shot at her stomach to make a promotional video for social media. “But she’s trying to open up the American market, and I’m helping her in every way I can.”
After the smoke had cleared, Caballero dug the bullet out from the vest’s multiple layers. As always, it had mushroomed into a harmless lead curio.
Caballero’s clothing line is being sold in gun shops — 10 in Florida and others in Texas and California.
The company’s flagship product is a patented lightweight and flexible bulletproof tank top that can be worn discreetly under regular clothes. The shirt comes with different levels of protection, but the most basic model weighs about 2.4 pounds and is rated to stop .38-caliber, .22-caliber and 9-millimeter bullets. It has a starting price of $495.
Like all ballistic vests, the item loses its warranty once it has been put to the test, but anybody unlucky enough to have that problem gets a free replacement and inclusion in Miguel Caballero’s “survivors club.”
Ballesteros, who’s splitting her time between Colombia and the United States, said she’s been impressed at how receptive U.S. buyers have been.
“We’ve been selling at gun stores, to Uber drivers, to doctors, lawyers, professors,” she said. “People have been very interested in the product.”
Josh Anderson is the manager of Miami’s Johnson Firearms, which carries MC Armor. The tank-tops, in particular, have been popular.
“The beautiful thing is that it’s appealing to higher-end clientele. It’s something that will give them protection but not look like they’re wearing a vest,” he said. “You can walk around Wynwood at night and not worry about somebody popping you.”
When Caballero started the enterprise in the 1990s, Colombia was one of the most murderous countries in the hemisphere, and almost everyone seemed to be a potential target. It forced him to make some grim innovations: he produced bulletproof Bible covers for threatened priests, armored backpacks for school children, and once, as a special order, he made a bulletproof kimono.
But as Colombia has grown safer, Caballero has been forced to look abroad. With sales of $25 million last year, about 76 percent of his merchandise is exported.
“If we had to depend on Colombia for business, we would have gone broke a while ago,” Caballero said.
Now, violence-plagued Mexico and Central America are his top markets, but he also has distributors throughout Africa and the Middle East. The company recently opened two stores in Iraq.
Caballero’s 4,500-square-foot factory on the outskirts of Bogotá employs 470 people who churn out the reinforced fashion wear, along with more standard flak jackets and protective gear for the armed forces, including visors, riot gear and heavily armored mine-clearing outfits.
The U.S. market could be a game changer for the company. Home to anywhere from 270 million to 310 million guns and more than 6,100 gun stores, the United States is a mecca for anyone selling weapon accessories or ballistic products.
Coming from Latin America, where weapon sales tend to be tightly restricted, Ballesteros said she’s been impressed that gun shopping is a family affair in the United States.
“There are more than 5,000 gun shows every year — they’re like flea markets — and you see young kids carrying rifles and people pushing shopping carts full of guns,” she said.
Caballero said he expects the United States eventually will be the company’s largest market. And he plans to keep innovating to keep up with changing tastes. On a recent weekday, he and some of his designers were toying with the idea of making a bullet-proof strap, much like a weight belt, that can be worn with standard vests to provide more protection around the waist and sides.
As part of his marketing strategy, Caballero has shot hundreds of people — journalists, his lawyer, most of his employees, potential clients — to prove how effective his vests are. He recently shot street magician David Blaine during one of his live stage shows. He’s hoping his harmless execution routine (it’s performed with a slightly thicker vest so there’s no bruising or welts) will eventually get him into Guinness Book of World Records.
What he won’t do again is shoot his wife. Visibly rattled after unloading his .38 into her stomach, he walked off his nerves.
“Now I know why doctors should never operate on their own family members,” he said.
Follow me on Twitter @jimwyss