Bulletproof couture may be the newest and most troubling wrinkle in the fashion industry, one encouraged by growing public fear of crime.
A new defensive hybrid, bulletproof sportswear, has just been introduced by Emgo U.S.A. Ltd., a division of Eagle International which supplies bulletproof clothing for the Israeli Defense Force. The new line includes bulletproof flight and hunting jackets and ski and after-ski jackets in your choice of earth tones. They retail for between $250 and $300. A matching bulletproof ''Eagle's head'' hat goes for a mere $70.
Until now, such protective clothing has been retailed clandestinely and wholesaled with extreme caution, to keep it out of the hands of criminals and to protect the law-enforcment officers who buy it. While they sound straight out of the ski scene in the James Bond movie ''The Spy Who Loved Me,'' the new protective sportswear may successfully cash in on a wider market. But can bulletproof clothing be popularized and still remain only in the hands of law-abiding people?
In Washington, one of the few places to buy bulletproof clothing is an unmarked shop on the second floor of a seedy street downtown. You have to know it's there to find it: Only the name of the owner identifies it, no signs, no art, no window displays. ''Soft Body Armour Sale,'' reads a cryptic sign inside the entrance as you climb the two drab flights of stairs up to the shop. It's a place where you want to whisper, ''Sam sent me,'' and where the bolted door is unlocked only if you look safe.
Most of the customers there do look eminently safe. They are uniformed policemen or burly-looking plainclothesmen who drop in to buy police gear. The aisles are full of displays of handcuffs, revolving lights, fingerprint developer, holsters, and gun-cleaning kits. Hanging from the ceiling on coat hangers are a couple of bulletproof vests done in navy blue gabardine, for $350 to $400. They are lined with a bulletproof fabric called Kevlar, weigh about four pounds, and look like small navy-blue tanks. According to the manufacturer, Kevlar is 4 1/2 or 5 times stronger than steel by weight. It's also one-third the weight of the previously used material, ballistics nylon, but three times as strong.
Even if you can find this shop, whose owner has requested anonymity for himself and his store, you will probably not be able to buy this bulletproof clothing unless you can prove a genuine need for it. The owner sells only ''with proper credentials'' from the customer:
''The problem is, we don't want it to get into the hands of criminals. Neither do the manufacturers,'' he explains. The owner is particularly aware of the need for protecting access to defensive clothing which could be used in gunfire exchanges with the police. One particular line he stocks has saved the lives of 250 to 275 policemen across the country, he claims. In addition to law-enforcement officers, those who might need the clothing and would have the proper credentials to buy it include State Department or embassy people, security-conscious executives, and journalists on hazardous assignments -- war correspondents, for instance.
The Emgo line, however, is being sold to retailers without any of the usual credentials or security screenings. Abraham Silbershatz, president of Emgo, admits his company requires no background checks on those who want to buy his new line of bulletproof apparel. ''But we are going to know who bought it. . . . The one who sells it takes the name, address, and social security number of the people involved . . . we are asking retailers to get an ID with driver's licenses. I don't know how thorough the retailers are going to be.''
Each garment is rated by its stopping power for certain guns and bullets, and Emgo stands behind its product to the extent of giving away a two-year insurance policy with each purchase. The Home Insurance Company of New York will pay up to
To critics who say screening for all buyers should be mandatory, Mr. Silbershatz replies: ''If criminals can get guns, who's to stop them from getting this?''
New York State Assemblyman John Dearie, for one. He has proposed a law requiring state licenses for bulletproof clothing and a background check of their buyers. Silbershatz is against the proposed law, reasoning that ''if something's bought with a license, people like to buy it more, like Prohibition. Jackets can't shoot,'' he adds, in an echo of the National Rifle Association's ''Guns don't kill people -- people kill people'' campaign.
Silbershatz is bullish about his bulletproof line, hoping to sell 20,000 pieces before Christmas to taxi drivers, truck drivers, sportsmen, and the general public.
Another bulletproof clothing manufacturer, Progressive Apparel of Fairfax, Va., sells directly from its factory to government personnel, journalists, and some executives, as well as law enforcement officers. ''We sell to the general public on occasion, only when we feel it will be of no public detriment,'' says its president, Robert Coppage. Mr. Coppage says his company screens all prospective buyers with a check of references and occupation.
Requests for the bulletproof clothing sold by Progressive Apparel have more than doubled in the last two or three years, according to Coppage. He says much of the increase is coming from the general public as a result of increased terrorism worldwide.
His company stocks what he calls ''a complete apparel line for bullet-stopping clothing'' for men and women, which includes underwear. It even boasts a bulletproof bra, built into a protective ballistics panel, for $200. Mr. Coppage explains that the ballistics panel bra is in demand with the increasing number of women in security and law-enforcement jobs, as are the ''dress blouses'' for $300.
Progressive also offers a line of suits to be worn with its ''dress vest'' for men which is tagged at $350. Men's and women's raincoats ($500-$700) are also available, as well as an attache case ($200-$400) for a complete off-the-rack bulletproof ensemble for around $1,000; custom-tailoring costs more. Coppage explains that generally one bulletproof item is considered adequate.
While bulletproof clothing does protect its wearer, he admits that ''heat is a severe problem'' in warm climates. A recent Washington Post report by Joanne Omang on reporters covering the war in El Salvador noted that ''journalists often have taken to comparing their bulletproof flak jackets, judging them on weight, fit, and how much sweat they produce. Covered in nylon and washable only in Woolite or a fine shampoo, the labels say, the vests are almost unbearable in the hot, dusty countryside. Those who have them wear them anyway, even though nobody knows of any incident in which they have come in handy.''