A lot of people talk about military spec benefits, but they think it’s just a big zip or a patch on some ripstop nylon. Everyone likes camo, yet the purpose of military apparel and accessories seems a little taboo these days. I’m fairly interested in material technologies and the notion of making something that has to perform in life-threatening situations, because, by my logic, even a diluted version of that build is going to serve me as a civilian in any situation my non military existence throws at me (bar a Red Dawn style invasion).
I appreciate that the army jacket love can be more influenced by a Nas lyric or a Japanese photoshoot than by those who put them to their intended use, but we need to understand the true intent as well as all the cheery subcultural stuff too. In a similar way, I respect running and how it relates to footwear design, even though running shoes as a statement were popularised by drug dealers and kids with lovable rogues (a nice way to say career criminal) as brothers, fathers or cousins rather than athletes. It helps to look at objects from as many sides as possible.
I’ve got a lot of respect for SOTech (Special Operations Technologies), who are based in Los Angeles. Mr. Rob Abeyta Jr. put me onto them (Rob knows more about military life than internet bystanders like me do) and he also gave me the opportunity to interview Mr. Jim Cragg, the president of SOTech, about American-made tactical gear. If your brand makes nigh-on indestructible bags and experienced a boost in business after the Bank of America shootout (which I’m faintly obsessed with), then I’m more interested in talking to you than I am if you’ve just started a streetwear brand that homages Givenchy and Margiela. I’d kind of given up on writing for magazines late last year, because nobody actually reads them — they Instagram the cover next to a coffee and then give it a cursory flick-through during a quick shit. But I had to make an exception for this one.
The magazines Jim (who is a super nice guy and not anything like Eddie Sherman from Seinfeld) designs for aren’t the paper kind, and they actually serve a purpose, but crucially, I was keen to chat to him because he has a dedication to his craft that I think is genuinely inspiring, and I wanted to learn a little more about design as it relates to survival. Plus the trainer expert and menswear blogger tag needs to be contradicted. Jim makes things using a process SOTech calls overbuilding. Overbuilding isn’t overdesigning and covering things with ruinous silliness, it’s making something better than other people because it matters and customers who aren’t dead are a good advertisement for what the company does. Because bootlegging is rife in the military design world, SOTech bootlegs itself and makes cheaper versions of its own products overseas under the Paladin But they’ve also done some work with Vans and Stüssy too.
This ended up in latest issue of The New Order, but I think it’s also something that a handful of people who visit this blog might get a kick out of, while the rest will wonder where the old ads are. I’m looking forward to seeing what Rob and Jim’s impending SOT-BLK line looks like too. This also reminded me that I need to add a feature section to this blog for this kind of thing.
JIM CRAGG (PRESIDENT OF SPECIAL OPERATIONS TECHNOLOGIES) Q&A
Jim, how did SOTech start?
JIM: SOTech began in my mind and my muscles every time I went to the field with my unit. At the time I was in a Special Operations unit, but my body was racked with two strains of malaria that I had contracted working in refugee camps in South East Asia. The malaria devastated my body and made every lift and flex count, getting me thinking about building better load carriage systems for everything from parachutes to pocket knives. The Malaria as a recurrent disease also derailed my Army career and I was looking to diversify into a related job field.
While serving as an Army Reservist, I set up SOTech while renting out my brother’s dining room which I converted into a bedroom/sewing room. I soon had a steady stream of police patrol cars stopped in front of the house in Encino, California. I was working as a substitute teacher in the LAUSD which I really enjoyed too. I found a niche immediately as policemen and soldiers from across the country began contacting me through word of mouth referrals.
In late 1998, an SF buddy of mine named Dave Thomas gave me rent-free space in the back of his graphics factory. The military and law enforcement may be a good ol’ boy network, but that network is good advertising when you get a reputation for taking care of the troops and patrolmen. The company grew exponentially from there. The custom shop has been part of our DNA from the beginning.
Did you have a separate premises for the early days of custom work?
The custom shop WAS the shop. When we occupied the factory space, I started with three staff and increased to 6 over 3 years (including myself as a sewer/supervisor). We treated a 2-piece order the same way we treated a 300 piece order. Every customer was a lawman or warrior in need and every design was a challenge
What kind of custom commissions were you taking on back then?
From day one we’ve serviced the need — whatever on-the-ground need an operator was facing at that time. When an elite unit operates at the tip of the spear, standard gear has normally not developed to meet that soldier, lawman or rescuer’s mission requirement. Their mission’s function in that extreme unknown of operating environments, and gear has caught up. We get to sit down with those cutting edge warriors, listen to their tactical requirements, find out about their newest tools and devices, and find a way to build load carriage systems to fit their mission.
Typically, the rest of the military or law enforcement will see what they are doing, and a few years later the Department of Defense will commission projects to develop gear, frequently off our concepts, and begin fielding them to conventional forces. By that time of course, we are working with our customers to develop systems that are leaps ahead of those now old designs. In the early days we were developing load vests, holsters, belts, vertical entry, riot control, medical, and explosive breaching systems just to name a few.
What were the relationships that defined the company?
We developed close relationships with LA Sheriffs SEB (SWAT), DEA MET, LAPD, LA FBI SWAT, LAPD Bomb Squad and 19th Group SF at first. We had a steady flow of the top team members from these teams dropping by to commission some radical designs. Working with these top programs gave bona fides to the quality of the designs and soon we were hearing from agencies across the US. We frequently had customers fly into LAX from government agencies on the East Coast, taxi to our office in the morning, provide a device and hands on description, and by the afternoon we had fitted a custom rig to the operator and drove them to the airport for an evening flight back to the East Coast. One of SOTech’s key differentiators is that I set up our business model as a service provider and not a product manufacturer.
Do you see yourself as a craftsman?
We are craftsmen providing a service to people conducting complex and life-threatening missions with great social relevance. This way we focused on providing utility solutions to customers, not on profit-making mass productions. Frankly, had I looked at this as a numbers, quantities and efficiencies based business, I wouldn’t have justified keeping the doors open. But when you are providing short runs of a tool to a fellow special ops troop, you are willing to eat ramen noodles and rice for a few more months. The profit wasn’t there, but we walked away with hundreds of designs from “the dark side” that are now in demand across the spectrum.
Did you feel that the quality of military equipment had started to dip in the mid 1990s?
As a military historian, I’ll say there was a surge in the development of military load carriage gear in the late 1700s, and since then gear development was pathetic. The same forms of packs, pouches and belts went from leather to canvas to nylon right up through the 1990s.
The monolithic thinking of soldiers in mass formation wanting everyone to look uniform stifled radical thinking literally for centuries. I still deal with it today, in law enforcement more than the military. I was just fortunate in the 1990s to be serving in Special Operations where very few Sergeant Majors were eyeballing your gear, and commanders were more interested in the ability to accomplish the mission than in looking “right” for the award ceremony afterwards.
The major impetus to allow change in the conventional forces was the inception of ballistic armour in the conventional field forces. This forced people to accept soldiers and policemen looking differently than they had when their fathers and grandfathers had gone to war.
To many of us, the Bank of America shootout felt more like a movie than most Hollywood films — how profound an effect on the business did that have with regards to police purchases?
The Bank of America shootout brought the threat of danger home to policemen and women. It was Vietnam and Beirut-style machine gun fire in suburban America. The vision of body armour and full auto fire opened the minds of a lot of senior officials and broke them away from black leather gun belts, blue suits and shiny badges. Now the sight of a nylon drop leg taser holster, an active shooter go bag, or a MACTAC pack is common sight on Police walking our streets. Back then it would have been called “paramilitary”. Today, US citizens feel safer running to a deputy wearing a tactical vest, but a decade ago the perception was that citizens only felt comfortable with the pressed shirt and leather belt look. This was profound for SOTech.
With that shootout, we led the way in development by creating clip on thigh rigs for ammo carriers to the officer’s leather belt rigs. That opened minds to allow the M26 Taser to be clipped on — previously they couldn’t get cops to use the taser because there was no room for it on the belt, so it was left in the car. Subsequently, thousands of lives have been saved because officers have had the non-lethal option whereas otherwise they would have only been able to employ the lethal option. This has opened minds to many other tools and their carriage systems. Law enforcement has changed drastically in the last decade, and it’s awesome to be riding the lip of that wave.
Was manufacturing in the USA always part of the plan?
USA manufacturing has been an issue of both quality control and rapid change and improvement. Of course every week when I hand out paychecks I’m reminded of the American families that we support and the local economic infrastructure this supports. But I have always focused on flexibility in our production. If a customer calls up and tells me that a retention strap is blighting the tall guy on his team, I can walk out to the floor, adjust and re-sew the sample, and change our production run. I’ve seen competitors get stuck with 3000 vests of an old imperfect design that they tried to push on unwitting customers. But when it takes 6 months to get a design in from China or Vietnam, once you’ve received that tractor-trailer full of gear, there’s no easy way to change the order.
Do you find that other manufacturers of product are creating gear overseas?
Offshore quality simply cannot match production that you oversee. I have had personal experience with offshore sewers trying to cheat my standards with cheaper materials and stitch work. And when it comes down to servicemen’s lives, it really bothered me to see them being equipped with offshore made gear that I know wouldn’t last a deployment. But there is always someone in the supply chain trying to make more money, and a purchaser trying to “save” more money.
Is it beneficial from a patriotic angle that sits with the nature of the product as well as a quality control standpoint?
I think that the quality control standpoint is the patriotic standpoint. If American innovation and quality is not worth the extra cost of buying American, then we aren’t doing our duty as Americans or industry leaders to inspire our countrymen. I thinking buying American solely to give jobs to a person of our own nationality helps no one.
The Paladin overseas manufactured approach of almost bootlegging yourself is an interesting one — how rife is imitation within the military gear industry?
Knocking myself off with producing Paladin copies of SOTech designs fought fire with fire, and we won. I went to my dealers and distributers and put it bluntly: if you buy offshore product from me, at least the profits will go to keeping open SOTech’s design studio and you will get radical new designs in the future. If you give the orders for these designs to the offshore brands, SOTech will fold and they won’t have new designs to copy next year! It worked. Military and law enforcement gear was so rife with imported copies, that we had to make an effort to educate government contracting officers how to tell when a product is Berry Compliant or not.
When imported tourniquets began to fail on severely wounded soldiers, this signified a dark time in our industrial supply of our youth going to war. Luckily, I believe that the military is well beyond the spin up period in the war where they had to buy what was available, and are now making calculated developments and purchases as the war winds down. This means that the opportunists that tried to jump at last-minute deployment funds to sell an offshore made copy product are running out of targets. I’ve already seen some of these businesses disappear, but only after having made a fast buck.
Is it a race to patent as you go along?
Patenting designs is delicate art, but required in defense contracting. I have fought and won two lengthy court battles involving our patents (we have 10 patents). But sadly, even the US military has begun generating its own designs that look eerily like commercial products, and attempt to narrowly skirt citizen’s patents. The Marine Corps puts on meetings inviting companies to bring in their designs to show off. But most of the invited companies are afraid to bring their designs for fear that the Marine Corps will “incorporate” the designs into a USMC-owned pack design. Patenting products can be a hassle in the fast paced world of production, but when I pay the money to go out and interface with the operator in the field, my product will be priced to cover that extra expense, so the patent is used to protect the innovation from those companies that will attempt to profit from our work without incurring the expense.
Have you been endeavoring to employ veterans since the very start?
Employing veterans evolved from a desire to have staff members who had a base commonality with our primary customers into an effort to promote awareness that veterans have a significantly higher rate of unemployment than the average citizen. Employing veterans is a two-edged sword. On one hand you get a motivated worker who is experienced in working within a disciplined organization. On the other hand you engage an employee who has experienced some of the harshest extremes that our culture can endure, and may have suffered from it.
Part of my goal is to build a bridge with our designs to bring back our veteran population from an isolation state to a core of American culture state. This can be done by a veteran fresh back from the Middle East seeing a kid on a skateboard wearing a backpack of the same design that he lived out of on patrol. It’s those subconscious connections between the street and combat that can have deeper impacts than a fashion statement.
Has the business grown significantly in the post 9/11 climate?
It has grown since 9/11. Part of that is natural business expansion based on our capabilities. Part of that is vastly increased congressional spending because of wartime demands. And part of that is a bond that has developed between the street purchaser and people who have been sent to war.
Performance in this case is so critical. Is that responsibility something that can be stressful? On an athletic item, something small can be the difference between first and second place — here it can be a life or death situation.
Combat, rural search and rescue, and street policing are all games of odds with death in the balance. Every feature offers you one more advantage. Every sane person that enters into these professions spends hours contemplating the odds they face and every little way they can improve those odds. I used to say that if your vest is ounces more ergonomic than your adversary’s rig, after you both patrol 15 miles to the point of engagement, will that added measure of energy that you have and he doesn’t give you the ability to raise your gun barrel faster? Or maybe you should ask, will that lighter weight design allow you to make it that last kilometer to back to base camp?
Military and police products seem like competitive marketplaces — do soldiers and officers buy their own gear?
Typically, the agency provides a government approved and issued set of mission essential gear. Most agencies acknowledge that this gear is designed around the last war, so they allow small units to use funds to buy gear and for commanders to approve soldiers and policemen to privately purchase gear. Serious operators buy their own gear with foresight into the next fight that they are engaging. Good commanders similarly look for gear for their units to improve their soldiers’ survival. A Brigade Sergeant Major Ken Riley of the Falcon Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division came to us, designed a paratrooper chest harness off our internal magazine slot design and secured approval and funds to purchase 3,000 for his brigade heading to Iraq. It was a great experience meeting a Falcon brigade soldier who had been saved by the design when a RPG rocket was fired at him.
Are contracts swayed by pricing over quality?
When Congress says, “we put a priority on saving the lives of the sons and daughters of our constituents” the military takes that money and buys the best quality gear. When the war starts to draw down, and congressional funding diminishes, you read statements like, “this contract will be judged in terms of price, utility, durability, and prior performance, in that order” you know the contracting office just had its budget cut.
Do you feel your military insight makes all the difference with SOTech? To have been out in the field and seen needs and potential consequences must be invaluable. It’s hard to imagine that someone who hasn’t seen combat would think to create baggage that neatly stacks magazines in movement.
Having served in the field gives you a focus on the priority, but also a cognizance of the whole picture. The natural inclination is to think solely of the tactical action —setting the explosive charge, closing the wound, shooting the sniper rifle — but when you have truly experienced the environment, you bring into account the peripheral impacts like the sounds of metal rattling, the dangling protective glasses, the last second need to access your radio to call the team leader and the sudden need to access a tourniquet to stop your buddy’s bleeding. When you are planning a great white shark cage dive, all you can think of leading up to it is the massive shark, but the second you hit the water, that freezing cold water seeping into your wetsuit brings you back to the reality of your environment.
The notion of overbuilding is a fascinating one — does that deliver a challenge in creating something that’s rugged enough yet free of superfluous elements that could weigh or constrict in a combat situation?
15 years ago we developed our reputation overbuilding everything. The conventional soldier’s gear needs to last 10 days of continuous use before failure, but Special Operations Forces require 90 days before failure. When we went into Afghanistan, you now found troops fighting at 12,000 feet chasing terrorists in man-jammies up hillsides. So we engaged the challenge by maintaining the overbuilt qualities at key load bearing and wear points while minimizing buckles and webbing that weren’t 100% required. It was actually both fun and fascinating because we were led to dissect the tactical operator’s user feedback even deeper to allow us to determine what was kept and what was removed.
How critical is user feedback on these pieces? When you’re equipping people for anything, access and ease of use must be something that’s constantly a work-in-progress.
It’s a fascinating process. The best part of my job is getting down and dirty with the customer to determine what they are doing in the field and what their actual requirements are. Here you work with their historic mission examples, current tactics, techniques and procedures, and projected future threats. If you could only put a camera on some of these discussions. On the flip side, 15 years of experience has taught me that every operator has his own opinion. Just because one soldier out of 5,000 who got issued the piece of gear complains about the placement of a flap, doesn’t mean you have to go change the design immediately for everyone…so you develop a filter and systems to test feedback and get multiple opinions.
How pioneering was SOTech in designing modular baggage for battle?
From day one, I always saw load-bearing gear as systems. The hard part was breaking the military away from its centuries old concept of, “everything you need for your mission has to be carried in your backpack”. As a company that specialized in mission focused gear, we were able to sneak these concepts into medical pack systems, explosive breacher pack systems and sniper systems. Each of these were set up modularly with grab and go bags supported by advanced kit resupply inserts. Once these were in the field with the elite special operations units, the rest of the military and later law enforcement had to embrace reality.
The concept is simple: finally realizing that your troops are almost always within a kilometer of their vehicles, if you need to carry 6 devices for your mission but need to lighten your load, why not carry 3 and leave 3 on the truck? Just send a troop to run to the truck and grab the go bag with the other three devices. That’s why customers call us “the home of the go bag.”
Focusing on an item like the Patrolman’s Magazine Rig Belt Hanger, how many alterations has a design like that had over the last 16 years?
A good design is a good design. Changes come from trends in lighter fabric, changes is belt style and color trends. But I frequently smile when I see a large order from a police department for a design I came up with in the bedroom-sewing studio that I started in.
Is there scope for timelessness when it comes to military design? I get the impression that SOTech is a restless company creatively.
I told myself when I had 40 designs competed that I would be finished when I reached 80. Then it became 150, then 300. Now we have over 1,500 designs hanging on the sample wall and there is no end in sight. The principles of utility, simplicity and durability have a timelessness to them, but the eternal competitive nature of military design means that until we achieve world peace, someone will always be thinking of a way to outdo his adversary. Beyond that, we at SOTech want to take our designs beyond the military and law enforcement realm to provide the utility development to the street, sport and professional worlds. We have been inspired to develop some great concepts for the life and death environments, and now I feel a social duty to provide them to other areas of society.
Are there significant differences in creating products for combat and for combat support?
Not really. In the modern conflicts, everyone is a target and thus requires the same principals applied.
Do you have a specific testing process for SOTech products?
We listen, build a sample, send it for field-testing, make adjustments, retest, get approval, and then produce. As revisions come in, we integrate and retest. We have a solid core of friends who test the gear for us.
Has the quest to find the perfect Cordura been a challenge?
Its been more of a nuisance. The industry provides great quality fabric in 1000 denier, 500 denier, and 300 denier, which are military standards. It’s often overwhelming when people try to make cheaper, inferior cloths and hound us to try them out only to find that there is a reason that they are cheaper.
The obscurity of the clasps SOTech uses is something different in the market — are they sourced or custom-made for you?
Yes, we commissioned custom fasteners and the military approved them. When it’s dark, and your hands are cold and muddy, getting into a pouch to retrieve a survival device is no time to realize your zipper pulls are too small to grab. This situation has dire meaning when a wounded soldier is bleeding in front of you, but I find it helpful every day I unzip to pull my laptop out of my go bag.
Using thread so thick that the sewing machines have to be modified for it is the kind of thing that an accountant will never comprehend — does that approach to manufacture prove far more expensive than regular manufacturing processes?
I have been at odds with my accountant since day one. But I believe China currently beats America in mass production efficiency. But where America beats China is in innovation — when we were willing to go that extra mile that the mass producers couldn’t, we established ourselves as a cut above.
Has the location of the company been beneficial in terms of onscreen presence of SOTech products in movies?
Being located near Hollywood has always been a benefit for SOTech. It has been fun for our staff, and having access to arsenals full of dummy props for design purposes has been great. But the advertising we have gotten for our designs has been unreal. Movies like Transformers and Proof of Life became the talk of the gear community.
Has that helped business?
I’ve always looked at it as a fun side business, but providing props has become a notable part of our marketing. And now studying social media marketing and its interconnection with media, I see imagery that originated in Hollywood films promoting SOTech gear finding its way in images and video bits into multiple social media outlets.
Have you seen an increase in urban usage of SOTech products?
I really feel that the demand for SOTech bags on the urban market is more than just a trend, I see it as people on the street connecting with people downrange. After all, a majority of the Special Forces and SEALS that I know were riding skateboards before they enlisted.
So many non-military brands boast Mil-Spec details, but it sounds more like a buzzword.
I get frustrated with the term Mil-Spec because we pay extra money to have our raw materials certified Military Specification, and I see companies throughout the industry stamping Mil-Spec on products that I wouldn’t wear to a baby shower, much less into combat.
Is serving in the military and still running a company where customers are encouraged to demand to speak to you if the product isn’t up to scratch a difficult task?
I’d rather be interfacing with happy or unhappy customers than sitting through financial meetings! I live to communicate with the troops. It’s what keeps me in touch and invigorated. Still serving adds to my depth of concern. I have the same concerns for my soldiers as does the customer on the other end of the line. I hope I never lose that sense of responsibility, even after I leave the service.
How did you end up working with Rob? Was the bag for Vans the first project you worked on?
Rob was working with a team at Stüssy that took an interest in our tubular SOTech Go Bag design. I think that because of Rob’s prior life as an infantryman, he wasn’t afraid to reach out of the urban world into the military contractor world to talk to us. Rather than have a civilian company make a version of our design, why not go for authenticity and develop the bag that was actually used in combat? I’m really glad he reached out. It has given us at SOTech a creative outlet that we have been looking for and it has had positive impacts on all facets of our development as a company. Rob brought us in and we did a backpack for Stüssy that really changed our company tone. After that, Vans engaged us for the DualForces bag and shoe collaboration. Right now, we are building a skateboard travel bag system with Anthony Van Engelen. This spring, we’re working together on the SOT-BLK (Special Operation Technologies, Black) line.