Guns in the closet

Rihanna’s got a gun. Rihanna’s got a gun—tote, that is. And the punk rock pop princess isn’t the only one. Vlieger & Vandam’s Guardian Angel Tote, easily recognizable via its embossed gun detail, is, if you believe in such things, the next must-have bag (although MoMA’s had one in their permanent collection since 2006). The Dutch brand also sells handgun-embossed iPad cases, clutches, and wallets— and they aren’t the only members of fashion’s hot new Bang Bang Club. Betsey Johnson’s revolver prints, first introduced in 1985, have made a comeback in recent seasons, while gun-shaped charms and pendants are too numerous to count.

Vlieger & Vandam’s   Guardian Angel Tote

Vlieger & Vandam’s Guardian Angel Tote

Firearm brands are getting in on the action via their own lifestyle extensions; Smith & Wesson released a line of higher-end fashions earlier this year, and Glock introduced a new apparel line this month. The New York Times just ran a piece on the increasing popularity of “covert fashions,” designed to carry concealed weapons while still looking hot to trot. Even mainstream sportswear brand Under Armour will soon release jackets, pants, and shirts with Velcro pockets for easy weapon access.

But not everyone is a fan of gun culture’s trendy new status, notably the Transit Security Administration (TSA). Last December, TSA officials detained a 17-year-old girl because of a gun design on the outside of her handbag. Back in 2008, a Toronto woman was forced to remove and check a two-inch gun pendant at Kelowna Airport.

Then there are the people who have problems with guns because, oh right, they kill people all the time.

Not that something like dead bodies has ever been a problem for the gun industry; in fact, gun sales tend to surge after gun-related tragedies like Columbine and the Virginia Tech Massacre. Bloomberg reported that one-day handgun sales in the U.S. increased about 5 per cent two days after the Tuscon, Arizona shooting that counted Gabrielle Giffords as a victim. Arizona handgun sales jumped 60 per cent that day.

So how does something so violent become so cool? It’s because major gun brands like Glock, Smith & Wesson, Winchester, and Browning are among the most mass-marketed brands in the U.S. Forget Draper and crew, these guys are the original ad men.

Founded in the mid-1800s, Winchester and Smith & Wesson branded themselves as pillars of American folklore. In 1871, Grand Duke Alexei went on a hunting trip with Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody; legend has it that Alexei killed two buffalo at 30 yards with his Smith & Wesson revolver. The guns became associated with heroes and outlaws alike, and Smith & Wesson used Western motives in their ads for years to come.

Winchester employed expert marksmen to perform at exhibitions and became the choice of Buffalo Bill–a fact the company took no shame in publicizing. When fictionalized Buffalo Bill stories became popular, a Winchester often starred in the plotline or even on the cover. The brand also became a well-known favourite of Theodore Roosevelt, who publicly praised Winchester’s guns and took a number of them on his infamous African hunting trip.

But perhaps the best in the branding biz is Glock, which, despite a late start in 1982, has become known as “America’s gun.” Glock pulled off such a meteoric rise to the top that Business Week reporter Paul Barrett wrote an entire book on the brand’s story based on fifteen years of research. “Today the Glock pistol has been embraced by two-thirds of all U.S. police departments, glamorized in countless Hollywood movies, and featured as a ubiquitous presence on prime-time TV. It has been rhapsodized by hip-hop artists, and coveted by cops and crooks alike,” writes Barrett. Picture a handgun and chances are you’re picturing a Glock.

Glock’s success is equal parts product placement, urban legend, and giving away free product to the right people. Glock targeted cops from the start, often giving its guns away to entire departments. “This was smart, because the point was to get the police departments to adopt the gun, and that would give the gun credibility in the much larger, much more lucrative civilian market,” says Barret in a NPR interview. They then set high prices for the general public to make their product seem more desirable.

Meanwhile, a crafty little rumour started (by complete accident, I’m sure) that Glocks were invisible to metal detectors and airport X-ray machines. The claims were incorrect of course, but several media outlets reported the false news and Bruce Willis’ character in Die Hard 2 referred to a (nonexistent) “Glock 7” as a “porcelain gun made in Germany that doesn’t show up on airport metal detectors and costs more than you make in a month.” The handguns in the film were actually the Glock 17 model.

Glock was so pleased with Die Hard that they began to put free product in the hands of film producers. Glocks have since made appearances in everything from classic TV series Miami Vice to more recent titles like Bourne Ultimatum, Mission Impossible III, Breaking Bad, 24, and The Sopranos. In 2010, Ashton Kutcher filmed a (comical, if you ask me) Chatroulette campaign for Killers that featured the actor loading, aiming, and eventually firing a Glock into the camera. The Glock’s even a staple in anime films.

Now guns in the home aren’t enough–they want in our closets, too. These masters of marketing hope lifestyle brands will transfer the values of gun subculture into mass culture, turning their brand identities into our identities. Designer firearm fashions, however unintentional, bolster this endgame–something to think about before pulling the trigger on any ‘subversive’ new purchases.

This post was originally published in Toronto Standard

Sabrina Maddeaux