Living in the left-leaning, media-elite world of New York City, it’s difficult to imagine—let alone understand—that 34% of Americans own a gun. And 43% of those gun-owners are women. Laws about carrying weapons in public vary by state and municipality, but unless you live in Illinois, you probably pass a civilian every day who is carrying a gun.
That may sound scary as shit to you—I know it does to me—but I’ve put my liberal bias aside to speak with Dallas-based Kate Woolstenhulme, the founder of Designer Concealed Carry handbags, a collection engineered to safely conceal your gun in a way a traditional purse can’t. The bags, which start at $269 for a canvas style and go up to $4,200 for a crocodile version, have dual-locking zippers with a holster that allows the owner to quickly grab her weapon, but not too quickly. The hope is that a kid couldn’t run up and grab a gun and shoot people. And that it won’t fly out of your purse like a wallet or a cell phone.
Woolstenhulme’s story is, if anything, unique. (Though concealed carry clothing is on the rise, too.) And her attitude toward weapons reminds me that a big part of this country lives by another set of social mores.
Fashionista: Tell me the story of how you began designing gun-concealing handbags.
Kate Woolstenhulme: My husband and I were in the aviation business. We managed, sold, and refurbished private jets for 16 years in Dallas. I was trained in fine arts, so I handled the design aspect, working with veneers, leather and fabrics.
In 2006, we sold our business and moved to Florida. We were there for a while, and around the 2008 election, there was a movement toward getting firearms. Being in Miami, my safety and security started to concern me. My husband bought me a Smith & Wesson 9 millimeter for Christmas. I went ahead and signed up for a Florida concealed carry permit. While waiting for the permit, I realized that all of those upscale handbags I had bought were not made to safely and properly carry a gun. You need to be able to lock it up.
At the time, the handbags that were out there were done by holster-makers who are really into function, certainly, but not style. I looked and looked—I even bought two or three fashion handbags and tried to modify them, but it didn’t work. So I decided to try and make something that is fashionable for women who don’t want to leave their personality at the front door. I went to a handbag manufacturer and produced for styles.
How did you find a manufacturer? It’s not an easy thing to do, even if you’ve been in the business for a long time.
Yeah, it’s easy until you try it! In the beginning I manufactured in China. I found a US broker who had been dealing with China for more than a dozen years—I used the same manufacturer that does a lot of Franklin Covey’s planners.
There were some problems, but overall they did a good job. The main issue was that the manufacturer happened to have beautiful Italian leather in lots of colors, so I just told them I would take it all and to make as many handbags as they could in those four different styles. When I went to reorder, I was faced with the reality of manufacturing in China. Most of the leather is imported, and you have to do big orders. I didn’t need 500 handbags in each color. I wanted to keep introducing new products, but I couldn’t afford those big orders just yet.
Did you ever look to the US for production?
I tried hard to find a US manufacturer, but I wasn’t able. I found a couple in Los Angeles, but they just couldn’t get it right. It took me a couple of years to find another manufacturer, and also a source for high-end crocodile and other exotics. The Beretta (gun) boutique in Dallas said that genuine exotic bags would do well, so I started making those also. I started manufacturing in South America over a year ago. I don’t want to name the country I’m working in for proprietary reasons, but they’ve been wonderful to work with—the factories have just done a phenomenal job. Better quality than China.
You’ve been up to this since 2010. How’s business?
Well, there was a lull when I was moving the manufacturing from China to South America—for a time I didn’t have new product to show. But sales are still up 30% from last year. And I’m launching three new styles this month. What’s been interesting is that a lot of law enforcement professionals have started buying the bags.
Yes, undercover or plain-clothes officers are becoming a bigger part of the business. The other market that has opened up is women who aren’t necessarily carrying a firearm. The holster is removable, but the locking pocket [the secure spot where you keep the holster] can be used for anything. A gun-carrying woman might buy a bag for herself, but she also has a mother who may take medication and can use the locking pocket to lock that up. I’m going to Ireland, Singapore and Spain over the next few weeks, and I obviously won’t be carrying a gun. But I’ll put my passport and jewelry in the locking pocket. That opens up a huge market for us.
So, this all sounds very practical and reasonable. But of course there’s an underlying political message here. Have you gotten a lot of flack about this business from organized groups and press?
My angle is, I’m not advocating people to carry a firearm. They’ve already made that choice. Women have to have something for self-protection. I was a college student when Ted Bundy was out plucking women. Back then, we all took a judo class. But none of us thought about taking this step. Taser lights are very effective. It’s the woman’s choice, and I applaud that—we can’t assume that someone is going to take care of us. Firearms are lot of work—a lot of training, money and not a decision taken lightly. But there are women making this decision. And a Chanel or a Fendi are never going to make a gun-safe bag because it wouldn’t be politically correct.
From my standpoint, there was so much criticism about women not being able to safely carry a firearm: trainers and men arguing that women shouldn’t be carrying because they don’t have anywhere safe to carry them. Women are not going to carry very often on their bodies because our clothes just aren’t designed that way. My main focus is erasing the industry’s reticence about carrying off-body.