For Military Members, An Elusive Search For Fashion That Conforms
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Practicality and conformity - that's the point of military uniforms, not the latest styles or trends. But there are some definite gaps in the clothes and accessories available to service members, especially for women. And now an entrepreneur in Anchorage is trying to meet that market demand. Alaska Public Media's Zachariah Hughes reports.
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ZACHARIAH HUGHES, BYLINE: Amy Slinker shows off a simple, black cloth sack.
AMY SLINKER: This is a gym bag.
HUGHES: A pretty common item. But for those in the military, finding a gym bag that meets Army regulations is harder than you'd think.
SLINKER: You cannot have an obvious logo. So finding a gym bag or a purse that doesn't have that obvious logo can be challenging.
HUGHES: Slinker recently launched a business in Anchorage catering to service members. It's called Wilco Supply.
SLINKER: Wilco stands for will comply.
HUGHES: Wilco isn't a manufacturing business. Instead, Slinker sources bags, brands and accessories from companies and vets them to make sure they meet uniform guidelines.
SLINKER: We're here to supply the force with bags and accessories that meet regulations.
HUGHES: Primarily, the female force, and particularly those working in professional occupations and offices. Outside of her day job, Slinker's an officer in the Alaska Army National Guard. When she first joined the military more than 20 years ago, the way to find compliant clothes and accessories was basically wandering through department stores. And while there are generally standard-issue options for most of these accessories, they aren't always flattering.
SLINKER: I wouldn't say it's a vanity thing, but more of just having something that fits the environment they're in.
HUGHES: Like every branch of the military, guard members have to follow a voluminous set of uniform regulations. In this case, it's the Army's - the AR 670-1. It's 73 pages long, covering everything from hairstyles to insignia to backpacks. Abigail Meyer is a veteran who left the Army as a sergeant.
ABIGAIL MEYER: Every now and then, when you really start to think about, well, why can't I have an umbrella, or why can't I have just whatever gym bag I happened to grab at the store?
HUGHES: Now Meyer works for the Defense Department training women who are new to the military.
MEYER: You feel like there's a little bit of a lack of common sense sometimes with this.
HUGHES: Many articles and accessories are uniquely hard for women in the service to find - high-heeled shoes and purses, for example. Or, Slinker says, toiletry bags that meet the practical needs of female soldiers, like the one she's holding up, which has several internal pockets.
SLINKER: One thing that a lot of women in the military have is a lot of bobby pins and hair ties because we have to keep our hair in a bun. So this is just one of our favorite items.
HUGHES: There's clearly a market. Katie Vail is a captain in the Army Reserve, a West Point graduate and a blogger who writes about, among other things, fashion for military women. She says the conflicts overseas for nearly two decades made for a high operational tempo across the military.
KATIE VAIL: A lot of the basic things, like shining your shoes and having uniform inspections - things like that - they kind of went out the window because we were more concerned with, you know, preparing for war.
HUGHES: But in recent years, Vail says there have been renewed calls for getting back to basics, including closer adherence to uniform standards. And Slinker is ready with her catalog of compliant accessories aimed at professional-minded service members.
SLINKER: It's kind of like the little black dress. Everyone needs a little black bag.
HUGHES: Slinker has a small physical store in downtown Anchorage, but she doesn't think brick-and-mortar sales will be Wilco's mainstay. Instead, she wants to be a one-stop online retail shop for America's far-flung military. For NPR News, I'm Zachariah Hughes in Anchorage.
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