When you think of “fashion,” military uniforms probably don’t come to mind. Practicality and conformity are the point, not the latest styles or trends. But there are some definite gaps in the clothes and accessories available to service-members, and an Anchorage entrepreneur is trying to fill a market demand that’s particularly acute for women in the military.
“This is a gym bag,” Amy Slinker said, showing off a simple black sack inside her small downtown storefront.
Though minimalist-chic, the array of bags, accessories and jewelry are not aiming for high fashion. And that is because in the military, finding something as basic as a gym bag that meets regulations is harder than you’d think.
“You cannot have an obvious logo,” Slinker offered as an example of the many rules governing gym bags. It’s the same for a long list of other everyday objects: card-holders, wallets, purses, laptop cases, backpacks and more.
Each branch of the military has its own voluminous set of uniform regulations. Slinker is an officer in the Alaska Army National Guard, which defers to the Army’s 73-page document called the AR 670-1 for its compliance standards. The details are excruciatingly specific, all the way down to the millimeter diameter of earrings (six). In their rule book, the Navy regulates mustaches to the quarter-inch. Several pages of the Marine Corps’ 247-page handbook are devoted to proper sword presentation, and include an unequivocal ban on any handbags made of “exotic materials such as eel skin.”
For the last few years, Slinker has been gradually rolling out a business called WilCo Supply that caters to service-members and military spouses.
“WilCo stands for ‘will comply,'” Slinker explained. The idea began as a blog rounding up clothing and accessories. In its current form, the business does no manufacturing. Rather it sources bags, brands and accessories from other companies, and vets them to make sure they meet uniform guidelines.
Though she has a small physical store in a downtown office, Slinker doesn’t think brick-and-mortar sales will be the business’s mainstay. Instead, she wants WilCo to be a one-stop shop for, among others, service-members at isolated bases far away from shopping centers, those without the time, ability, or interest to spend hours combing through department stores in the hope of finding compliant items.
“We’re here to supply the force with bags and accessories that meet regulations,” she said.
WilCo is a side project for Slinker, one outside her guard duty and day-job as president of a real-estate development company.
Moving between the civilian, military and business worlds is part of what drew her attention toward the dearth of accessories that fit within the professional standards of each one.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a vanity thing,” Slinker said. “More of just having something that fits the environment that you’re in.”
She pointed out that increasingly, modern soldiering happens through computers and within offices, places where the technology and professional mores have sometimes outpaced the standard issue offerings for carrying cases and outfits. And particularly for service-members needing to make professional impressions at conferences or in the Capital, camouflage patterns and tactical clips are not the right look.
There are some accessories that are uniquely hard for women in the service to find. Formal high-heeled shoes for example, or purses. Dopp kits, a requisite item for deployments, may be aesthetically compliant but lacking the internal design that meet practical needs for women in the service.
“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,” Slinker said, showing off a dopp kit with an abundance of internal zippered pockets for said pins and ties. “So this is just one of our favorite items.”
Though no one thinks this topic is the most important confronting the American armed forces, soldiers say the struggle is real.
Abigail Meyer is a veteran who left the Army as a sergeant and now works for the Defense Department, training women who are new to the military. She feels a lot of the compliance codes are reasonable and easy enough to obey. But plenty that left her scratching her head.
“Every now and then when you really start to think about, ‘well, why can’t I have an umbrella?'” Meyer posed rhetorically. “You feel like there’s a little bit of a lack of common sense.”
She thinks a store like WilCo Supply would have been convenient when she was still in uniform, at least to avoid the time and effort of vetting new accessories to make sure they were compliant.
There could be more military personnel looking for that assurance in the near future.
Nearly two decades of conflicts overseas have made for a high operational tempo across much of the military.
“A lot of the basic things like shining your shoes and having uniform inspections, things like that, they kinda went out the window because we were more concerned with preparing for war,” said Katie Vail, a Captain in the Army Reserve, West Point graduate and blogger who writes about, among many topics, fashion for military women.
According to Vail, in recent years there have been renewed calls for getting “back to basics,” including closer adherence to uniform standards.
There are not a whole lot of businesses like WilCo Supply out there, Vail said. Though it’s a niche market, on her blog she called the business an “amazing resource.”